How to take photos of sunrises and sunsets

Sunrises and Sunsets

Sunrises and sunsets are one of the most favourite times of the day to photograph for many landscape photographers. The colours are warm and golden, the quality of light is just right, and really, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the first light or the last light of the day pass the horizon. Taking photos during this time is not very difficult, but there are a few things you should consider when doing so. This post will give you some tips on how to shoot that glorious sunrise or sunset.

How to take photos of sunrises and sunsets

How to take photos of sunrises and sunsets

Suggested Gear

I’ve listed my gear suggestions for shooting a sunrise or sunset below. While not all of these are requirements, each one serves a purpose and should be considered. I’ll explain each one in detail further below.

  1. Camera with RAW capture capabilities
  2. Tripod
  3. Shutter release cable
  4. Variety of lenses to meet your creative needs (bringing both a wide and a telephoto lens is ideal)

Shooting Tips

1. Always plan ahead

Sunrises and sunsets don’t last forever. In fact, the light changes so fast during this time that it’s crucial that you know what you’re doing if you don’t want to miss that golden moment. Planning ahead of time will always prepare you for the least expected and that’s always a good thing. Scout the location of your shoot well before your shoot. This will give you a good idea on composition and what’s around the area. If you want to find out exactly where the sun will rise or set on any particular day, there are several apps that will tell you this: Photopills, The Photographer’s Ephimeris, and more.

Selecting the exact point for a photoshoot

Selecting the exact point for a photoshoot using The Photographer’s Ephemeris

2. Focus

It’s important to keep your subject matter crisp, especially during this low-light period. If you have your camera set to automatically focus within a designated area of your frame, make sure to turn that function off and switch it to auto-focus single. This will make your camera focus on one specific area within your frame, wherever you choose it to be. This is much better than having the camera choose the focus point for you.

Your camera may have a hard time focusing if there’s not enough contrast within your frame. If this happens, switch to manual mode and focus yourself. Or, use Live View mode to see if you can pinpoint the focus that way.

3. Change your white balance from auto

If you have your camera set to Auto White Balance, take it off, and set it to something else so you can control how the image looks, and not rely on your camera. If you shoot in JPG, you won’t be able to change this afterwards, so it’s even more important for you to change this before shooting. For RAW shooters, you can change this after in post, but why do that when you can start off with the right white-balance mode? Typically for sunrises and sunsets, I like to use the Daylight mode. This gives the right amount of warmth to my images. If you really want to warm things up, try changing it to Shade or Cloudy. Experiment to your liking.

4. Speed up your camera

Cameras have many advanced features that are great for certain purposes. However, sometimes these settings can slow your camera from processing these files. For example, if you like to take long exposures, you may have the Long Exposure Noise Reduction setting turned on. This will increase the amount of time needed to process each shot, preventing you from taking the next one. Turn this feature off.

5. Use a tripod

I always use my tripod during sunrise and sunset shoots. It stabilizes my camera and helps me get sharp images. The period surrounding sunrises and sunsets are quite dim so a tripod is highly recommended, especially if you’re going to use a telephoto lens.

Using a tripod for both my Nikon and my iPhone when taking a sunrise photo

Using a tripod for both my Nikon and my iPhone when taking a sunrise photo

6. Use a shutter-release cable

A shutter release cable hooks into your camera’s 10-pin connector if you have one. This is a separate cable that allows you to release the shutter without having you press down on the shutter button itself, further eliminating any blurriness in your photos from camera shake. It’s not a necessity, but it does help in many cases.

Composition Tips

1. Horizon placement

You can refer to my previous post here on the difference your placement of the horizon makes on your photos. It does make a big difference so get to know when you want to place the horizon in certain areas of your picture.

As a summary:

  • Placing the horizon on the top 1/3 of your picture will evoke a sense of intimacy with your subject matter as the foreground takes precedence in your frame.
  • Placing the horizon in the centre of the picture works well when done right, giving a sense of symmetry and balance.
  • Placing the horizon in the bottom 1/3 of your picture will give a sense of vastness and emptiness as you fill the frame with the sky and clouds.

2. Change focal lengths

While changing lenses during your sunrise and sunset shots may take you away from taking photos for that moment, it’s worth experimenting with various focal lengths to get a little variety in your photos. I have a number of lenses in my collection, but the two I always use are the 70-200mm f/2.8 and the 24-70 f/2.8, with the 14-24mm f/2.8 coming in a close third.

Using a wide angle lens on the left gives a different feel than using a telephoto lens, as seen on the right.

Using a wide angle lens on the left gives a different feel than using a telephoto lens, as seen on the right.

Taking a wide shot gives a great view of the entire scene letting the viewers see the effects of the sun within the rest of your photo. In contrast, zooming in on the subject gives you more details so you can fully appreciate the sunlight shining on your subject. Or, if you zoom in right on the sun, that will also make for some dramatic imagery. Just be careful not to stare at it for too long!

Exposure Tips

I once read that during a sunrise and sunset shoot, there is never really a “correct” exposure. What the person meant by this is that many different exposures can work during this time—it all just depends on what you want to evoke from your image.

1. Silhouettes

A common thing to do is to make your subjects a silhouette with the glorious colours in the backdrop taking centre stage. Expose for the brighter areas of your image to get this effect.

Nikon D200, 200mm, 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100

Nikon D200, 200mm, 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100

2. Don’t expose directly into the sun

If you set your exposure directly to the sun, you’ll get an image with lots of dark shadow areas, and the ball of sun, a muddy gray colour. We all know the sun is a big bright ball of light so having this as the brightest part of your final image is reasonably acceptable in most cases. Instead, expose somewhere just slightly darker than the brightest part of the sun so the shadows don’t get too dark and the highlights aren’t all blown away.

3. Bracket your shots

Use your bracketing mode to automatically create different exposures. If you let the camera decide the best exposure, use your bracketing mode to create another image 1 stop under-exposed or 1 stop over-exposed. It’s a quick way to get three different types of images without fiddling with your settings so much.


 

There may be a lot of information here, but if you take things one step at a time and think through your shots, you’ll learn to quickly adapt accordingly and things like horizon placements and exposures will come naturally.

Do you have any additional tips you can add for taking sunrise and sunset photos? Let me know in the comments below!

2 replies
  1. hsisson
    hsisson says:

    Ok, so long and wide! I have a 70–200 f2.8, a 24–70 f2.8 and a 16–35 f2.8, plus my two bodies, 1DX and 5DMkIII, and then my tripod. My tripod will be busy shooting a time stack, if conditions are favorable, so I won’t really have the option to use it with my other body. I guess that’s the kit I’ll bring! Also, not familiar with the park, can you possibly do a screen shot with an arrow showing us exactly where we should meet up with you? We’ll be dropped off (we don’t have a car), and the closer we can be dropped off to our final destination the better. 🙂 Thanks!

  2. Taku Kumabe
    Taku Kumabe says:

    Hey Holly. That sounds like a great kit. I usually bring my trio along with me too: 14-24, 24-70, 70-200. Looking forward to that time stack. I’ll post more details a bit later, including where to meet, but if you want to see the parking in the park, you can see a photo of it above in my screenshot for the “Plan Ahead” section (left edge, halfway down the screen, park closest to the roundabout). We need to walk about 10min. to the actual spot (also shown in the screenshot) so we’ll need to be there on time.

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