Sunrises and sunsets are, arguably, simultaneously the most clichéd and compelling photo opportunities available. The cliché part is largely a function of sheer quantity—we see these images all the time. The compelling aspect is every bit as obvious (and is, somewhat ironically, the reason why they’re also seen as clichéd): sunrises/sunsets are so colorful, so dramatic, so breathtaking, that we have a hard time averting our gaze. This is the very definition of the term “compelling.” Nearly every photographer I’ve ever known likes to shoot sunrises and sunsets (even though some are loathe to admit it).
With that, here’s a brief primer on sunrise/sunset photography that should at least provide a few insights for those looking to take advantage of the opportunity to improve their images.
This is perhaps the most poorly understood and implemented aspect of the entire endeavor—be on time! That probably seems obvious—and in a sense, it is. But many photographers—including a remarkably high percentage of fairly experienced shooters—don’t seem to understand what being on time for sunrises and sunsets really means.
Here’s a truism: when we speak of photographing a sunrise or sunset, we’re often (not always, but often) not really talking about an image that includes the sun itself. In fact, we’re often referring to pre-sunrise or post-sunset. The very best light when shooting these events is usually revealed before (sunrise) or after (sunset) the “event” itself. That’s when you’ll see the best color in the sky; that’s when the clouds (assuming there are clouds present) will typically be infused with the colors that result from the diffracted sunlight that only appears when the sun has dipped below the horizon. And these “best” colors often show up well before/after the “event” itself.
You should plan to be on site and set up—not getting to the site, not looking around for a composition, set up and ready to shoot—at least 30 full minutes before sunrise (that’s a bare minimum—I’m often in place 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise).
In the case of sunset, it’s a bit easier to time. You should, obviously, be in place before the sun actually sets. Then, hang around. Do not, as so many photographers do, pack up and leave a couple of minutes after the sun disappears. Typically, 2-3 minutes after the sun sets, you’ll see a brief (a minute or two) surge of light/color in the western sky, which will then fade. This is when so many people call it a day. Don’t do this! After another 3-5 minutes, the light will usually surge again and this is when the show really gets going. How long it lasts is quite variable—I’ve seen it go well beyond 30 minutes post-sunset, on occasion. Resist the temptation to leave—you won’t be sorry.
For heaven’s sake, shoot sunrises and sunsets using a tripod! The reasons for this are manifold, but they loosely fall into both aesthetic and technical categories. Depending on your vision, some lowlight frames will be shot at long(ish) shutter speeds. These will not be sharp if you’re handholding. (And, yes, that includes handheld shots with cameras/lenses that are imbued with some form of optical stabilization.) You may very well want to combine shots—manual blending or HDR—in postprocessing; this will be far more effectively implemented if you shoot off a locked down tripod. You may well want to use a graduated neutral density filter, to balance exposure. This is next to impossible when shooting handheld.
If the technical reasons aren’t enough to use a tripod (and, really, they should be), aesthetic considerations should push you to do so. This is true of all landscape photography—not just sunrise/sunset shooting: it’s far easier to fine tune (read: perfect) a composition when the camera is mounted on a tripod.
With your camera on a tripod—and by now, of course, that’s not a debatable point—you should be using a remote release/mirror lockup/exposure delay setting on your camera, so you’re not in direct contact with the apparatus when the shutter is released. You should also be sure that the horizon is straight—either by use of an external bubble level or the camera’s virtual horizon feature. There are few things as distracting as an uneven horizon.
It can be difficult to easily obtain focus, particularly in the pre-sunrise dark (or in the post-sunset dark, if you change compositions after the sun goes down); autofocus may not work at all and it can be difficult to see to manually focus, either through an optical or electronic viewfinder or via Live View.
There aren’t a lot of tricks here; if you’re shooting post-sunset you can establish appropriate focus settings before it gets dark and, provided that you don’t change compositions (or aperture), you can simply leave everything as is.
If you’re shooting pre-sunrise (or change settings after sunset) and it’s too dark to use AF (or you can’t see to manually focus with precision), one thing you can do is to make your best guess and then verify focus after the fact by zooming in to 100% on the camera’s rear LCD to be sure that you nailed the focus (or use it as a guide to adjust manual focus if you didn’t, and then try again). Another option is to bracket focus—take multiple shots with the same exposure settings, but slightly adjusting the focal distance for each one—to ensure that at least one frame is sharp.
A question I’ve been asked more times than I can count: how do I meter a sunrise/sunset shot?
Spotmetering a Baseline I can tell you unequivocally how I go about establishing a baseline exposure for a pre-sunrise/post-sunset shot (i.e. with the sun not in the frame): in manual metering mode, using my camera’s spot meter, I meter on the brightest part of the sky and open up about two stops. Remember, the camera’s meter is attempting to establish a neutral tone—and the brightest area of sky is not neutral.
So, for example, if the brightest area is spot metered at 1/1000 second at f/8, I’d manually adjust exposure to 1/250 second at f/8. That’s two stops of additional exposure. Then, I’ll check the histogram to make sure that I’ve exposed correctly.
Histogram Considerations The goal here, in essence, is to make certain that you don’t blow the highlights. With the histogram, I’m trying to expose as far to the right—as bright an image as possible—without overexposing the highlights. And, I don’t rely solely on the luminosity histogram; make certain to check the histogram display that covers each of the color channels separately. It’s very easy to find oneself with a luminosity histogram that looks fine but with a blown red channel. (The red channel is, by far, the easiest to blow when shooting sunrises and sunsets.) Don’t blow the red channel; be sure to check the color channel histograms before you establish the baseline exposure.
Once I have a baseline exposure established, how I handle things depends on what I’m trying to achieve. If I’m satisfied with how the image is being depicted in a single frame using the baseline exposure, I’m fine. With certain cameras that are exceptionally proficient in terms of sensor dynamic range, more and more these days I am finding myself satisfied with a single frame and what I can pull out of it. (This was rarely if ever true in the not-too-distant past.) If I’m trying to achieve a silhouette of a foreground object, I assuredly only need one frame. But if I’m trying to create something closer to what my eyes see, I may very well want to make some adjustments.
Filters, Blends and HDR One way to better effect a more balanced exposure is through the use of one or more graduated neutral density filters (GND). (I discussed these filters at some length in an entry posted on this blog last year.) Another is through the process of manual digital exposure blending. A third is via high dynamic range imaging. Both of these final two techniques—which can be extremely effective with good software tools and a robust workflow—require multiple exposures. For that reason, I often exposure bracket the scene I’m photographing. Most digital cameras have some sort of autobracketing (AB) protocol. You can essentially determine the number of exposures you’ll need by adapting the spot metering method I mentioned above for the darkest part of a scene for which you want to retain detail. Once you have the outlying exposures determined, you can adapt the autobracketing sequence appropriately.
AutoBracketing For instance, I’ve already established my bright baseline at f/8 (all of these shots will use the same aperture setting and ISO; only the shutter speed will be altered) with a 1/250 second shutter speed. If I spot meter the dark areas and determine that I need a dark baseline of 1/4 second, I can now establish the number of bracketed frames I need. Different cameras have different autobracketing parameter options, but if I’m using a camera that will allow me to bracket by a full stop with each exposure: 1/250; 1/125; 1/60; 1/30; 1/15; 1/8; ¼. That covers the range I need. The AB baseline exposure is the midpoint of the range, in this case, 1/30 second. I then select a seven-frame bracketing sequence. Three of the frames will be exposed more quickly than the baseline, up to three stops different; three frames will be exposed more slowly than the baseline, up to three stops different. When I’m done, I’ll have seven exposures, covering the full range of shutter speeds listed above. (This is just an example, of course. The specific settings will depend on the scene, your creative vision and your camera’s AB capability.)
The Dynamic Nature of Exposure A little tip—sunrise/sunset exposures are changing constantly, because the quantity and quality of the light is ever adjusting. So, it’s critically important to check your settings every minute or two while shooting and adjust your baseline exposure settings, as needed. The proper exposure when you begin shooting will not be the correct settings a few minutes later. In principle, you should be taking a new spot meter reading very couple of minutes and adjusting on the fly, and there’s nothing wrong with following that approach. But, as your experience with photographing sunrises/sunsets increases, you will find that you’ll almost certainly be able to make quick adjustments on the fly (1/3 of a stop more exposure, for instance) without having to re-meter (unless the luminous content of the image itself changes dramatically).
When the Sun Is in the Frame When exposing for a scene when the sun is in the frame, I use the same basic spot metering technique outlined above, but I include the brightest area of sky excluding the sun itself. There really is no exposing for the sun, unless it’s very, very heavily diffused by clouds, fog or smoke. Unless that’s the case, be certain to keep the sun out of the frame when establishing your spot metering benchmarks.
Also, be aware of the likelihood of having to deal with flare in your image if you do include the sun in the frame. It’s very difficult to avoid flare if you include the sun (and the effect is typically much more prolific when using a zoom lens than a prime). This can usually be eliminated in postprocessing with careful editing. You should definitely use a lens hood when photographing, but it will likely be of little or no help in avoiding flare in these instances since you’ll be pointing your lens at the sun itself.
Look in Other Directions There’s an old saying in landscape photography: always look behind you. I’d add my own corollary: be sure to check to your left and right as well. Sometimes, you’ll find that the most compelling scenes aren’t the ones staring you right in the face. The sunrise//sunset coloring can, at times, impact the sky in all directions at various points in times, typically with more subtle impact. The photograph above, for instance, was taken during the post-sunset period, but facing east, in the direction opposite the sunset.
Special Considerations When Shooting Around Water If you’re into the HDR thing, note that shooting sunrises/sunsets with moving water present can introduce some unusual effects. HDR algorithms kind of “cough” on moving water (which invariably will appear differently, sometimes significantly so, from each individual frame that is part of a set of HDR exposures). As a result, the final depiction of the water will often look quite blurred, as much as it would in a single, very long exposure. If that’s the effect you want, no problem. But if you photograph a sunrise or sunset from an ocean beach, for instance, and you want the waves to be discernible, the HDR approach will probably be unsatisfactory. Better to rely on a manual blend or use a GND.
Fog/Mist and Sunrises/Sunsets
When photographing a sunrise or sunset event with fog or heavy mist present, you’re much more likely to want to capture the actual sunrise/set, rather than the pre-/post-event action. There are exceptions (and I’ve seen a few), but much of the time, when there’s enough fog or mist, there really is no discernible pre/post-event. The upside is that, when the atmospheric conditions are strong enough, you can photograph the scene with a (heavily diffused) solar disk in the frame itself and not blow the exposure.
Don’t Ignore the Light Before/After the Sunset/Sunrise Even without fog/mist, don’t eschew scenes just because the sun hasn’t set yet. Backlighting and sidelighting, just before sunset or just after sunrise, can be breathtaking and remarkably flattering to many scenes. Simply compose your shot without the sun—consider simply omitting the sky altogether.
Scout Don’t show up in the dark for pre-sunrise in an unfamiliar location and assume that you’re going to be able to find a great composition. Maybe you will, but don’t count on it. The time to find the basic outline of the shot is not when the sky is lighting up with a million different colors in ever-changing light. It’s a really, really good idea to have some idea of what you want to photograph beforehand. (With sunset, you can show up extra early and find the shot.)
Persevere Sunrise/Sunset photography means being up and out very early and very late. It often means standing in the pitch dark (in some cases it means hiking in the dark, depending on the venue—yes, I’ve done this many times; if you do so, be sure to have a headlamp and/or flash light and make sure you’ve got plenty of charge). It frequently means being out in some very, very chilly weather. (Just before or at daybreak is frequently the coldest time of the day.) And, worst of all, the event often is never visible at all or is a bit of a disappointment when it does happen, for a variety of reasons. The signal to noise ratio of sunrise/sunset attendance is, on the whole, pretty poor. But…if you don’t get out there, you’ll have no chance of being present when something special does happen, and I promise you, give yourself enough chances and you’ll see what I mean. You won’t regret it.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.