10 tips for stunning sunrise & sunset photos
Updated: Jul 20
Sunrises & sunsets are one of the most photographed scenes in landscape photography (for good reason!) but they're also one of the trickiest scenes to photograph well. The main reason for this is the strong difference in brightness between the very bright sky, and the much darker foreground (also called the 'dynamic range'. Although our eyes are fantastic at seeing both the bright highlights, and the darker shadows, camera sensors are nowhere near as good, and can only capture the difference in brightness by using some trickery. More about this in the tips for intermediate photographers, but even if you're a complete beginner and snapping a beautiful sunrise or sunset with your phone camera, there are still things that you can do to make it a better photo...
Five tips for beginner photographers
Use the 'rule of thirds'. Even a beautiful sunrise or sunset sky can make a dull photo if you don't think about the composition. One of the most important is the 'rule of thirds' where you place an imaginary 3x3 grid over the scene, splitting it into thirds vertically and horizontally.In the sunrise photo above, the horizon has been placed on the lower third, and the tower has been placed on the left hand third. Because of the way our brains work, this is simply more interesting to look at than if the horizon or the tower were placed in the middle. The rule of thirds is simple but powerful!
Be patient! One of the most important qualifications for any landscape photographer is patience! It's possible for the best colours in the sky to be anything from half an hour before the sun hits the horizon, to half an hour afterwards! When I was starting out, I missed so many stunning sunsets by giving up as the sun hit the horizon, and seeing the best light show in the rear view mirror of my car 20 minutes later as I was driving home!
Use a tripod. As the sun gets near to the horizon the light levels get less really quickly. This often means that your camera will need to use a slower shutter speed to capture the scene (even if you didn't realise it!). This can quite easily ruin your photo by it being blurred by camera shake. To prevent this, it's best to use a tripod which can be small and inexpensive (with versions available for phones too), but if you don't have one, you can often get away with just resting the camera on a wall or gatepost.
Clean your lens! It might sound obvious, but one of the easiest way to ruin what could be a great photo is having a dirty lens. This is especially true when photographing a sunrise or sunset as the light will interact with dust or grease on your lens and could ruin the photo. So, dig out that microfibre cloth that you got with your glasses, and give your lens a wipe!
Watch out for lens flare. Lens flare is that beam of light with coloured dots that you sometimes see when you shoot a photo towards the sun. Although this can look nice and artistic, it can also ruin a photo. One way to minimise it if you have an interchangeable lens camera is to use the plastic hood that came with the lens; this can often shield the sun rays a little and minimise flare. An alternative that can work for any camera is to slightly adjust the angle between you and the sun, or even use your hand to shield your lens from the direct rays of the sun.
Five tips for intermediate photographers
Use aperture priority (or Manual). Moving off automatic gives you so much more flexibility, especially in difficult lighting conditions such as sunrise or sunset. Moving to aperture priority and dialling in a small aperture is used (larger 'f' number such as f13) means that you can ensure a deep depth of field (everything from the foreground to the sky is in focus). Moving to manual is even better, as it means that you can fully control your exposure, such as being able to choose to expose for the sky and drop the foreground exposure to create a silhouette.
Shoot in RAW not Jpeg. If your camera is set to shoot in jpeg, it means that as soon as the photo is taken, lots of data is simply thrown away so as to create the small compressed Jpeg file. This is often done by throwing away detail in the shadows, which is a particular issue for high contrast scenes such as sunrises and sunsets. Although it means that you will need to learn to post-process your photos (since Raw files can't be used e.g. on social media) it does mean that you retain all of the information that your camera captured, and therefore have much more scope to lighten shadows in post processing. Most cameras (and even some phones) allow you to shoot in Raw (and or Jpeg too)
Create a sunstar (or starburst). If you know how to control your Aperture (on Aperture priority or Manual) then sunrises and sunsets are the perfect time to create a sunstar (sometimes known as a starburst) where the sun has a number of lines radiating from it. This is done by setting your camera aperture to the smallest it can go (e.g. f22) and positioning the sun somewhere where it forms a point of light, e.g. poking through the branches of a tree, or poking out from behind a Dartmoor tor. As well as being a cool effect, this can help to make the sun an even stronger focal point in your photo.
Use a graduated ND filter. One of the main problems in capturing a sunrise or sunset is the large difference in brightness between the sky and the foreground. One way to help with this is to use a graduated ND (Neutral Density) filter. This is an oblong filter which is dark at the top, gradually lighter towards the middle and clear at the bottom. Although it needs a dedicated holder to fit it to your lens, it does allow you to position it in such a way as to reduce some of the sky brightness and therefore gives you a better chance of capturing an even exposure.
Learn how to bracket exposures. If you want to shoot sunrises and sunsets like a pro, then you will need to learn how to bracket. This means shooting a series of exposures of the same scene; some provide a well exposed sky (but the foreground will be deep in shadows) and some provide a well exposed foreground (but the sky will be overexposed and 'blown out'). These multiple exposures can then be combined in software (such as Adobe Lightroom) to create a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image where both the sky and the foreground are well exposed. This was the technique used to create the image at the top of this email.