Create Spectacular Sunset With Exposure Blending

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Let’s be honest.

How many times have you taken a photo of the sunset or the sunrise, only to realize it didn’t look the same on your computer screen?

You tried adjusting the contrast, the brightness and even the saturation but nothing works.

We all did, maybe some of us still struggle.

In this tutorial, you will learn how to recreate that spectacular sunset (or sunrise) you have seen with exposure blending.

Before you start, you should have a basic idea of what exposure blending is.

All the post-processing in this tutorial are done in Adobe Photoshop CC.

When Is The Best Time?

The best time to shoot into the light is when the light intensity is at its gentlest.

That means during the golden hour.

If you haven’t heard of golden hour, it’s when the sun is just rising above the horizon, or when it’s about to set.

General speaking, it’s about an hour after sunrise or an hour before sunset. But this could vary depending on which part of the planet you are.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a fantastic free software that tells you when is the best time to shoot sunset or sunrise. It also helps you plan to get the most out of your photo trip.

How To Shoot Into The Light

Sounds simple?

If you think all you need to do is point your camera at the sun and press the trigger, you’re wrong.

Because this is what you’ll get:

over exposed sunset image

Sunset and sunrise are almost always a high dynamic range scene. A single exposure will not be able to justify the vibrant color and the gentle sunlight that have attracted you to take a photo in the first place.

The trick here is to bracket your exposure. You can do so automatically with AEB or manually.

I have covered how to manually bracket exposure in The Ultimate Guide To Exposure Blending.

Also, consider blocking the sun partially with objects (trees, rocks, etc) to sooth the light intensity.

blocking the sun partially with trees
Blocking the sun partially with objects for a different effect

Dealing With Lens Flare

Lens flare is almost unavoidable when shooting into the sun.

It’s caused by non-image forming light that is scattered in the lens system. It’s commonly caused by bright light traveling the unintended path, reflecting within the lens element before reaching the digital image sensor.

Do you need to remove it? It’s a personal choice really.

Sometimes lens flare adds to the composition of the image. Sometimes it’s a pure distraction.

So, what’s the verdict?

You have to judge it for yourself, either embrace it or remove it.

Here’s an example of before and after lens flare removal with frequency separation.

The Solar Elevation Angle

It’s basically the altitude of the sun. In simple words, how high the sun is from the horizon.

solar elevation angle

Why is this relevant?

For the purpose of sunset or sunrise photography, you’ll get more distinct light beam with a lower solar elevation angle.

That’s all you need to know.

High Above The Horizon

The light intensity is stronger when the sun is higher up above the horizon.

This means you may need more exposure to ease in the transition from the brightest to the darkest.

Also, the light beam will be broader and the lens flare may be more noticeable.

exposure blending sunset sunrise above horizon
Broader light beam when sun is above horizon
Greater light intensity creates harsher lens flare

Near or At The Horizon

Light intensity is much softer.

The light beams are more distinct and shorter as the sun sets below the horizon.

Personally, I like it more this way because it tends to inject more energy into the scene.

exposure blending sunrise
Sun rising just above the horizon
exposure blending sunset
Shorter sun beam as the sun sets lower at the horizon

Enhance The Scene

It’s not the end of post-processing once you’ve blended all the bracketed exposure.

In fact, it’s only the beginner. 🙂

As these are base images, further post-processing is often necessary to tease out the information that is stored in the RAW files.

You can start with basic editing such as cleaning up sensor dust, apply tonal and color adjustment, clone stamping, etc.

Once you’re done, move on and let’s look at how you can enhance the beautiful color of the sky and the sunlight!

Enhancing The Color of The Sky

You might be thinking:

“Why do I need to add color to the sky?” or

“That’s just photoshopping”.

While these responses are completely valid, your image often needs a bit of color boosting to reflect what you’ve actually seen in reality.

There are many ways to enhance the color of the sky. I will show you 2 methods that I use frequently in my workflow.

Painting In Colour On A New Layer

This is a simple yet effective way.

It basically adds a tinge of the sunlight’s color around the sunset to create a stronger effect.

Here’s what you do in Photoshop:

  1. Add a new layer
  2. Select the brush tool, hold down Opt (Mac) or Alt (PC) until you see the eyedropper tool. Click on the color of the sun. You should see the foreground color has changed to the new color (most likely orange).
  3. Now increase the size of the brush to a fairly large one, hardness to 0 and opacity to 100%.
  4. Paint in the color around the sun, extend it to the sky and the foreground.
  5. Change the blend mode of the layer to soft light.
  6. Reduce the opacity of the layer to your liking and you’re done!

These are the 2 layers I’ve painted in for the image above. Apart from orange, I’ve also painted in magenta to heighten the mood of the sunset.

light painting layers

Darkening The Sky With Midtones Luminosity Masks

If you don’t like the idea of adding in color, you can try darkening the sky with tonal adjustment.

Here’s the trick.

Instead of applying a single Curves or Levels adjustment layer, use midtones luminosity mask.

Here’s a preview of what you can do with midtone masks (colors were all recovered with multiple tonal adjustments). Image courtesy of michaelsho1530 on Reddit’s weekly RAW challenge.

You can find out more on this method in the section on luminosity masks.

Enhancing The Sun Rays

Just to clarify, I don’t normally create artificial sun rays unless I’m in super crazily creative mood!

What I often do is to enhance the effect of the existing sun rays in the image. I do that to boost the mood of the sunset or sunrise.

Again, there are many ways to do this and I’m sure you can find more ways by simply Googling the term “create sun rays”.

But, I’m going to show you 3 ways to enhance the sun rays in your image simply and effectively.

Darkening The Overall Tones of Your Image

Apply a general tonal adjustment layer or via a midtone mask.

Easy and simple.

I made the effect stronger than I would normally do just so you can see the difference.

Dodge and Burn The Sun Rays

Yes, dodging the sun rays and burning the area around it makes the light stand out easily.

If you like to learn more and dodging and burning, you can find the article I have written about doing so with luminosity masks in the Artcile section in the top menu.

Painting In Sun Rays

Select the brush tool, set color to white, hardness to 0 and size to the size of the sun ray.

Paint it on the sun rays in your image and use the radial blur tool to blend in the effect naturally.

Find out more on how to use this technique in this tutorial by Phlearn.

Orton Effect

Named after the pioneer of this technique. Orton effect is a post-processing technique that adds the dreamy effect to your image.

You can apply this effect to the sun rays and/or the area exposed to the light to create a soft, vivid effect.

In this image, I used Orton effect on the sun and the foreground.

I masked out the sky because I want it to affect parts of the image that is bathed in the sunlight.


Exposure blending is a great way to recreate the beautiful sunlight you’ve captured with your camera.

The challenges are mainly lens flare and making sure the light is blended in naturally.

Lastly, don’t forget the processing your image deserves after blending!

For more tutorials on blending, please check out the exposure blending resource page!

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  • Excellent Artcals, I have a question, in case of sunset/ sunrise how to shoot for exposure blanding , manually in live view ?

    • Hi Eva, there are different ways to do it. The way I do it, I set my camera to Av mode, take a reading of the scene and remember the ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Dial these settings in manual mode, start shooting at 0EV, then stop down and up the shutter speed by 1EV or 2EV (depending on how you like it) – all can be easily done live view!

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