10 Tips for Photographing the Magic Sunrise and Sunset

10 Tips for Photographing the Magic Sunrise and Sunset

Orange and blue sunset reflecting in the water as birds fly by at Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

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All photos are original to the author unless otherwise noted. 

This blog post may contain affiliate links.  I may earn a small commission for any purchases made through these links. Click here for the disclosure statement.

All photos are original to the author unless otherwise noted.

Photographing the sunrise and sunset can be one of the most beautiful ways to capture landscapes and earth’s natural beauty. Sunrise and sunset, referred to as the golden hour, offer a different light and mood than at other times of day.

Why take sunrise and sunset pictures

Sunrise and sunset are two of the most popular times for photography. The warm, diffused light is incredibly flattering, and the colors can be truly stunning. Sunrise and sunset also offer photographers a chance to experiment with long exposures. By using a slow shutter speed, it’s possible to capture the flow of clouds or the movement of water. The soft, warm light is ideal for highlighting colors and textures, and the low angle of the sun can create beautiful shadows.

Sunrise vs. Sunset

Each has its own unique benefits and drawbacks. Sunrises are less crowded because most people don’t want to get up that early. Fog is more likely to occur in the morning, which adds some interest to an image. The downside to sunrise photography they require early mornings and arriving in the dark to capture the beauty of the sunrise. Mornings are typically more clear, which means you’re less likely to have clouds to reflect the sun.

There tends to be more cloud cover in the afternoon, so sunsets have more dramatic skies, but this can also mean there’s too much cloud cover, which makes for an uninteresting sunset.

Camera equipment and tools

A DSLR camera with a wide-angle lens is a great option for sunrise photography, as it allows you to capture the sweeping landscape. A telephoto lens captures the brilliantly glowing sun up-close or to capture the details of the landscape. Various filters can enhance the colors and textures of sunrise and sunset photography. For instance, a graduated neutral density filter balances the exposure between foreground and the sky which brings out the sky’s color without underexposing the foreground. A tripod is also useful, as it will help to keep your camera steady during long exposures. And finally, a reflector bounces light in the shadows and allows you to capture more details.

Composition tips for sunset photography

Use the rule of thirds

Landscape photo of a foggy sunrise demonstrates rule of thirds with horizon on the bottom third
Use the bottom third for the horizon to capture stunning clouds or vibrant colors of a sunset.

The rule of thirds is a simple composition technique that can help you take more interesting and visually appealing photos. Imagine a tic-tac-toe grid that divides the image into thirds horizontally and vertically. Then, position your subject along one of those lines or intersecting points.

The horizon should be along the bottom horizontal line or the top line. If you have dramatic clouds and colors, I would recommend placing the horizon on the bottom third. Compositions that feature the sun should place the sun off-center on one of the top two intersecting lines, which results in a more eye-catching photo.

Place something interesting in your foreground

Elliot Bay in Seattle At Sunset with objects in foreground, middle ground, and background
Have a foreground, middle ground, and background to create interesting layers

You can improve your photos by including an interesting foreground such as tree, rocks, a lake, or a flower. You can include something in the foreground that is illuminated by the rising sun (the sun is at your back) or silhouetted (sun at your face) which emphasizes the clouds and colors while still adding balance and interest.

Use leading lines to draw the viewer’s eyes through the frame

You can use foreground elements to create a sense of depth and lead the viewer’s eyes through the image. Look for natural lines like roads, railway tracks, and rivers; or man-made structures like bridges or fences.

Find patterns and textures to add interest to your image

Layers of purple mountains Silhouetted add depth and texture
Morning golden hour sun creates silhouetted layers in Big Bend National Park

Use the shapes of the sunlit clouds, the lines of landscape, or ripples in the water to create patterns. We can create textures by emphasizing the roughness of sand, the smoothness of water, or the fluffiness of the clouds. By using these elements to create patterns and textures, you can add depth and interest to your sunrise and sunset photography.

Change your point of view every few shots

Try capturing some close-ups of the sun in the clouds, as well as some wide shots that show the horizon, or closeups of an object and use the sky as a backdrop, or capture to colors in a reflection. You may also want to try different angles, such as shooting from a high vantage point or from down low. By changing your point of view, you’ll be able to create a more varied and interesting sunrise or sunset photography portfolio.

Sandhill crane wading in water that is reflecting the soft golden and purple hues of the blue hour.
Sunset reflection in the water creates a stunning silhouette of a bird at Bosque Del Apache

Camera settings

Aperture

When shooting a landscape scene, you’ll want to use a medium aperture (f/8 – f/16) or use the highest aperture setting available (usually around f/22) to capture the sun’s rays and create a starburst effect. If you’re looking to capture some beautiful bokeh, you’ll need a wide aperture (f/1.8-f/3.5).

ISO Should Not Exceed 3200 to 6400.

ISO is a measure of your camera’s sensitivity to light; the lower the ISO setting, the less sensitive your camera will be to light, and vice versa. A higher ISO allows in more light, but the higher the ISO, the more digital noise you introduce. Each camera’s capabilities in low-light situations are different, but you should strive for the lowest possible ISO and try not to exceed 3200 to 6400.

Shutter speed

The best shutter speed depends on the subject, available light, and the aperture and ISO settings. The darker it is, the longer shutter speed you will need and you will probably want a tripod to reduce camera shake. To really know how to set your shutter speed, you will need to understand the exposure triangle and how ISO, shutter speed, and aperture work together to create exposure.

For sunrise, I would recommend starting at 1/8 of a second during the earliest parts of the sunrise (adjust as necessary) and increase the shutter speed as the sun rises. For sunsets, start with a fast shutter speed and reduce the shutter speed as the sunsets and it gets darker.

If you shooting a fast moving subject, you will want a faster shutter speed, to freeze birds in flight you will want around 1/1200 speed. If you need more light in order to keep a minimum of 1/1200, consider increasing the ISO and/or using a wider aperture.

Use Bracket Exposure

Bracket exposure involves taking multiple photos at different exposures and then combining them into one final image. This allows you to capture all the details in both the highlights and shadows, resulting in a more balanced photo. You’ll find a few tips on how to combine multiple images in the post processing section.

Expose for the sky

Sunrise can be a challenge because the contrast between the bright sky and the shadows in the darker foreground is difficult to capture in a single exposure. Exposing for the sky means the camera is set to capture the sky at a good exposure, even if that means other areas of the scene are underexposed because an overexposed sky will wash out the colors.

Keep shooting Into the Blue Hour

Some of the best light conditions occur after sunrise and before sunset. The light can be deeper and more vibrant, plus there are often fewer people around during twilight to dusk hour, making it easier to get that perfect shot. So next time you’re out chasing sunsets, don’t pack up your camera when the sun dips below the horizon. Keep shooting into the twilight hours because sometimes the second round is better than the first.

Oversized moon rising over the sunset and trees created by combining multiple photos in photoshop
Composite image created using beginner friendly Photoshop techniques

Post Production For Beautiful Sunrise and Sunset photos

Poor editing can ruin even the most beautiful sunrise or sunset. Here are some tips for bringing out the details and colors to get the most out of your sunrise or sunset photos. 

Before example of a RAW sunrise image before editing in lightroom
Unedited sunset pic is dull and gray
Vibrant orange sunset with Sandhill Cranes flying overhead
Edited version brings out the highlights and colors of the sunrise and lifts shadows.

 

Reduce Highlights

This will help to prevent clipping and enhance the colors of your image.

Lift shadows

As mentioned before, you should expose for the sky, which may mean your foreground is darker. Lifting the shadows will bring out the details lost in the shadows of the image.

Increase vibrance

Photo vibrance is a measure of the overall color intensity. Increasing the vibrance helps pop or add punch to an otherwise flat-looking image. However, it’s important to use vibrance sparingly, as too much can cause an unnatural-looking photo.

Adjust white balance

This will help to ensure that the colors in the photo are accurate and bring out the natural colors of the sky.

Enhance the colors of the sky

The HSL/Color panel allows you to tweak individual colors of the image, unlike vibrance which enhances all colors across the image. Adjust the Hue, saturation, and luminance of orange, blue and red until it looks just right!

Level your horizon

When editing sunrise and sunset photos, it is important to make sure that the horizon is level. In Lightroom, use crop tool which has a guided and auto level option. 

Selective Edits in Lightroom

If you don’t have multiple exposures to blend into an HDR image, then use the mask tool to select the sky and bring down the exposure and highlights a bit, then use select sky and invert it to bring up the exposure and shadows of the foreground.

Create and HDR Image by combining multiple exposures

HDR imaging is a technique that helps photographers to better capture the range of tones in a scene, from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights. Cameras have a limited dynamic range, meaning they capture a limited amount of detail in both the dark and light areas of an image. This can lead to flat looking images and HDR imaging solves this problem by combining multiple images of the same scene, each exposed for a different amount of time. This allows the photographer to capture a greater range of tones, resulting in an image that more accurately represents the real-world scene.

Merging HDR Images In Lightroom

  1. Select all of the photos you want to merge
  2. Right click > Photo Merge > HDR

In Photoshop

  1. Open images as layers in Photoshop
  2. Select all the layers > Edit Auto Align Layers
  3. Use the eraser tool to remove poorly exposed part of the top layer and reveal the better expsoure. 

When is a good time for a sunset or sunrise Pictures?

Sunrise and sunset are fleeting moments, so it’s important to know how to find the best time for photography.  

Just important as the timing is the environmental conditions during sunrise and sunset. First, there should be some clouds in the sky. The clouds help reflect and intensify the colors of the sun. No clouds mean the light won’t have anywhere to reflect, and too much cloud cover will block the light. Second, the air should be relatively clear. A hazy or smoggy atmosphere will filter out some of the light and make the colors appear muted.

Resources for Finding Sunsets

Weather apps will give you an accurate estimate of when the sunrise or sunset will happen, but since the conditions need to be just right, it’s easiest to use apps and sunset calculators. These calculators use your location to calculate the precise time and location of sunrises and sunsets, which is especially helpful when traveling.

  • Focalware

  • SkyPhysics

  • PhotoPills

  • Sun Surveyor

  • The Photographer’s Ephemeris

Author Bio

Author Bio Image

Delaney is a project manager by day and a travel and wildlife photographer by night who is using her skills for translating complex technical language into easy to understand concepts to make photography achievable at all skill levels. You have questions; she has answers.

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