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photographing sunrises and sunsets

see also:

  • do NOT look at the bright yellow sun through a camera, particularly with a telephoto lens - this may cause instant blindness and destroy your camera sensor.


  • sunrises and sunsets can be great to photograph if they capture wonderful memories of the ambience of a holiday, or you manage to capture them that creates an interesting image.
  • all too often though the photos are not what we had hoped for and many are just plain boring, particularly in this world super saturated with pretty photos of sunrises and sunsets.

first some theory

  1. dynamic range and contrast
    • you can't capture details of the light source AND details in the subject lit by that light source as the dynamic range is too great unless you employ techniques to address this such as:
      • special HDR techniques
      • use of reverse ND gradient split filters in front of the camera lens to darken the brightest parts of the sky near the horizon, or,
      • fill-in flash or studio lights on the foreground
    • this means, for the most part, if we want lovely saturated colours in the sky, then any foreground subjects will be so dark that they will appear as silhouettes, UNLESS they are directly reflecting the light source at you (eg. metallic subjects, water, etc).
    • if you try to expose for a foreground subject such as a tree lit by the darker sky behind you, the bright sky at the sunset will be over-exposed and very uninteresting.
    • an interesting time is at about 20 minutes before sunrise and 20 minutes after sunset, when the tonal values of the blue sky distant from the sun horizon, and the foreground become similar for a minute or two - this is wonderful lighting for buildings facing the sun horizon and this is when the real estate photographers take their best shots. Be aware though that most of the red and pink colours have disappeared by this time.
  2. everything in focus
    • sunsets and sunrises, like most landscape photographs usually appear best when everything looks sharp
    • this means setting a small aperture such as f/8 and focusing on the hyperfocal point, or if you are lucky enough to have one, using a tilt lens to change the plane of focus
    • be aware that setting apertures smaller than f/8 may decrease resolution due to diffraction effects, and also show up any dust on your camera sensor
    • of course, fantastic photos can be taken with long telephoto lenses which are used purposely to place the setting sun out of focus and the focus is a foreground subject such as a portrait, or a close up of a leaf, etc.

some tips

  1. plan your shots well before the event
    • try the photographer's ephemeris app to determine where the sun rises and sets at a given location
    • anticipate and try to previsualise your image as you may only have a minute or two of the best light which is usually within the 10-20 minutes BEFORE sunrise or 10-20 minutes AFTER sunset
    • generally you need dust, smoke, jet trails or cloud to make the sky look great instead of boring clear skies (see how clouds make great sunsets), so sunsets after rain or thunderstorms can be fantastic
    • search for locations and vantage points which will create an interesting composition, then decide on lens selection in terms of focal length
    • you WILL need a sturdy tripod for good results!!!!
  2. set your camera settings
    • use RAW file mode as this will give you the most dynamic range to play with later, and the best quality photos
    • use a low ISO as this will also give the most dynamic range and the least noise, although it may mean longer shutter speeds which may become an issue if you don't want the waves to be blurry - you can't have your cake and eat it here as you need a small aperture too!
    • white balance is irrelevant if shooting RAW mode so don't waste precious time worrying about it - just set it to Auto, or for really rich red sunsets, to sunny day or flash.
    • consider setting exposure mode to manual, or aperture priority
    • set aperture to f/8 or f/11 for maximum depth of field (DOF)
    • determine shutter speed by spot metering off the sky about 20-30deg from the position of the sun, or just use a trial and error approach to get the sky looking nice and saturated (a lazy way is just to use aperture priority and adjust exposure compensation to a negative value until it looks good - don't forget, your foreground subjects will be black silhouettes anyway)
    • if shutter speed is too slow to stop the water from looking sharp, you have several options:
      • increase ISO and/or open the aperture more
      • add a ND filter to make the shutter speed a LONG time such as 1-2 secs which will give the water a nice smoothed effect (best once the sun is below the horizon)
  3. choose a vantage point and composition
    • then set up the tripod and camera
  4. compose and set focus
    • compose scene
    • remember nice colourful reflections in water obey the angle of incidence = angle of reflection rule of light so that to get colours in a nearby rock pool, you will need nice colors in a cloud quite high in the sky, whereas reflections on the water on the shoreline may just need the red near the horizon to reflect.
      • consider changing camera height and position to optimise these reflections
    • ensure horizon is level
    • if you want everything in focus, lock focus on the hyperfocal distance for that camera-lens-aperture combination
  5. start taking photos
    • bracket exposures to assist in getting it correct
    • note that light conditions will change rapidly so your exposures will need to change accordingly - if using manual exposure, keep a close eye on it
    • turn around and check the scene BEHIND as this may provide you with great photos too!

some galleries to inspire

photo/sunsets.txt · Last modified: 2017/03/31 18:30 by gary1

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