Complete Beginners Guide to Sunrise and Sunset Photography

6 Photoshop Actions

To photograph the sunrise is a great challenge. Every photographer has wanted to capture the beauty of a sunrise. There are many tips such as the camera lens, position; angle and lighting that you will need to keep in mind to produce a great picture. Every camera is unique, and each has its own set of requirements to perform while taking a sunrise photograph.

Cochrane Hill Sunset by D'Arcy Norman

You can capture a sunrise with any type of camera but an LCD camera is the preferred choice.  A photographer is able to hold the camera closer which helps to reduce shaking while taking the shot. If the photographer is concerned about shake, he can always use a tripod to eliminate the problem. You will want to take sunrise photos that will highlight the natural colors of the morning sky to give your photos a graceful feeling. While taking a sunrise photo, a photographer needs to keep in mind the position of the horizon in the photograph.

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If a photographer is using an optical lens digital camera he has to insure he is not putting his lens directly in the sunlight, this can cause permanent damage to the lens. If the photographer is out on a hot day he should always keep the lens cap on when out in the sun and turn the camera off when it is not being used.  When the photographer uses the camera, he can snap his shots and then turn off the camera again to protect it. But most of the information here is common sense, just don’t leave your camera out in the sun unprotected such as on a picnic table in the middle of the hot summer.

A sunset view in HDR from BayShore Village Taken with Canon 1D Mark III w/24-105mm f/4L supported on a Gitzo GT5531S carbon fiber tripod and RRS BH-55 ballhead. Photo by kevincole

The color of the sky at sunrise is beautiful. If you add a subject such as a silhouette or tree, you can add great perspective to the photo. If the photographer enjoys his sleep in the morning, he is sure to miss out on some spectacular shots of a sunrise so it is important to plan your days so you can get out and capture the beauty that is a sunrise. A photographer should always insure balance between exposure and color when shooting the sunrise, and he should always use the proper equipment such as filters.

You should never place the horizon in the center of the photo. If the sunrise in the center of the photo there is no draw to the eye so it is best to place it lower in the photograph to draw the eye of the viewer in. Adding fog or a rainbow adds depth and more color to your photo. A photographer is an artist and should always be coming up with new ideas; this is how you become better at your craft and taking sunrise pictures. If a photographer doesn’t like the look of a certain shot, he can always take more photos until it matches the picture that he has in his mind.

Morro Strand State Beach on the Central California Coast 16 Nov. 2008. Michael "Mike" L. Baird, Canon 1D Mark III EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM handheld.

The funny thing is that the best sunrise/sunset photos always seem to be in the places that are so inconvenient for the photographer. These are places like marshland, desert, and hilltops and so on, but this should not deter your efforts because the outcome can be spectacular. The key to a good sunset photo is light distribution and horizon, also catching the different colors of the sunset is difficult too.  The color schemes are red, blue, green and all of the colors in between but here are a few tips that you may find helpful.

A good first attempt should happen in winter. The reason for this is because in the winter the sun is setting earlier and you don’t have to wait till all hours of the night to capture your photo. Sunset can begin as early as 3:30-7:00pm depending upon your geographic location.

Choose your shot carefully and add only the subjects you want in the photo. Sometimes there may be obstacles but a good photographer can work with them right in his photos, silhouettes, if done properly can add to the beauty of the sunset and add great perspective to your photos. Of course it would look better without electric lines running through the center of the photograph so the site should be chosen wisely and you are sure to come up with some beautiful photos.

As your out and traveling during the day it is never a bad idea to take a few notes on potential spots that would be good to capture your photos, describe the area to yourself for recollection later. Do not let the weather hinder your plans because adding cloudscapes in your photography can create interesting elements, they can change the colors and patterns of light and add great effects to the photos. The weather should not be a factor in your photos unless of course there is no sunrise/sunset at all due to the conditions. You can learn to make the best photo with some imagination and you should never let the opportunity pass you by.

There is another issue when it comes to photographing the sunrise/sunset and that is they only last a few brief minutes so your shots need to be aligned to the best of your ability quickly to capture your best shots. Planning is the key and if you have time to do so, you can plan out your shots a day ahead of time so that you are prepared, set up your equipment and take notes as to how you want to be positioned in the morning or evening. Allow set up time when you go out to start taking your pictures. The use of a tripod is not a bad idea in this case also.

Becoming the master of your skills

Everyone loves the look of the sunrise or sunset and many photographers want to capture the moment, it is one of the most common subjects for photographers. This is why you need to practice and become even better at your craft because the competition can be brutal.

The first thing to do is to come up with a plan. Just going out and taking a random aim and fire shot is not going to be the right choice. Your goal is to create a beautiful photo, not just a picture. Be creative and add things to the foreground, middle ground and even background, this can add depth to your photos. Plan and picture the photo in your mind, come up with the feeling you want to express to the viewer, you are not a kid anymore and creating a good photo takes a little more time than just pointing at something and snapping the shot.

Exposure: 0.001 sec (1/1600) Aperture: f/10 Focal Length: 100 mm ISO Speed: 400. by ronnie44052

Researching photographs of other sunrises and sunsets on the internet is a good idea to get tips hints and lighting ideas from those that have gone before you, you can see how someone captures the light, colors and so on and it gives you a goal or something to aim for in your photography. You have to learn to see things with the viewer of the camera to come up with those great shots. You need to let your imagination take over and forget about the filters that we tend to use in our own mind. You have to be the camera and the eye of the camera, so don’t be shy put on your creativity cap and give it a whirl.

Changing your lenses, shutter speeds and aperture values all create different looks to your photographs so it’s a good idea to practice and try different things. Look around for different elements to add to your shots and have fun. Practice here is the key to creating great sunrise/sunset shots. If you don’t like one element you can move on to another and another until you find just what it is you are looking for.

If you’re using a DSLR camera you can set it to the auto bracketing mode. You should shoot in RAW because this is ideal for post processing. You can read about “RAW for Beginners” in my previous article.

To shoot two people in the sunset you should set the ISO to 300+ and the aperture level at F/5-F/8 while shooting in the manual mode. If your shooting format is JPG, set your white balance to the cloudy position, use the camera in manual focus. If the need be, you can lie down to avoid any obstacles that may get in the way while taking your sunrise/sunset photo.

You can always return to a site if you are not happy with the outcome of previous photos, you can take them over and over again until you come up with the photograph that you had pictured in your mind. It all takes time and practice but as the old adage goes, practice makes perfect!

Following are 5 tips to sunrise/sunset photo taking

  • Learn how to predict a great sunset. You need to always have your camera ready and you need to be in position before the moment comes. The moment of the sunset lasts only a few short minutes, so you should be prepared. Scout out your locations and know where you are going to set up for taking your pictures. This will take away from a lot of wasted time in the future if you plan it out a little in advance.
  • Be patient to capture color. There is always a short few minutes after the sun looks like it has set that there is a burst of brilliant color. Be patient so you can catch these brilliant colors of sunset. You do not have to rush through all of your shots sometimes taking a few extra minutes can make all the difference in the world in your photography.

  • Find a foreground subject. This could be important. Everyone has shared the same boring pictures of “just” a sunrise or “just” a sunset, and I have seen many of my friends show me the same pictures over and over. Why not add something interesting in the foreground? Why not add a great silhouette to your picture, it does not have to be a large object in the photo and you can create a silhouette that will capture the eye of the viewer and draw them into the beautiful colors of your sunrise or sunset.
  • Get all the color you can into your photo. The rule of thirds can be discarded here as we are talking about sunrise and sunset and let me explain why; the rule of thirds simply means you should place the horizon of your picture either at the top third of the page or the bottom third. If you do this in a sunrise/sunset picture you will be looking at a large part of your photo being dark. If you want to capture the true beauty of the colorful sunrise or sunset then you need to ignore this rule for once to get the most out of the vibrant colors that are offered at this special time of day.
  • If you are near a water source use it creatively to reflect the beauty of the colors in your photograph. Many people try to avoid adding the element of water but it can create a wonderful work of art when added to your photography. The water can reflect and echo all of the wonderful colors and create a whole new dimension in your photograph.

There are the tips for you on sunrise/sunset photography. Here the concentration was on being creative not so much the technical part of the photo taking. Your ability to read nature and catching the right moment is much more important than the technical part of the photography in this situation. A great sunrise or sunset photo is just on the horizon for you as a photographer, so go and have fun practicing and enjoying nature, let it inspire and move you to create beautiful works of art in your photography.

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3 Comments

  • Reply Josh February 23, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Thanks these are great tips! Especially finding a good forground subject to complement the sunset.

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