How to Take Amazing Sunset Photos Using Just Your Phone

Sunset Photos
Photo: Stacey Leasca

As the setting sun drifts toward the horizon and sets the evening sky ablaze in orange, red, purple, and pink, it's only natural to want to share this gorgeous sight with the world. So our first reaction is to pick up our phones, aim right at that big ball of fire in the sky, and snap a photo we think is worthy of the world's attention.

And that's why it's no surprise that more than 143 million photos exist on Instagram under #sunset.

While sunsets will always be inspiring, the photos we take rarely do them justice. But on a recent trip to Havana, Cuba, Travel + Leisure sat down with Josh Haftel, product manager for Lightroom Mobile by Adobe, just as the sun went down over the sea to learn a few incredibly simple tips to help our sunset snaps shine on social media.

Know where the sun is going to set.

Haftel's first tip may be the most important: "Know where the sun is going to set."

And sure, it may seem obvious where the sun will go down, however, knowing the exact path may help you snap an even more remarkable photo.

Haftel says he uses an app called PhotoPills, which uses augmented reality to show you the sun's specific path. This can help photographers position themselves in the ideal spot.

Sunset Photos
Stacey Leasca

Scout out your ideal location.

"Do a little bit of scouting," Haftel said. "Either while you're there, just go to the location beforehand, or just use something like Flickr or Instagram to see the location."

By checking out what others have created, you can pick your favorite spot, angle, or feeling to capture.

Scouting out a location is also key to composing a great shot. This means ensuring there is a "main subject" in your shot, other than the sun, giving viewers something to linger on and for the sun's rays to reflect off of in the shot. For us, that something was a simple lighthouse jutting off the boardwalk in Havana. For you, it could be a building, a person, or any object your heart desires.

Also try to keep in mind the magical photography tip known as "the rule of thirds." This means the main action shouldn't be taking place in the center of your shot, but rather off to the side, bottom, or top of your image. Practice this rule by turning on your phone's gridlines.

Understand that bad weather may be good for your photo.

"If you're going to have clouds, you're going to have a good sunset," says Haftel. "If there's not going to be any clouds, go home."

Even incredibly inclement weather could be good for your shot. "If it's going to rain, maybe wait, just in case there's going to be a break," Haftel said.

And no, Haftel isn't hoping bad weather ruins your vacation, but rather he understands that the slowly waning light of day will reflect off all those light, fluffy clouds lining the horizon. And when they do, that light will appear in all those fiery and magical colors we love to swoon over.

Without them a sunset can be a bit drab, so if it's a perfectly clear evening, go enjoy another vacation activity and wait for the clouds to roll in.

Sunset Photos
Stacey Leasca

Be patient.

"Wait. A lot times people just leave as soon as that ball of fire dips into the ocean. They're done," Haftel said. "The great part of a sunset is actually the colors that happen after the sun has set, so wait around until after the sunset and the colors paint across the top of the sky."

Shoot in raw and understand a few key editing techniques.

"With the raw format you can change the white balance, which is the balance of colors in your image," Haftel said.

Usually, what we see in real life doesn't perfectly translate on our camera, but by shooting in raw mode, which can be done on a digital camera or right on your smartphone, you can more easily manipulate the colors in photo editing programs like Adobe Lightroom.

"With white balance adjustments on a raw file, you can actually get those pink and purple adjustments that you remember," Haftel said.

Once you snap a few photos in raw, pop them into a photo editor and play with all the adjusters until you create an image that you'll be proud to share on every social media channel. In fact, you may be so proud of your newfound sunset skills that you go old-school and print it out to hang on the wall.

Oh, and by the way, Haftel's tips work just as well for sunrise too, so feel free to get up extra early and try out these tips. (Hashtag #TLPicks and you could even end up on our Instagram feed.)

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