As photographers, we all know that light is better when it is comes from behind the subject than from the front. Most of us like to capture our portrait with the setting sun in the backdrop once we are at the beach or some sunset point. However, not many like the outcome photograph in such a situation. This is because, either the person comes out dark or he/she appears too bright and the background is burnt.
In first scenario, the person comes out dark due to the fact that the camera exposes for the background leaving the subject in shade(since the light is from behind) dark. While in the second scenario, the camera exposes for the subject and hence the background gets blown out ruining the mood of the setting sun.
In such a case, you need to balance out both the exposures – one for the subject and other for the background to get a well balanced sunset portrait. Here, I always recommend shooting in manual mode. F/8, 1/250th at ISO 100 is a good starting point for sunset exposures. Depending on your camera’s x-sync(flash sync speed), set shutter-speed within its range. Do not cross it since we will be using a flash to illuminate the subject.
Once you have the settings dialed in for the sunset, its time to set them for your subject. If you own a through-the-lens(TTL) enabled speedlight, your work will be easier as the flash will automatically throw perfect output. However, I recommend dialing in a ‘-1’ stop in Flash Exposure Compensation. This will lend a natural look to your portrait. For manual speedlight users, you need to trial and error. However, generally you will be using a considerably high power.
For the portrait above, my camera settings were f/8, 1/200 at ISO 800. This was shot using the Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS II lens on Canon EOS 60D. I used a manual speedlight having a Guide Number of 33 at its full power. As you can notice, here we have a perfect exposure in the background(sunset) and even over the person. The speedlight here fills in the shadow which prevents the subject from turning into a silhouette.
For users of compact camera’s, simply fire your flash when shooting backlit portraits. If available, use a negative flash exposure compensation. Happy Sunset Portraits!