Scene Seminar: Sunrises and Sunsets

March 16, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

In landscape photography, it is vital to remember that you cannot control everything; Mother Nature calls the shots.  As a photographer, you pick the location and composition and then you have to wait for the right moment surrounded by the right conditions.  Of the things that you can control, below are some of the critical knowledge and items needed to help create stunning sunrise or sunset images in three parts: Finding the Location, Camera Settings, and Preparation Tips.

Finding the Location

  • Know where you are: The sun rises in the East and sets in the West.  Which direction is East?  (If you ask my husband, I’m not the best at this one.) Figure out your cardinal directions early and keep your eye out for potential locations to shoot.  Are there any good overlooks that face East or West?  Can you easily get to them or from them in the dark?  How long will it take to get there from your base of operations?  Yes, you need to figure that out all in advance.  There are plenty of sun prediction software and apps out there to help you figure this out.  The nice part of using technology to assist you is that they account for the time of year and the sunrise and sunset time for your location because official sunrise/sunset time are based on the true horizon.  If you are at 15,000 feet above sea level, that official time is going to be off.  Some of the most widely used ones include Google Earth and the Photographer’s Ephemeris
  • Get a Meteorology Degree: Try to keep your eye on the forecast.  Most images work best when there is some fog or clouds in the sky that will light up in those yellow, red, purple, pink, and orange blazes.  Passing storms make some of the most dramatic images.  This is not always easy to predict but can help you determine how many days in a row you want to be up to shoot sunset.  If I am tired midweek and the forecast calls for clear skies the next day, more than likely, I’m going to choose that morning to sleep in and recharge my batteries.  
  • Be an early bird and a late night owl:  In most situations, you will want to be finalizing your composition and setting up about one hour before sunset or sunrise.   It is better to be sipping your coffee next to your tripod while you wait for the sun than rushing like a maniac by foot or car hoping that you do not miss the magical moment.  Be sure to wait for the magic hour as well, this amazing light will usually appear during the 30 minute period right before and after the sun rises or sets.

Camera Settings

  • Use a tripod. Use a tripod. Use a tripod. Use a tripod. Use a tripod. Use a tripod.
  • Capture the shadows and highlights: Since these scenes have a wide dynamic range (lots of bright whites and dark shadows), you need to try to capture all of that information in your camera’s sensor.  Try bracketing the image and later compiling the images to expose properly the entire image.  Another alternative is to use a graduated neutral density filter to balance the exposure of the sky with any areas of the scene that are in shadows.
  • Put your camera in Aperture Priority Mode (Av or A): For most landscape shots with the sun, you want to shoot in Aperture Priority mode and use a moderate Aperture (f/8 – f/13).  If you have objects in the foreground or middle ground, you may need to go to f/16 to keep everything in focus. Note: If you are not comfortable in Aperture Priority, try using your camera in Landscape Mode.
  • Keep your ISO low: Try to keep your ISO setting as low as possible (100 or 200).  Now that you have the Aperture and ISO settings chosen, allow your camera to choose the shutter speed.
  • Be sure to check your settings every so often:  Take a photo every few minutes and make setting adjustments as needed.  Even though you may not notice the light changing while you are in the field, you will see the in post production when you get those frames into your editing software.
    • Review your histogram to make sure there is no clipping. 
    • Zoom in on the LCD screen and ensure everything is in focus.
  • Watch for flare: Use a lens hood or a hat or anything you can find (Be MacGyver) to shade your lens from stray light that will create flare in your image if you are shooting with side lighting.  If you are shooting directly into the sun, this will be hard to prevent.  At the very least, it is best to be aware of flare and use it to your advantage if it is going to be in the frame.

Preparation Tips

  • Back your gear early.  You will be much less likely to forget something or leave without fully charged camera batteries if you pack your gear early and have it waiting to go.
  • Waiting for the sun bites.  No literally, it bites.  Standing still for that long makes you a bug target so make sure you bring the bug spray or apply it before you leave, especially for sunset shoots.
  • Bring your own headlamp, small lantern, or flashlight.  Ideally, you should be leaving or coming home when it is dark outside so you need to provide your own light.  Personally, I like headlamps because they direct the light where you want to look and your hands remain free.
  • Pack the poncho.  Since passing storms typically provide you with spectacular shots, be prepared with the Gortex and plastic wrap to protect you and your gear.


Do you have any tips or any gear that you always use for shooting sunrise and sunsets?  Share them by leaving a comment below.

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