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10 Tips for Photographing Sunrises and Sunsets

Words and photos by David FitzSimmons, a Sigma Pro photographer and prize-winning author.

Click on each image to enlarge and for useful location and shot information.

No time of day is as spectacular than the ends of the day, when brilliant colors abound. At sunrise and sunset, the rays of the sun get bent by the atmosphere, creating scenes with all the colors of the spectrum. Planning, perceiving the changing colors, and composing well will allow you to produce stunning images at the ends of the day. To help prepare you for these wonderful times, below are ten tips for shooting sunrises and sunsets like a pro:

1. Watch the weather. There’s an old mariner saying, “Red in the morning, sailors take warning. Red at night, sailor’s delight.” This phrase works because it refers to the general movement of weather systems from west to east. If the sky is red in the morning, a front is moving in from the west toward the east. That is, the last rays of the sun’s spectrum, bent by the atmosphere as the sun rises, begin hitting the clouds on the edge of a weather system moving in. Clear sky is giving way to clouds, and the sun still in the clear sky, begins lighting up the advancing clouds. That’s good news for sunrise photographers but bad news for boaters.

For “Red at night, sailor’s delight,” skies become colored at night if a storm is clearing from the west toward the east, allowing the setting sun to illuminate the underside of the back edge clouds with the last rays of the spectrum. This creates beautiful colors with the sky clearing. This time it’s good news for both photographers and boaters.
 
2. Start wide, zoom in, and then go wide again. One of the first choices that a photographer has to make when photographing a sunrise or sunset is what lens to grab. Do you want to shoot a wide angle shot, or are you planning on zooming in? From my experience, for both sunrises and sunsets, you should start with a wide angle lens, then zoom in when the sun nears the horizon, and then zoom back out again.

This wide-telephoto-wide sequence works for sunrises and sunsets. For sunrises, you start by capturing the beautiful colors in the pre-sunrise sky. A wide angle, such as a 12-24mm or 24-35mm are great at this time, capturing colors spread throughout the sky. When the sun starts to peak above the horizon – and especially over water – switching to a telephoto lens, such as a 70-200mm or 150-600mm, works well. Then you can capture our star’s appearance against hill, mountains, water, skylines, or other landscape objects. When the sun starts to rise above the horizon, go wide again, capturing the golden colors in the wider landscape and some of the colors that abound in the sky.

During sunset, the formula works, as well. Start wide to capture the golden colors of the sun on the landscape. Zoom in for the sun creeping below the horizon. And then go wide as the sun disappears and the sky lights up the oranges, pinks, and purples.

3. Expose for the sky next to the sun. Once have predicted a great sunrise or sunset, arrived at your location, and grabbed your wide angle lens, the next question is how to meter the wide range of tones. I have found that the best technique is to take a spot meter reading from just next to the sun. If you have a telephoto lens on, of course, don’t look into the sun!

Using this technique, the sun itself will burn out, but you will have preserved details in the sky and clouds right next to the bright orb. Of course, dark subjects on the ground will likely turn into silhouettes, but you are better to have exposed for the highlights than for the dark areas.

4. Use silhouettes to add interest. Speaking of silhouettes, use interesting background, foreground, and middle ground subjects as silhouettes. That means seeing them as black shapes rather than as discernable subjects. Our amazing human eye allows us to see lots of details at the ends of the day, but generally most of what is not in the sky will go black. So, look for interesting shapes to add to your shot, lines that point toward the sun, trees that have geometric shapes, or buildings lined up in pleasing symmetry. You may be able to bring some details out in post-processing, but most of the time this results in extreme noise.

5. Look for interesting subjects lit by the sun. When the sun is five or ten degrees above the horizon, turn your camera the other direction. There are often subjects behind you that look extraordinary in the warm light just before the sunset or just after sunrise. Look for wildlife, flowers, buildings, and even people, all of which can look incredible with the early – or late-day sun.

6. Process in HDR/Exposure Fusion. HDR software can help bring details out of your silhouetted subjects. It can also make your skies pop. By either using tone mapping or exposure fusion, you can reduce the contrast in the sky to eliminate hot spots. My method is to shoot in RAW and then convert the file plus two or three stops, in the middle, and down two or three stops. I then combine three or five 16-bit TIFFs in Photomatix using the exposure fusion option.

If you have the scene where not much is moving, you can shoot a series of images many stops apart, watching the blinkies to make sure that the sun is not burned out and the increasing exposure for five or ten stops. Your enfused or tone mapped image will contain brightness information more similar to how you experience the scene.

7. Don’t stop shooting! More people photograph sunsets than sunrises, and many of these commit the cardinal sin of sunset photography: leaving early. Never stop shooting when the sun disappears. Often the greatest colors of sunset occur long after the sun disappears. If you stick around for twenty or thirty minutes after sunset, oranges will turn to pinks, and pinks will turn to purples.

Those purples are the marker for the edge of day. What you are actually seeing is the last red of the sun mixing with the blue of the sky. That same purple can decorate the tops of white-capped mountains and produce stunning pics showcasing alpenglow.
 
8. Bring a tripod. Of course, many of the best shots taken at sunset require a tripod. The sky gets dark, and the land around it gets even darker. Pre-sunrise and post sunset images may be many seconds long, sometimes into the minutes if you are shooting early or late enough. A tripod is a must.

In addition, tripods help you align the best possible shot. A tweak of the height, a movement to the left or right, or a slight tilt up or down can make a good shot great. What ever you do, pick out a good tripod and keep it for life. Under the dark ends of the day, you’ll appreciate an easy-to-use and stable set of legs even more.

9. Use a remote trigger. Okay, so you have your tripod. Now use mirror lock-up or live view, and trip the shutter with a remote. Having the mirror up during shooting eliminates the camera shake that occurs with SLR cameras, producing steadier shots. Plus, you won’t be shaking the camera as you press the button.
 
10. Practice and critique. After you get back to your computer, sort through your images, critiquing your shoot. Look at exposure, focal lengths, perspective, and composition. Are there burned out areas? Are all your shots from eye level? Did you rotate the camera into the portrait position enough..or at all?! Does your sunrise or sunset shoot include images from throughout the hour-long event? Try to imagine your images on a gallery wall. Do you have variety? Did you cover all aspects of the sunset?

So get up early and stay up late. Study weather patterns. And then start shooting and don’t leave too early. Soon your walls will be covered with prize-winners!
 

David FitzSimmons is a Sigma Pro photographer and prize-winning author. His Curious Critters children’s picture books have won 12 national book awards nd sold 200,000 copies. David travels across North America teaching photographers how to improve their craft and working with school children, helping them connect to nature through photography. You can see more of David’s work at www.fitzsimmonsphotography.com.

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