sunrise and sunset photo tips

17 Essential Tips for Photographing a Spectacular Sunset (or Sunrise)

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Everyone with a camera, whether it’s a basic point and shoot or a top class DSLR will, at some point, try to photograph a sunrise or sunset. But it is what you choose to include of the surrounding landscape that will place the event in some sort of context, lending some scale and depth to the image. This, coupled with practised technical ability, will make your image stand apart from the rest.

1. Let sky be the dominant part of the scene and keep the sun off-centre

Remember one rule: the SKY is what a sunset or sunrise photo is all about, so make that the primary focus of your shot. You don’t want to cut the sky out and focus mostly on the foreground in these kind of shots. It helps to keep the sun off-center in many cases, though IF the sun is what you are focusing on, you might opt for the classic sun-in-the-center type shot too.

2. Include the Use of a Silhouette as an Foreground Object of Interest

One popular technique is to include a strong silhouette for sunset photography. This creates a dramatic contrast between the bright orange sky, the burning sun, and the dark image. Silhouette’s are popular when taking sunsets over the ocean (you might have a sailboat as a silhouette, for example).

If you are using silhouetted foreground elements then keep them in balance with the position of the sun by remembering basic compositional rules.  Try not to allow one side the composition to be too heavily biased.  Similarly try not to have the line of the horizon too near to the centre of the image.

Be prepared for changes in the light because some of the best effects may occur as a small cloud or flock of birds pass briefly across the sun or surrounding sky.

3. Follow the Rule of thirds

This is a basic composition rule, but you should keep it in mind when shooting sunsets or sunrises — the rule still applies. There are a number of landscape composition techniques that go very well with sunset/sunrise photography.

4. Use a Long Zoom for Dramatic Suns

You might see this technique in some photos where you have a sun taking up a huge part of the frame. TO get this effect, you need a very long zoom — something like a 300m, 400m or longer. Of course, you also need another object of interest in your frame below the sun.

If you really want the sun to take up a significant portion of your photo frame, you are going to need some REALLY long lenses and a set of extender tubes. Here is the formula:

Image Size (of sun or moon, in mm) = Focal Length / 110

This means if you want your sun to be about 5mm in size, you are going to need to shoot with a 500mm focal length with a full frame. If you have a crop sensor, that 500mm would be 800mmm, and your sun would be about 8mm large (about 1 /3 of an inch).

Again, some compositions have the sun at 1 or 2 inches large. To get the sun (or moon) this big you are going to need a teleconverter (such as the Kienko x2) which usually come in 1.4x, 2x, and even 3x.  At 500mm, you can get a focal length of 1000mm with a Kienko 2x teleconverter and a sun about 10mm large which is just about half an inch. For a sun that’s an inch or bigger, you are going to need to shoot at 2000mm or more. With a crop camera, you can nearly achieve this with a 500mm lens and 2x teleconverter for about 1600mm or a 16mm sun size.

5. Use a High Aperture 

To ensure that you are getting as much detail as possible from elements in the fore and mid-ground try pushing the aperture as high as you dare. Be aware, however, that this will force slower and slower shutter speeds so if clouds are moving or there is any other type of organic movement this will end up blurred or ghosting and bracketed shots will differ to such an extent that they will become useless later on. But don’t just look out towards where the sun is setting or rising. Take a good 360 degree view of your surroundings for other shots and continue to do this throughout the shoot because the lighting will change from second to second during the time you are there.

6. Consider Using a Flash

Take a flash because there may be foreground elements you wish to be more apparent, rather than the usual muted tones or complete silhouette.  The writing on a sign, for example, that could have added something to the context or important textures could be lost due to poor key lighting so it is always worth packing a flash for for this reason.

7. Turn Off Auto White Balance

If your sunsets and sunrises are not being faithfully represented by your photographs, or if they are not conveying what you want them to convey then the issue can often be that the camera is in Auto White Balance mode.  Experiment with the white balance using the available pre-sets.  The pre-set for a cloudy environment will pick out the golds and ambers more effectively.  If you want to generate some colder, more dramatic tones for a sunrise then some of the pre-sets used for indoor lighting can produce great results.  You can even use the white balance setting for flash photography which will help to pick out colors at the red end of the spectrum. With most DSLR’s it is possible to bracket the white balance so that you can take upwards of 3 shots with the color. bias different for each.  When you have the correct color. balance then choose this and work your exposure settings around it.

8. Use Graduated Neutral Density Filters (GNDs) 

If you want to take good sunset and sunrise shots where BOTH the foreground and sky are balanced, you are going to need to invest in a good set of GND filters. These filters slip over the camera lens and block the light from specific parts of the composition (depending on how you put the filters over the lens) which allow you to expose for the foreground while still retaining a vivid sky.

Typically, you will want to go with a grad filter that can hold back between 2-4 stops of light. This can really give you some dramatic sunset shots. There is even a special sunset/sunrise grad filter called the Reverse Grad Filter which is perfect for when the sun is exactly on the horizon.

Getting a good exposure setting is tricky because of the stark lighting contrast between the sky and the land; GND’s can really help pull out the more more subtle mid-tones in the sky for metering the exposure. The affect also can also bring out a dramatic sky, depending on how many strong your GND’s are.

In most situations a soft graduated filter will do the trick, especially if there are mountains or something that affects the clear gradient between land and sky. But if you are photographing sunsets or sunrises and using the full horizon in the composition then it’s a good time to pull out the hard ND filter as the delineation on the filter will be less noticeable.

Take a look at our full tutorials on Grad Filters and our guide to Filter Holders Systems for more information about GND usage.

9. Shoot Different Exposures

There’s a lot of contrasting light when it comes to sunsets and sunrises. Don’t take a single exposure, USE multiple exposures — you up your chances of getting the best shot you can.  This directly leads to our next point — having the camera do the different exposures for you, automatically.

10. Use the Auto Bracketing Feature

Many DSLR cameras have an auto bracketing feature. These can be set to automatically shoot 3 (or more) shots at different exposures. The classic exposure setting is to shoot at -2 exposure, 0 (balanced) exposure, and +2 exposure. Note you will NEED to use a tripod. You can also use the 3 different exposures to do an HDR photo of that same shot.

11. Use HDR Photography to Capture a Balanced Sunset/Sunrise

If you don’t have Grad filters, you can use HDR to create a balanced image from the composite of 3 or more images, taken at different exposures. You will need a tripod, a DSLR with the Auto Bracketing Feature. We’ll have a tutorial on HDR photography shortly.

12. Use Panoramas to Capture Open Expanses

The sky is vast that sometimes it can be hard to know what to leave out, especially if you have wide open spaces in front of you with objects of interest in the background, so sunrises and sunsets can often the perfect opportunity to create incredible panoramas — provided you can get around some of the tricky, uneven lighting in the sky.

If you are not including a lot of complicated shapes in the foreground then there should be no problem with parallax errors and as a result, less chance of ghosting or going wrong.

Cropped sensor cameras may not get as much width as a full frame so even shooting two exposures as a panorama should make up for this. By using a tripod with a no-parallax point such as the Node Ninja then you can stitch together images on both the vertical and horizontal axis and get 180 degrees of view in both directions.

Finally, try to enjoy something of the time you are out taking the shot and soak up a little of the place you are.  Don’t just end up with a great sunrise or sunset photograph but attach it to the memory of being there. Planning to take a sunset is a great chance to really get to grips with some of the camera’s more obscure or less used settings so enjoy the process and good luck.

13. Use Filters

GND’s are not the ONLY filter you should use. A good quality UV filter can prevent flare, if you are NOT pointing directly at the sun. If the sun is still pretty strong and not off to the side, you may want to take off the UV filter though (thought in some cases, you may want this affect).

Also try experimenting with salmon, orange and amber filters (often called warming filters) to bring out the most in the sky and sunset lighting.  At sunrise try a blue or graduated blue filter, especially if there is mist or fog, to help bring out the coldness of the scene.

Polarizing filters will help to take some of the sting out of over-exposed areas of reflected water. If you want to use a polarizing filter AND use an ND filter but you don’t have access to Cokin or Lee filters (or you don’t want stack filters) then there is a solution in the form of a Singh-Ray 77mm Vari-N-Duo Polarizing Variable Neutral Density Filter.  A great filter but can cause some vignetting with super wide angle lenses.  Used well it can be great for sunrises and sunsets, especially on cropped frame cameras with long lenses when you are trying to make the sun’s disc a big feature in the composition.

Personally, I use the following filters quiet often when taking sunset shots:

  • Singh-Ray LB Color Combo (Warming Polarizer and Color Enhancer) — this filter really pulls up the colors of pretty much any scene. Reds, Golds, Yellows, and Greens are ramped up with the color enhance while the warming polarizer deeps the blues and brings out more cloud definition. If there is a ‘filter’ that stays on my Canon Wide Angle lens, this would be it.
  • Sing-Ray Blue and Gold Polarizer: this can really add some startling effects to SOME scenes, especially ones that involve water. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, the affect is magical.
  • Singh-Ray 2,3,4 stop Hard Grad, Soft Grad, and Reverse Grad
  • Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo Warming Polarising Neutral Density Filter: this works wonders with waterfalls, sea images, and images with fields. Basically any image where you want to capture time through the motion of objects while there’s a lot of light. This can hold back 8 stops of light while still acting as a warming polarizer to boot.

14. Use a Tripod 

Using a good, sturdy tripod and  cable / remote release is essential.  Because you will be hoping to shoot at a low ISO (100/200) with a deep depth of field (usually above f11 but preferably higher) then you will be using a long exposure; most probably longer than 1/60th.  Because of this you need to reduce any possibility of vibration otherwise you will end up with a soft image.  Hand-holding for a good sunset is virtually impossible due to the reduced amount of ambient light and, preferably, you will be bracketing the exposure to around 1 stop of light either side of correct exposure to allow for the possibility of exposure fusion in post-production.  It’s also important because if you are trying to capture the sun itself then you will probably be using a fairly long lens and so the extra support is important to account for the extra weight. Therefore,  keeping each shot perfectly still and composed is vital to reduce any possibility of ghosting during this process.

My recommendation here (if you travel or hike) is the awesome Gitzo 1542T, just about the best damn landscape travel tripod out there.

15. Use Software to Help Plan Your Shooting Conditions

It would be impossible to write anything about photographing these two natural phenomena without giving mention to the Photographer’s Ephemeris software.  Despite being a fairly recent innovation, it is a simple idea and has quickly become an indispensable piece of software that’s the first point of reference for any photographer wishing to photograph the sun or the moon.  Prior to its development the first thing I would have written would be to emphasise the importance of  knowing when the sun sets or rises so you can plan your times for setting up a shot.  Now I would suggest that before you plan any sunset photography, install a copy on your machine or download as a mobile app.

The Ephemeris uses Google Maps as it’s engine.  You can choose any location on the planet and the software will superimpose the direction of sunset, sunrise, moon-set and moon-rise for your location.  The Ephemeris will also give you precise times for setting and rising as well as other information, including latitude and longitude so that you can find your way to the area quickly and easily with GPS.  Because it uses Google Maps you can also get an idea of where shadows might fall on specific locations and buildings etc.. giving you all the info you need to plan your sunrise or sunset photography with military precision.

16. Don’t Leave After Sun Goes Down

Sometimes, you can get some fantastic lighting AFTER the sun goes down (or just before the sun rises, in the case of sunrise photography). The sky might have a purple/magenta cast to it that can make for some stunning photos. Don’t just lock yourself into only shooting when the sun is present.

Also, don’t leave as soon as the sun has set because this is best opportunity to use extra long exposures.  You will be able to pick out remaining color. in the sky that may not even be visible to the eye, along  with a few stars.  You can also create an incredible soft billowing effect on water, especially water crashing around the base of rocks or flowing over them.

17. Think Safety

It seems pretty obvious but if the sun is causing you to squint then your camera sensor probably won’t enjoy the experience either. Probably not a good idea to look directly through your viewfinder at it and be very cautious opening the shutter for any length of time.  Start the exposures conservatively and slowly step your way up to an acceptable level of light.

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