How to Photograph Sunrise and Sunset

Sunrises and sunsets are very popular subjects for photographers but, unfortunately, they are also two of the most boring.  This is due to the frequency of which sunrise and sunset shots appear when photos are displayed; also due to the fact that there is quite often nothing else in the picture except clouds and a little bit land or sea in the foreground.

Sunrise(52803)Credit: Steven Pike

There are a few things that you can consider to make certain your pictures don’t fall into the boring category.  However, always remember that taking pictures is a personal thing, and don’t let anyone tell you how you should do it; especially if you are satisfied with the results.

The most challenging part of photographing sunrises and sunsets is the time of day you must be present.  Sunrises dictate you are up and out of bed well before dawn if you want to catch the so called ‘magic hour’.  Sunsets occur at a very inconvenient time of the day, usually around dinner time or when you are on your way home from work.  Hanging around, sometimes up to hour after the sun has dipped below the horizon, is par for the course and allows you to capture some nice deep colours in the sky.

Camera wise, you are going to need a DSLR.  Compact camera and ‘super zooms’ will take adequate pictures, but they have one serious downfall; in low light conditions the pictures from compact cameras are rife with digital noise, especially in the darker areas of the image.  Some of this can be removed later using noise reduction software, but it is not an ideal result.

The larger sensors inside DSLR’s create much less noise in your shots resulting in much cleaner looking images, which is very important if you intend to enlarge your shots at any stage.  Most modern DSLR’s have excellent low light performance.

You will of course need a lens to attach to your camera.  To capture the scene in all its splendour, a fairly wide angle lens would be suitable.  Common zooms around 18mm-50mm are ideal and even prime lenses in the 25mm, 35mm bracket will do nicely.  You can get away with a mid sized zoom lens, say 50mm-200mm, but you will need to do a bit of manoeuvring to get in the right position.

A tripod is essential equipment to hold everything steady.  Due to the low light conditions at both sunrise and sunset, slow shutter speeds are going to be required.  You can’t hand hold without introducing camera shake or camera blur with slower shutter speeds, so use a tripod.  A remote shutter release or the timer control on your camera can be utilised to fire the shot instead of you pushing the button and possibly moving the camera.

At times, there will still be plenty of light, or the sun might even be above the horizon.  In such cases, you may be able to get away with much faster shutter speeds and will be able to hand hold the camera.

Use a small aperture, around f16 or even f22, and this will ensure everything in your picture will be in focus.  To correctly expose the image using such small apertures in low light, you will have to use a slow shutter speed, hence the tripod as mentioned above.

Use manual mode on your camera as it will allow you to set the exposure exactly how you want it.  For deeper, richer colours is sometimes best to under expose about half a stop, but this will depend on conditions.  I leave the white balance setting on auto and shoot in RAW format, so I can later view the image under different white balance modes to see which one best represents the scene. 

I tend to use spot metering.  I will take a reading from the brightest spot in the scene I am about to photograph, and I’ll adjust the exposure to suit, usually overexposing this part of the image by half a stop.  Then I’ll readjust the composition, leave the settings as they are and take the shot.  It doesn’t always work, but it is a simple way of compensating for the sometimes variable shades within the scene.  You could also use filters to do this, but I like to attempt to get it right without having to worry anything else.

Sunset(52804)Credit: Steven Pike

Use your 9 or 11 point focus mode, or whatever mode you have on your camera.  Don’t use the spot focusing mode otherwise you could end up with just one area of your image in focus despite the small aperture.

Often, the best time to shoot is just before the sun has come up over the horizon (sunrise) or just after it has dipped below the horizon (sunset).  The colours in the sky tend to be deeper at this time and the underside of any clouds are tinged with orange and reds.

Look for unusual or pleasing cloud formations which add interest to the image.  Consider the foreground too.  If possible, don’t have the land (or whatever else) in complete silhouette.  Use a torch of car headlights, anything to give a little light so observers can see some detail in the foreground.  This is not easy to do though, because if you try and compensate the exposure of the image to give some detail in the dark foreground, you’ll blow out, or over expose, the rest of the picture.  Ah, the joys of photography.

At times having a subject and focusing on it with the sunrise or sunset in the background is a good way to go.  This type of picture is easy to take when the sun is above the horizon and there is colour in the sky.  The subject can then be a silhouette.  Just expose for the bright background, and focus on the subject. 

Experimentation is the key to this type of photography and there really is no hard and fast rule as to how to photograph such scenes.  It will depend on the conditions, the location, the light and the interpretation of it all by the photographer.  However, you are certain to take some memorable pictures.