5 steps to better sunrise and sunset photos
One look through this website will make clear that I love making sunrise and sunset pictures. Most photographers do.
Here are five considerations to making great photos of sunrises and sunsets:
1. Meter carefullythen throw out the reading
Many beginning photographers are disappointed with their photos of sunrises and sunsets because they let the camera do the metering. Big mistake. The burning ball of fire in the middle (or, rather, on the two-thirds rule line) of a photo will throw off any built-in camera meter.
Your best bet for determining the exposure for a sunrise or sunset is to spot-meter off a medium-toned area of the sky, close to where the light sky falls into dark. Then bracket by about as much as two stops in either direction. Often Ill bracket 2/3 and 1-1/3 stop in either direction, and end up keeping four of the five exposures.
If you dont have a spot meter, then frame the sky just next to the sun, but do not include the sun in the frame. Get a light reading from that, set the camera, then move the sun back in the frame. Again, bracket to two stops in either direction.
Another important point: When framing and taking light readings, never look directly at the sun through your cameras viewfinder. Your lens, especially if its telephoto, will magnify the damaging effects of the sun on your eye.
2. Shoot more than the sun
Usually a photo of just the sun on the horizon will not make a sufficiently interesting photograph. So look for something else to liven it up.
Clouds are a great place to start. A rising or setting sun will throw light upwards onto the bottom of clouds, which can create some startling effects of color. Look for patterns in the clouds that can nicely complement a landscape.
Another option is to silhouette something in the foreground. Try animals, or trees, or people, or anything. To achieve a silhouette, just photograph the sunset at your chosen exposure, and anything in front of it in the frame will appear almost, if not completely, black.
3. Know where the sun will be
Ask people where the sun sets and almost every one of them will say: West. For most of the year, theyll be wrong.
Aside from the vernal equinox (mid-March) and autumnal equinox (mid-September), the sun does not set due west. Its position on the horizon at either sunrise or sunset will vary depending on the time of year and your location on the planet.
Knowing where the sun rises or sets is important if you want to scout a location and pick your best angles beforehand. For more information on this, read my article How to determine sunset & sunrise times and locations.
4. Use a tripod
Id say this for any photo taken at any time of day, but Ill stress it for sunrise and sunset shots. Especially if youre silhouetting a foreground element, youll most likely want a good amount of depth of field (blurry-edged suns rarely work; blurry-edge silhouettes never do), which means stopping down to slow shutter speeds. Despite claims by some people with cameras, I guarantee that youll improve the sharpness of your sunset photos by using a tripod.
5. Pace yourself
The colors of a sunrise or sunset change dramatically over the course of the event. So be prepared to try angles over and over with different skies. If youre working one angle, get your shots, then wait ten minutes and you may get some more with very different results.
More often than not, the colors of a sunset grow warmer as the sun approaches the horizon; the opposite happens for sunrises (colors grow cooler as the sun climbs into the sky). For more on determining and manipulating sun colors, read Predicting and manipulating colors at sunrise or sunset.
One more note: Keep shooting after the sunsets over.
© 2002 - 2008 Chris Nicholson