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Quick Tips for Better Sunrise/Sunset

I love sunrise and sunset. I have been known to photograph at both times in the same day, even on the longest day of the year! These times can be such magic just to be outside, let alone taking pictures. I am very fond of sunrises for that reason, because even in the busiest locations, sunrises are often quiet times with few people compared to sunset.

It is easy to get overwhelmed by the color and light of a sunrise or sunset and get less than satisfactory shots. Here are some tips on getting better sunrise and sunset photos:

1. Check your white balance. I put this first because auto white balance, the default setting of digital cameras, is one of the worst offenders for making sunrises and sunsets less than their best. Auto white balance is designed to automatically make colors look more or less neutral, which is exactly what we don’t want with a sunrise or sunset. We are used to seeing sunrise and sunset photos shot with film that was balanced to daylight conditions, not auto matched to make sunrise or sunset more neutral. Try setting your camera to a daylight balance such as Sunny or Cloudy to get better colors at these times.

2. Look for clouds. Blank skies will often give less interesting sunrises or sunsets because there is nothing for the light from the rising or setting sun to illuminate. If clouds block the eastern (sunrise) or western (sunset) horizons, you might get nothing. But if clouds are breaking, especially along the right horizon, you may be rewarded with stunning color and light.

3. Watch your horizon. I often see students in my classes so excited about the sunrise or sunset that they put the horizon in the middle of the photo. The problem with that is that the ground is usually so dark that it is just black, so you end up with a photo that is half black. Use your whole sensor and capture more of that glorious sky. Put the horizon near the bottom of your photo or don’t include it at all and just show off the great sky. Check your LCD playback to be sure.

4. Work with silhouettes. When you are shooting toward the sun, anything that sticks up into the sky is going to be a silhouette anyway, so why not look for interesting silhouettes? Find a tree or tree branch with an interesting shape. Get down low to put some flowers against the colorful sky. Or find an interesting rock formation that tells a bit about your location. Actually, the rocks, mountains, hills, trees and so on that make up a silhouette can tell a viewer a lot about your location. Never put these things in the middle of your image — it is the sunrise or sunset sky that should be the star of your photo. The silhouettes are supporting players that can be at the bottom, corners or sides.

5. Try HDR. If you think HDR is only about funky, “sci-fi” looks, then you have not seen the real potential HDR has for nature photographers. With HDR, we finally have the possibilities of capturing an interesting scene in front of us with the sun setting behind it, and seeing it all in the final image, not just silhouettes! HDR Darkroom is an affordable HDR program that is very easy to use and gives very natural results. Nik Software is coming out with HDR Efex Pro this fall, and from what I have seen of it, it will be a phenomenal program that will be game changing for HDR.

6. Photograph before and during the sunrise or sunset. The light and color will keep changing with a sunrise or sunset, and you cannot predict this, so hang around and enjoy the changes as you take pictures throughout the sunrise or sunset. Keep shooting — it costs nothing to add photos to your memory card. You never know when the best shots will occur.

7. Keep your camera out and keep shooting after the sun has set. I have seen even sophisticated photographers pack up and go home when the sun drops below the horizon, yet there can be stunning color and images to be had after that happens. In my workshops, my group quickly learns that if we shoot at sunset, we will also be shooting well after sunset, and we get great results. This can mean long exposures, but digital cameras can dig amazing detail and color out of darkening scenes. Start looking at the scene all around you, not just the place of the sunset. Be patient because the light often looks poor for about the first 10 minutes after sunset. After that, if you have an open view to the western sky, you will often find some amazing light illuminating the scene around you. This doesn’t happen every time and you can get some dud lighting, but this happens enough that it is well worth waiting for.

8. Use a telephoto and focus on distant colors and tones. Zoom in all the way or use your most telephoto lens and start looking around the sunrise or sunset along the horizon (do not stare into the sun through your camera, though, as this can damage your eyes — you can use Live View with your camera, however, and stare at the sun on your LCD). You will often find amazing color and tonalities.

9. Put on your wide-angle and shoot the big sky. Wide-angle shots that have the sunrise or sunset at the bottom of the image and big sweeps of colorful sky above it can make for very dramatic images. Be sure to emphasize the sky by shooting upward — you don’t need much ground in the photo for this shot.

10. When the weather is changing, be there for sunrise or sunset. Changing weather can bring phenomenal clouds to a setting, but even more important, it can mean striking and unusual lighting conditions right at sunrise or sunset. This will not happen all the time, but if you aren’t outside when it could happen, you will never get the great shots that are possible at these times.