I’ve taken a lot of photos over the years, and my favorite time of the day to shoot is at sunset. After shooting an incredible sunset, you may have been disappointed when it didn’t look amazing while you were processing it. That has happened to me too, but I found a workflow that will change your life and revive those dull sunsets that you’ve forgotten about.
For this article, we’ll be using Lightroom Classic CC. This is a photo that I took at the El Matador State Beach in California. It was a great sunset, but the image that came out of the camera wasn’t anything like how I saw the sunset when I captured the image. Let me show you how to make it come back to life in Lightroom!
Step One: As usual, we’re going to do some basic retouching in the Basic panel. Start by bringing down the Highlights (–100) and opening up the Shadows (+100). You’ll want to adjust the black point (Blacks) until about 2% of your photo is pure black because it will give the image a nice balance. In this example, we set Blacks to –17. Now let’s move on to the white point (Whites). While adjusting the slider, hold the Option (PC: Alt) key and drag until you see some colors appear (+57 here). The photo is now a little dark, so let’s boost the Exposure (+0.45). This is just basic stuff but it’s a great starting point for the following steps.
Step Two: Now comes the fun: White Balance! I always used to go for Shade in the WB drop-down menu when processing sunset photos, but the problem with that is that I lost all the cool colors—the blues—leaving me with only warm colors, which isn’t always how a sunset is. Most of the time, there’s a little blue in the sky. So this is what we’re going to do: Let’s choose Daylight. You can also add some magenta by setting the Tint to +15 (if you’re a magenta addict like me).
Step Three: Next, we’ll use a Radial Filter (Shift-M) to make that sunset pop! Draw a big circle around the sun in the image, turn on Invert, and Feather it to 100. Boost the yellow by dragging the Temp slider to 76, and add some magenta with the Tint slider (24). Let’s also set the Saturation to 52. Now the sunset pops, but it’s a bit much, and the colors spill onto the rock, which looks unnatural.
Step Four: In order to fix that, we’re going to use the Range Mask option! Set it to Luminance, then drag the left Range slider to 46 and leave the right slider at 100. This will act like a mask that prevents the yellow from spilling onto the rock, making it look so much more pleasing. Check it out.
Quick Tip: When you’re using the Radial Filter, make sure that the Show Edit Pins option (located in the Toolbar below the photo) is set to Auto so you don’t see the pin when you move the cursor off the photo. It’s a simple trick but can be very important when you’re trying to see the results of your edits.
Step Five: To close up the top of the photo and enhance the sunset even more, we’re going to darken the sky. For this, we’ll use the Gradient Filter (M) and set it at an angle near the top of the photo. Now we can lower the Exposure to –0.42, and if you want, add a little bit of blue by setting the Temp to –8, but make it subtle; otherwise it will look fake.
Step Six: You can see in the previous step that the top of the rock is also covered by the Gradient Filter, so we’ll use the same technique we used earlier by setting the Range Mask to Luminance and the Range slider to around 58/100.
Step Seven: We can also play around with the sliders in the HSL/Color panel to add even more intensity to our sunset; for example, in the Hue tab, I like to set the Red to around –12 and the Orange to around –16. In the Saturation tab, I also like to boost the Red (+31) and the Orange (+26).
Step Eight: Let’s use the Adjustment Brush (K) to augment the natural lighting on the water. With this brush, we’ll boost the Exposure to 0.50 and paint over some of the waves to add contrast in the water and attract the eyes of the viewer. (I love to shoot the water at half a second; it really is amazing.)
Step Nine: We’re pretty much done with this look. You can always tweak the various settings; for example, on this photo, I might boost the Contrast (+33) and the Exposure (+0.65). I also cropped it to a 16×9 aspect ratio to make it more panoramic. You can always lower the Saturation if you think it’s a bit too intense, but to be honest, this was exactly how this sunset felt to me when I was there!
I hope that these tips help bring your sunset images back to life, and that you’re encouraged to go out and take even more sunset shots. Have fun and capture the great light!
ALL IMAGES BY SERGE RAMELLI