How to Make Great Lifestyle Sunset Shots with no Flash in Adobe Lightroom

It's much easier to get great photos with great gear. But what if you have limited gear? What if you don't even have a flash and you want a great sunset photo? How can you get it? Learn this trick and never worry about having meh sunset portraits again!

We’ve all been in that situation where we want to get a great shot of someone who has the sun behind them. But much to our dismay the person either comes out completely black or the beautiful sunset is completely muted. But before you throw your camera away or scream NOOOOOOOO!!!!!! like when somebody dies in the movies, read further!

In this tutorial I am going to show you how to get the settings optimized when you take the shot and then how to use Adobe Lightroom to really make it shine. And if you want the RAW files for this tutorial and all the other free presets and goodies, just subscribe to my newsletter here.) You can also follow along on my video tutorial here.

First things first, if you are taking a portrait shot, the best lens focal length to use is 80mm and above. Why? Because as you drop down to 50mm and lower you are going to get distortions from the glass which is almost always undesirable in a portrait shot unless that is a specific style you are going for. From my experience I find when doing portraits, I prefer to use a 100mm focal length.

As I explain in the video, I was on the beach and there was a model with her daughter there and I wanted to get a photo of them with the beautiful sunset behind them. And I wanted to do it without using a flash, because let’s be honest, most of us don’t carry those around with us casually.

Here is one of the original photos that I took and as you can see, although the model is exposed well, the sunset really looks uninteresting and nothing like the rich orange and yellow tones that my eye was seeing:

So how did I go about getting the shot?

Step 1: Set your camera to manual focus. The first thing I did was to put my Sony A7r on manual focus; on the Sony you have the peaking mode witch shows you everything that is red is sharp.

Step 2: Adjust your shutter speed. When you shoot at 100 mm you have to be at least at 100th of second for you exposure because otherwise you risk motion blur either from handholding your camera or movement from the model which will make your shots blurry.

Step 3: Setting the exposure. I first tried to expose for the highlight (and you can see my camera settings embedded in the images):

And while the sunset was looking good, the girl was way too dark. Next I tried to expose just the girl:

But I lost the sunset, which I didn’t like. So I kept mixing up, trying different f-stops and ISO settings to see how I could get the sunset and the girl nicely exposed without bringing in additional light on the model.

I finally found something that worked for this photos, which is 1/250th of a second shutter speed, f5,0 and ISO 320.

I continued to get different poses from the models until I got one that had a very nice feel to it.

So now that we have a good photo, let’s use Adobe Lightroom to retouch it and really bring out the beauty!

Step 1: Initial Adjustments. I open the shadows and bring down the highlight (you can find out more about why this is such an important step at this article here): 

Step 2. Adjusts the Whites and the Blacks. Still in the Lightroom “Basic” tab, I move the adjustment of the whites to the right to make the whites more white and I move the adjustment of the blacks to the left to make my blacks more black (you can find out more about why this is such an important step at this article here). I don’t want the photo to come out too contrasty so I am not going to do much.

Step 3. Increase Exposure. Still in Lightroom’s “Basic” tab, I boost the overall exposure to make it very light:

Step 4. Set White Balance. For the white balance I use Lightroom’s White Balance drop down menu and choose daylight.

And just to add a little touch of color I also added a touch of magenta +18.

Step 5. Apply a gradient filter to bring back detail in the child’s face. For those of you not familiar with Lightroom’s Gradient Filter tool, this is a very powerful tool to add gradually applied effects to specific portions of your photo. You can learn how to use it with just a little practice and it’s definitely worth learning.

It’s located right below the Lightroom histogram and looks like a rectangle standing up. Go ahead and select this and apply it near the horizon line.

I minus the exposure, added some magenta and yellow, open up the shadows for the kid to be brighter:

Step 6. Apply another gradient filter to help darken the top. Add another gradient filter to help create a natural border for the photo at the top and so it isn’t as blown out.

Go ahead and lower the exposure for the filter.

Step 7: Remove the chromatic aberration on the child. A lot of times when shooting into a bright background you can get what is called chromatic aberration, this is also known as “color fringing” or “purple fringing.” There is a lot of chromatic aberration on the kid as you can see on the left side of his face in this photo. I bet you’re thinking, “well that’s just great, I can’t use this photo.” But no! Adobe Lightroom to the rescue!

So go to the Lightroom Lens Correction tab, check the “enable profile corrections” and then go to the Color sub-tab and you can move the cursor of the purple hue to the right and the amount to the left, which is going to make the chromatic aberration disappear.

You can see now that this is much improved. Yay Lightroom!

Step 8: Apply some Noise Reduction. Go to the Lightroom “Detail” tab and adjust noise reduction by bringing the luminance to 30 and then in sharpening adjust it up to 70. You’ll see that this brings a bit too much noise back so go ahead and drop the sharpening to 63. Now normally this would probably be fine, but for small children and women I think it’s more pleasing when it’s not very sharp.

And as a tip, remember if you press the Alt key it will ensure that everything black will not get sharpened. So go ahead and drop the sharpness down to 47

Step 9: Level the horizon line. Inside the Lightroom Lens Correction “Basic” tab there is a selection for “auto” under Upright. I want to make the horizon line straight so I press this auto selection and you will see it levels the horizon nicely.

Step 10: Apply Lightroom Camera Calibration. Camera calibration just gives different settings for interpreting the RAW file. So go down to the Camera Calibration tab and play around with these different profile settings and see what they do. I found that the camera portrait profile looks really nice on this photo.

Step 11. Populate these adjustments to any other photos from the photo session. So I shot a series of photos with all the same settings on the camera and there you are again saying “Nooooo!!!! I have to do this on all the photos!!!”

But no. Lightroom to the rescue once again. Rather then going through and individually applying all these adjustments, I can just select all of them and press the Sync button on the lower right and it will pop up a window where I can select to apply all the retouch adjustments I want to all the photos I have selected. How awesome is that??? Right!

Now I have all the shots with the same retouch:

For the last photo I can take off the gradient filter on the very top because it is too intense but at least the rest of the retouch is already done:

And there you are, several steps closer to being a master of the universe, or at least a master of Adobe Lightroom!

I hope that you enjoyed this tutorial and learned how to do something new in Adobe Lightroom to make getting great photos while shooting into the sunset a much more pleasant experience!

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