How to enhance a sunset with white balance and graduated filter adjustments

Sunsets don’t always come out the way you want them to, so here’s a quick way to enhance them with a white balance adjustment and a graduated filter effect.

This picture was shot using the auto white balance on a Nikon Z6 and while the colours are a pretty reasonable representation of how the scene actually looked, I wanted a warmer ‘sunset’ tone and a bit more depth and colour in the sky.

The ‘after’ shot looks very different, but it used just two main adjustments: 1) a white balance shift to make the scene look a lot warmer and 2) a graduated filter to darken and tint the sky.

I used Capture One for this, but you could carry out the same adjustments in almost any other program that opens RAW files and offers white balance adjustments and local adjustments with gradient masks, so that could be Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, ON1 Photo RAW, Skylum Luminar, Alien Skin Exposure or one of many other photo editors.

01 Warming up the white balance

I want this whole picture to have the warmer look we associate with sunsets, and I can achieve that with the White Balance settings. This works best on RAW files because these still have all the colour data captured by the camera sensor. White balance settings usually include Temperature (Kelvin) settings and Tint settings for green-magenta adjustments. For this image I just need to move the Kelvin slider way over to the right to get the warm, golden tones I wanted. I do still want a bit more depth in the sky, though, so that’s the next step.

02 Adding a graduated filter for the sky

The way you do this depends on the software you’re using. In Capture One, you can add a new adjustment layer and use the new Linear Gradient Mask tool to drag out a graduated filter effect just above the horizon line. I’ve applied three adjustments to the sky with this new layer: 1) I’ve reduced the Exposure and the Brightness to darken in down a little (they have subtly different effects), 2) I’ve also applied a Curve adjustment for darken the sky still further and increase the contrast and saturation, 3) I’ve made a further adjustment to the white balance, increasing the Kelvin value for an even warmer look and moving the Tint slider to the right to give a a purple/magenta look to the top of the sky.

There are other ways to treat sunset shots. A blue-violet shift can look really good for dusk and twilight shots. When the sun is in the frame as it is here, though, warmer tones do work well.

2 thoughts on “How to enhance a sunset with white balance and graduated filter adjustments

  1. “Life after Photoshop”? Increasingly, I am finding that’s the path to the finishing line, Rod. It makes my DOCK bar look a bit messy – but there’s some really interesting (and occasionally great) post processing software out there, these days. A lot of it costs peanuts, compared with Adobe. Some of it does the job a lot faster, too – and I don’t mean by using presets, either. Same job/process/function/whatever – but MILES quicker.
    So although last minute changes are generally made in Photoshop, even dispatch to the printer is handled by another non-Adobe product. It’s pure co-incidence, but it was a succession of sunset shots that simply refused to print properly through Photoshop that drove me to distraction and led me to using Mirage Print, instead of Photoshop’s print function. I know there’s a technical reason why it would be different using Photoshop’s print function, but I’ve no interest in finding out what or why – because I don’t NEED to, with Mirage it’s “problem solved”! Besides, printing with Mirage is faster, and if you’re using a roll of paper, much more economical – Mirage sorts out the best way of fitting all the photos on the roll, and all you have to do is feed your photos to it.
    Since downgrading my usage of Photoshop and increasing my usage of the others, my sunset shots have improved dramatically.

  2. Interesting. I haven’t tried Mirage Print and I must confess that almost all of my work these days is for online publication or print magazines, where colour reproduction is the art editor’s job, so I don’t really get involved. Is it Photoshop’s print engine’s colour rendition that’s a problem for you, or is it just not very effective at large format/roll printing?

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