Sunset Photography - How To Photograph Clouds

I've shared lots of sunset photography tips before, and often received the following question.  Shouldn't we face west because the sun is in the west?  I believe there's an easier answer for this: it depends!

In my former article Best Time To Capture Different Themes, I talked about the best time to photograph clouds.

Half an hour before sunrise, or half an hour after sunset, typically gives the best colors.  However the clouds can’t be too heavy to block the sun.   In locations where you can see far into the horizon, one hour before sunrise (or one hour after sunset) already shows strong colors.

An important fact is that - when it comes to landscape photography, both time and location are important, and can't be isolated from each other.  Therefore knowing the above timing is important, but knowing where to face is equally important.

The following is a photo I took at Spring Lake Park in Sonoma yesterday.  Specifically it was taken at 8:12pm, 6 minutes before sunset.  I faced north.

Sunset photography in Spring Lake Park Sonoma

Sunset photography in Spring Lake Park Sonoma


So the easier part of photographing clouds is that you have good chance to photograph colorful clouds no matter which direction you face.  However, the challenge lies in how you compose an image when the clouds are often used as the background.  That determines which direction you face.

For example in this photo, I picked the chair as my foreground, because it was well lit in the setting sun.  Facing north at this time happened to give me the best angle to include both the chair and the clouds in my frame.  I could have faced east directly using the same chair as my foreground, but due to the lack of clouds in the sky in that direction, the composition wouldn't be as nice.

In short, which direction you face during sunset (or sunrise) photography depends on the key subjects of your photo, how well they were complemented by light, and how well they complement each other.

Photography is not rocket science, so you don't need to go through the above "thinking process" every time you take photos.  Follow your instinct and see where the beauty leads you.  That's the main charm of photography!  However, knowing what it takes to create a good photo can significantly shorten your own learning curve.