A good Sunrise or Sunset can be one of the most mesmerizing spectacles that the natural world has to offer, and lucky us because we’re treated to one of each every day!
Sure there will be days that are overcast and the event is hidden from view, but over a lifetime (provided you’re able to get yourself out of bed for the Sunrises) you could be afforded over 50,000 opportunities to shoot one of these glorious moments.
A photographer can spend countless hours, days and years in search of the perfect Sunset or Sunrise to shoot. If you happen to be one of them, then it’s important that you are practised, prepared and ready to capture the dazzling celestial display in all its glory.
I’ve prepared my Top Ten Tips for shooting a beautiful Sunrise or Sunset to help you toward capturing the perfect shot.
Scout the Location
Regardless of whether your intent is to shoot a Sunrise or a Sunset, it is important to scout the location and decide on the best spot to capture the spectacle from beforehand.
It should go without saying that you’ll need to consider where the Sun will actually rise and fall on the horizon, but also think about what other objects, landmarks and features of the landscape may be illuminated or cast in shadow as the Sun moves in the sky and create a distraction within your frame.
Take note of your selected spot and make sure you arrive with ample time before the event. If you are photographing a Sunrise you’ll need time to find the spot in the dark, and if it’s a Sunset you’re after then you may need to contend with other photographers!
Position the Horizon for Interest
The temptation for many photographers will be to position the horizon in the centre of your frame. I’m not going to tell you that this is the wrong thing to do, but I’m certainly not going to say it is always the best thing to do either.
Consider the composition of your scene and where the most vibrant, interesting and attractive elements are found…
If the power of your images lies within the colours of the sky and the sunlit clouds then perhaps you should position your horizon lower in the frame, which will allow more room for the breathtaking view above. Alternatively, the appeal of your image might be in the details of the foreground, reflections or objects below the horizon; in which case you’ll want to dedicate more of your frame to this content.
Foreground Elements Give Scale
One of the biggest challenges you’re likely to face when capturing a subject as huge as the Sky during dazzling Sunrises and Sunsets is really conveying the immense size of the scene.
A surefire way to succeed is to include subjects and features within your foreground that help give your audience a better idea of scale. If you include something recognisable to your viewer; whether a person, building or animal, the scene will suddenly become far more relatable and allow them to comprehend far more easily the vastness of the striking phenomenon that you’ve shot.
The main subject if you’re photographing a Sunset or Sunrise will very often be the event itself; the ethereal falling/rising Sun, the sky awash with palettes ranging from orange and amber to purples, pinks and blues, and the clouds illuminated in a similarly spectacular spectrum of colours.
If you’re shooting across a large landscape or a busy environment it can be difficult to ensure that attention is solely on the Sunrise/Sunset and that your viewer isn’t distracted by features of the foreground. It is in this scenario that I’d suggest using faster shutter speeds and exposing your shot for the highlights in the sky; which of course results in darker foregrounds as well.
This can also be used creatively to turn the objects, buildings and details of the foreground into dark silhouettes against the bright sky. It doesn’t entirely remove the ‘distracting details’ from the image, but instead changes them into simple, darker shapes in the frame for your beautiful Sunrise or Sunset to contrast against.
The next tip I’m going to give you does require a little bit of Photoshop experience – but it’s definitely worth the effort that you put into learning and developing your post-processing skills.
Shooting at dawn or dusk means that the levels of light are going to be varying greatly over the time you’re taking the photos and it is near impossible to capture a beautifully exposed sky and a correctly exposed foreground in the same shot; normally one or the other but not both …unless you combine multiple exposures.
If you combine multiple exposures of the same subject then it will allow you to alter your in-camera settings to better expose different areas of your image independently of one another, and then blend them all together for one incredible shot afterwards.
This is a technique commonly used by many professional photographers and definitely one that you should start practising now!
Longer Exposures and ND Filters
Scattered clouds in the sky, moving objects in the foreground or any other motion within your frame may cause your image to be cluttered and distract from the main focus of the photograph – the stunning Sunset or Sunrise.
Increasing the length of your shutter speed is a good solution to this. It will allow most of the motion to simply blur into non-existence or create a more artistic or creative image – whether that means traffic turned into attractive light trails, rough water into soft white mist or scattered clouds into soft wisps flowing in the wind.
This will sometimes work better when you combine your camera lens with a neutral density filter – which is (in simplest terms) a black piece of glass that reduces the amount of light reaching your sensor, allowing for an even longer shutter speed.
Expose for the Highlights
You’ve probably already learned that it is always better to underexpose than overexpose an image. This is because you can still bring details out of the shadows in an underexposed photograph, but never back from the highlights in an overexposed shot.
It can sometimes be confusing, judging where your exposure levels should be when shooting a skyscape during Sunset or Sunrise; but my advice is to expose your shot for the highlights in the sky (not including the Sun!).
This means that the brightest points in your image will be correctly exposed and the details can still be restored from the areas less so – whereas if you increase your exposure for a darker area, the highlights will be overexposed and you’ll be losing detail and information in your photograph.
If the image that you’re capturing includes artificial lights or multiple sources of natural light, you may want to consider incorporating that beautiful starburst effect that you’ll have seen in so many other landscapes and cityscape images…
This can be achieved by shooting through a low aperture (an F-Stop with a high numerical value) which reduces the size of the hole that light enters, causing it to refract and create the mesmerising star-like appearance around light sources in your frame. You can combine additional light sources such as street lights and car lights in your Sunrise or Sunset shots to capture an image with depth and extra interest for the viewers.
No matter what type of Sunset or Sunrise you’re shooting, you are going to want to use a sturdy tripod.
You’ll likely be shooting with slower shutter speeds, multiple exposures and be composing your shot with extreme precision – all of which will require a reliable tripod that isn’t going to move in the wind or with minor knocks and bumps. I use Manfrotto tripods, and they’ve not failed me yet!
As an extra precaution, you can also hang your kit bag on the underside of the tripod to add extra weight and stability to the equipment you’re using, and when possible use a ‘wide-legged’ stance for your tripod legs.
A remote trigger is essential when shooting Sunsets and Sunrises. This nifty piece of equipment will allow you to trigger your shutter easily and without any risk of knocking your equipment and accidentally adjusting the composition.
Before you rush out to buy a trigger – check whether there are any mobile apps that are compatible with your camera. I use a Canon app, for example, that turns my phone into a wireless trigger and lets me make changes to the camera settings remotely. Certainly, most mainstream manufacturers will have launched a similar app.
If you want to keep your photography equipment separate from your phone or your camera doesn’t work in conjunction with any apps; I’d recommend buying a trigger for your camera that is wireless. Again, it reduces contact between yourself and the camera and minimises any risk of accidentally moving or jarring the shot. If your camera doesn’t support a wireless trigger, a wired one will suffice over manual use of the shutter.
I started this article stating that ‘a good Sunrise or Sunset can be one of the most mesmerizing spectacles that the natural world has to offer’ and I hope that the tips and advice I’ve given will help arm you with the necessary skills to really prove this true.
It will take practice and many, many late nights and early mornings… but hopefully, in the end, you’ll have some truly breathtaking images in your portfolio and photography that will inspire more people to make time themselves to go out and watch these often overlooked spectacles of nature, happening every day around us.
To see more of my wildlife images please visit www.aaronnorthcott.com or use the following links to join me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: