I moderated a discussion last night with my photo club, all about photography at sunrise and sunset. Not surprisingly, I found it difficult to narrow things down so we could avoid talking all night. Photographing at sunrise and sunset covers a lot of ground: things like technique, equipment and style, along with issues like safety and locations (including avoiding over-photographed subjects).
In this first part of a two-part post, I’ll go through some important things to think about when planning and setting out to shoot at sunrise and sunset, things I’ve learned over the years, and equipment to bring along. Tune in next Friday for Part II, which will cover what types of things to shoot when the sun is low, plus tips on how best to capture them.
- Planning – The Photographer’s Ephemeris: Google and download this free application (there is a charge for mobile versions) so you can see rising and setting times for both sun and moon, along with a map-based view of rising and setting directions for any location you specify.
- Planning – Research: While you’re traveling about your local area, be aware of where the sun has risen and will set, and whether it offers some opportunity for nice shots in good light. Read about nice viewpoints on hiking websites or guidebooks. Talk to friends. But don’t stress on planning things to a tee; get out and see what happens (see Location below).
- Planning – Timing & Scouting: For sunset, when the light builds in quality and then after sunset slowly transitions to the subtle beauty of blue hour, it’s okay to not have a specific location picked out. Pick out a general area and see how things shape up light-wise when you get there. But leave plenty of time, arriving up to a couple hours before sunset time. For sunrise, it’s important to scout beforehand (the day or weekend before). You want a more specific idea of where you’ll shoot from compared to sunset. Still, arrive anywhere from a half hour to an hour before sunrise. The progress of the light is the reverse of that at sunset, so things happen more quickly to start out, with blue hour being first to appear and the light quality fading more slowly.
- Location – Where? I’ve found this to be something many photographers have trouble with – where to go? Although you can certainly get recommendations from photog. friends as a way to start out, I recommend finding your own spots. Drive out to areas you know are scenic late in the day towards sunset. Stop and take pictures at places you find compelling or beautiful. While you’re doing that, try to imagine if it would be good for sunrise too. Go anywhere you know has a relatively clear horizon towards the east and/or west, someplace scenic. This is winging it I realize, but it works to get you away from over-shot locales. Use others for inspiration or information of course. And there’s nothing wrong with photographing a popular spot in great light. But you will benefit in the long run to find your own compositions.
- Location – General: For me at least, bodies of water nearly always help a picture, especially at sunrise or sunset. Because of its reflectivity, water helps with contrast, and it can also act as a beautiful mirror. Also look for relatively un-vegetated areas (such as desert or grassland). As with water, the bright, reflective nature of these landscapes help with contrast, especially when shooting into the sun. As you get better at exposure and use of filters, go for darker landscapes.
- Location – Elevation: An elevated position (your classic viewpoint) is always worth looking for, though shooting from lower down, next to water or down the length of a valley framed by trees for example, is also a good plan.
- Light: This is of course one of the two most important things that will determine how good your photos turn out (the other being your subject/composition). Clouds and unsettled weather are good for a number of reasons. But when the sun sets into a thick bank of clouds well before the light gets good, I don’t think you’ll tend to agree with this wisdom. I always consider clouds better than a clear sky, but whether this turns out to be the case for any given sunset or sunrise is another thing. One thing is certain: when the sun peeks out from beneath gorgeous, colorful and dramatic clouds just before setting, putting forth beautiful crepuscular rays (a.k.a. Jesus rays), you will thank yourself for ignoring the threatening weather or rain earlier and heading out. Clouds can also turn outrageous colors after the sun sets. But good luck predicting any of this hours before sunset. Believe me I’ve tried.
- Composition – Elements: Picking out silhouettes is a great idea when shooting toward the sun. They must be recognizable and nearly black to work (expose for the bright sky behind the silhouetted object). Also worthwhile during iffy weather is keeping an eye out on the scene away from the sun. Golden light and rainbows are not an uncommon reward. Reflections are also worth looking for, either in water or (in the case of cityscapes) on buildings.
- Composition – Depth: As any photography 101 book will tell you, try to find beautiful or interesting foreground elements to put in the bottom or at the sides of your frame, and get close to them (a few feet is not too close!). Try for a photo with great depth, your aperture at f/22 or similar. But never think this is always the best choice. Other types of compositions, say with the closest elements a hundred or more yards away or even an image that is all background and sky, are not “amateur” or the lessor image in any sense. They will provide variety to your pictures, and often have more impact (and sharpness) than photos with a lot of depth.
- Composition – Your Frame: You’ve heard of the rule of thirds, and not centering elements in the middle of your frame. When you’re shooting at sunset or sunrise, the sky and landscape often contrast greatly with each other. Unless you have strong subsidiary layering (such as a strong line of hills or trees, a reflection), it’s usually not a good idea to center the horizon line. Decide which is more interesting, above or below the horizon, and shoot with that taking up roughly 2/3 or more of the frame. If your decision here wasn’t a slam-dunk, quickly raise or lower the camera so you’re emphasizing the opposite section. There’s nothing wrong with hedging your bets!
Bring a good solid tripod with ball-head. And use it! If you don’t like using your shutter-delay mode, also get a cable release.
A wide-angle lens, offering a focal length no longer than about 27 mm. (35 mm equivalent) is really necessary for most landscape photography, including sunset and sunrise. A focal length on the order of 15 mm. or so will give you an ultrawide view and help to make everything in your frame sharp from front to back (if you use a small aperture – f/22 for example). Don’t leave your normal or long focal-length lenses home however. Many of my best sunset and sunrise photos were taken at focal lengths of 50 mm., 100 mm., even 200 mm. or more!
For filters, bring a graduated neutral density filter or two, the rectangular (not screw-in) type. Singh-Ray makes an excellent one, and a 3-stop grad. is a great first purchase. Also I highly recommend a circular polarizer.
Bring a flashlight or headlamp whether doing sunset or sunrise. There’s nothing worse than dropping an item and not being able to search for it in the grass because of low-light.
Totally optional but nice to have are knee pads for getting down low near your foreground without denting your knee on a sharp rock. Also if you’re anything like me and love to get very near to a watery foreground, bring or wear rubber boots (“wellies”). Some photogs. even bring hip waders. Or you can do what I often do and simply wear warm wool socks, old sneakers and quick-drying pants. It will toughen you up getting your feet and legs wet, and you can then claim that you “suffer for your art”.