Thoughtful Tips For Better Sunrise and Sunset Images

April 04, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Ask a few so called (or self proclaimed) “serious” photographers about sunrises and sunsets, and you’ll likely come away with comments like “they’re easy to shoot”, “too common”, “overdone as art”, etc.  Truth is, sunrises and sunsets are some of the most beautiful images you can come away with when everything else just seems to “not click”.   Ever notice how places are well known for their sunset vantage points, or how people gather in parks right before sunset to enjoy the view?  Fact is, no two sunrises and sunsets are alike, and if you take care and plan for shooting them, you can come away with some of the most engaging and beautiful art in photography.  Best of all, you can get some great shots even with a portable camera.

IMG_0022 - 2006-05-05_00043

Plan ahead

Nothing pays more dividends than planning.  Try to scout your locations early.  Visualize what a sunrise or sunset would look like at a given location.  Then look for other elements you can include as foreground objects or to frame your shot.  Just be ready, because when the moment is right all you want to be doing is clicking that shutter, not fumbling with your camera settings or tripod adjustments.

Timing

Along with planning ahead you need to know what times the sun will show up, or disappear.  I like to use  the The Photographer’s Ephemeris , available for desktop/laptop and mobile devices.   It will specifically tell you (to the minute), and by location, what time the sun will rise or set.  It’ll also tell you times of civil, nautical and astronomical twilight, as well as the phases of the Moon and % illumination.

Watch the weather

One thing is for sure.  A sunrise or sunset without clouds in the sky is pretty boring.  You’ll want to look for those clouds.  Even with the sun obscured by clouds, the light show can be fantastic.  DO NOT take anything for granted.  Unless the sky is heavily overcast, clouds can break at any moment, and often do just that, right before sunset.

Use Silhouettes as focal points or subject, and Frame with other objects

A lonely picture of the sun rising or setting may be colorfully beautiful, but it can certainly also be boring.  Silhouettes add that one element than can make all the difference.  Even a tree can make for a great silhouette.  But what if you also use a silhouetted tree as a framing object?  Well, then you have a winner.  This has been one of my most popular images;

IMG_3268 - Oct-30-09 - Glades Camp

Break out the Telephoto Lens

Don’t just use a wide angle, try a telephoto or zoom lens to get tighter shots of the sun, or to make it appear bigger in your frame.

Bracket Your Exposures

With today’s DSLRs it’s extremely simple to setup your camera to take three exposures every time you press that shutter.  Setup you camera to shoot for your set exposure, then 1 stop below, and one stop above that point.  You’ll notice a variation in the saturation of warm colors that can actually take your photo from great to beautiful.  If you’re shooting in RAW, you might be able to do this in post processing, but it’s always better to get it done in-camera.

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DON’T leave just when the sun goes down!

This is a very common mistake, and what a mistake it is.  Often you’ll see that the absolute best colors, and their play on the clouds, happen AFTER the sun sets, or for that matter just before it rises.  Here is one of my favorite sunrises, just before the sun breaks the horizon;

Look around you, and behind you, for THE LIGHT

Often we can be too focused (pun intended) on the sun as it sets.  But we forget that magical light may be dancing around behind us as it reflects off a tree line, mountain, or even buildings.  Take a moment to look around you.  You just may come away with a better image than the actual sunset.

Set your exposure by exposing to a point just to either side of the sun

This is something that not too many photographers heed.  Best practice here is to set your exposure at a point on just either side of the sun.  Never ever set your exposure directly on the sun itself.   If you do set it on the sun, you will wind up with a much underexposed image.  Although the sun was obscured by this large cloud, I still exposed for the area just to the left of the cloud;

IMG_3399 - Oct-30-09 - Glades Camp

And these final points cannot be stressed enough;

  • Be careful when looking through an optical viewfinder
  • Never, never, ever use live view when composing for your shot.  Doing so may inadvertently subject your camera’s sensor to a focused point of light, causing serious damage.  Think back when you were a kid and burned leaves and paper with a magnifying glass.  This is exactly what a lens can do to your sensor if you point it directly at the sun.   This point especially applies to compact cameras.  Know that while you are pointing toward the sun with a compact, the sensor is actively exposed,  and this WILL cause irreparable damage to the sensor.  In a DSLR, where you are looking through a prism until you press the shutter release, you can severely damage your eye!
  • And a final note - Expect to make plenty of mistakes as you start out to shoot sunrises and sunsets, but always keep in mind; these are not failures.  They are simply steps that you take on your way to shoot these beautiful landscapes like a professional!  Good luck, and have fun!

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