Shooting Sunrises and Sunsets.

by Peter Zack


For my first submission to Enticing the light, lets have a look at some popular photography ideas. Over the next months and years I’d like to explore as many aspects of photography and inspiration as possible.

potw2wd44For us in the Northern Hemisphere, this is the ideal time for shooting sunrises and sunsets. The days are shorter and the light softens more due to the lower sun angles. The resulting light is warmer and has a richer glow. There are many technical reasons (meteorological) that cause any sunset but essentially direct overhead sunlight passes through less atmosphere directly to earth and reflects the blue end of the spectrum best (which is the shortest wavelength). At dawn and dusk, the sun’s light must pass through more atmospheric distance and much of the blue reflected light is scattered. Things like pollution, and air particles will increase this scattering of the light waves and increase the intensity of other parts of the light spectrum. As the winter seasons approach, this distance from the sun to your shooting location increases even more the further north you are (and I would assume the same in the southern hemisphere as well). So this is the time of year to get out early and get some great shots! The added bonus is that you don’t have to get up at 4 AM to do it.

So first you have to choose a location to shoot. What’s best? Well of course the first consideration is what you want to have visible in the shot. The image here was taken in a rural area not far from the ocean at the end of a warm day. The light was intense right at sunset. The main reason was because the water was warm and there had been a rainfall earlier in the day. The air was humid and intensified the colour. So pick your locations with some forethought. Dry areas will generally produce less vibrant colour but that could be offset by dust or pollution from a city or factory area. I had seen this spot a few dozen times and had considered it a good place to shoot a sunset. But the light wasn’t quite right for several visits. So I waited and watched the weather. Sometimes you are at the right place at the right time and just have to know how to take the shot, other times you will scout out areas for future reference. I keep these spots in a file on my PDA to go back to when the time is right. Keep a notebook in the car!

You should have a tripod or some method of steadying the camera. You will often be shooting in a low light situation. Sometimes it’s bright enough to hand hold the shot but as the light fades, you may get even more interesting shots to take and without a way to hold the camera steady the shot will look blurry. So a number of things can help. A small pocket tripod that you can put on a car hood or fence post can do. A sandbag or your back-pack on a picnic table can do the job in many cases. But consider a tripod if possible. If the camera will allow it, a cable release or remote control is also a good tool to reduce camera shake. If you don’t have one, you can use the camera’s self timer. it’s not just for getting yourself in the shot! Set the camera up for the shot and hit the self timer. Stand back and let it take a nice clear shot.

Or composition is the next critical factor. If you just happen across a great spot and a fantastic sunset, then3rds look for some landmarks or other items to anchor the shot. Have a close look at the cloud formations. In the shot above, it would be very dull if it was only the tree tops. There are almost no clouds to add interest to the sky and the trees lack much interesting definition. The steeple gives the image a point of interest and ‘anchors’ the bottom of the shot. So now you have an element to draw your attention. Once the viewer is interested, they will have a look around to see what else is there. Each situation will vary of course but the sky is the interest. So use the “Rule of Thirds” if possible. That simply means that you divide the picture into 9 cubes across the screen.

The theory is that an image is more pleasing to view. It’s been a “rule” in painting for hundreds of years and avoids the classic issue of the subject being directly in the center of an image. With a subject in the center, the viewer will more often than not, look at the subject and ignore the rest of the image. ROT basically forces the person to have a look around and enjoy the entire image. In the picture above the lines leading from the bottom also draws the eye up to explore the cloud formation as well. You want to try and position your subject at one of the intersection points in the diagram. This ROT can give the image some symmetry but every rule is meant to be broken and certain situations may be much more interesting when the rule is broken. So find the subject and experiment with the placement to add interest. Also remember that the sun does not need to be in the shot for it to have impact. Consider that you are painting with light and be creative in choosing your shots.

Exposures: We’ve all seen lots of nice sunset shots that have a yellow look to them instead of the nice warm reds that we saw at the time. Or the image has a reddish tone but not the vibrant reds and oranges we saw. Light meters in any camera can have trouble with these scenes. Because the light across the frame can be so different. From black to almost daylight bright. So metering is difficult.  Shoot at the lowest ISO available to you, ISO100 would be best and since you may need slow shutter speeds, I recommend a tripod or camera support.

I always shoot manual for these shots. I’ll meter using the spot meter to give me some guidance for the settings. If your camera does not have a manual setting there may be ways to trick it into getting what you want. If the camera has a button to lock the exposure, then get the settings you want and lock them. So for example you might point the camera at the brightest spot, lock the settings to get a high shutter speed and then move the camera to another section of the scene to have it slightly underexposed. Then compose the shot after that. If the camera has an over ride setting where you can make it under or overexpose the shot, then get an average setting with the auto function and then over ride it as needed.

So how to expose the shot correctly? The meter will often overexpose the image as it tried to balance out all the light and dark areas of the shot. You will often want to underexpose the image to bring out the colours. There is a balance there though. Too much underexposure will give you digital noise (or grain in film) and not look good in the dark areas. So meter the scene (use spot metering or center weighted if available) a few degrees away from the sun. then manually bracket the shot a few stops lower to see what the camera will produce. So if the setting says you should shoot at f5.6 aperture and 1/125th shutter speed. Then move the shutter speed to the next 1 or 2 higher spots. That will cause the camera to underexpose the image and bring out the colour more. If you need to use a form of compensation on the camera, then turn it down – 1/2 or -1 . Keep adding some underexposure to each following frame to see what works best for the scene. In the shot above, the setting was 2 stops (-2) lower than the meter asked for.

In terms of shutter speeds a stop is one full exposure setting above or below the meter’s recommendation. So if the meter says 1/125 and you want 1 stop underexposed, the setting would be 1/250 or double the shutter speed. The faster the shutter fires, the less light allowed in. The same is true for aperture settings if your camera allows that adjustment. If the setting is recommended at f5.6 and you want 1 stop of underexposure then you want to close the potw2wd4-23lens to f8.

Here is the same image as the camera said it should be taken:

As you can see, it is still a good image but the orange is more washed out and dominated by the yellows. The sun has already set so the yellow should be less prominent in the shot. By underexposing the image, we actually get much closer to what was really there and an image with more mood and impact.

Sunsets and sunrises are not tough to shoot with a little planning and preparation. Pick your spots and be prepared to experiment with the exposures.

Shoot and have some fun creating some new masterpieces!





7 Responses to “Shooting Sunrises and Sunsets.”

  1. […] Enticing the Light A Quest for Photographic Enlightenment « Shooting Sunrises and Sunsets. […]

  2. Wow, I wish to have the writing skill of yours, Peter. Succinct and simple. Very easy to understand, yet practical.

    Thanks for such a good reading!

  3. Reading this has helped me a lot, Peter. Thank you, truly. I can’t wait to try it out.

  4. Nicely done, Peter.

  5. Thanks Peter. Much appreciated. As you know sunsets are one of those things that I struggle with so this is a huge help.

  6. I hope you all enjoyed the first post. I’m busy researching more and hope to add something interesting on a regular basis. if you have any thoughs, ideas or questions, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ll do my best to find the answers.

  7. Great article. No excuse for me not having many sunrise shots now that I’m in Atlantic Canada =)

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