[box] “And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?” – Chuck Noland, Cast Away[/box]
Tomorrow the sun will rise and set. Most take that for granted, but not photographers. A compelling sunrise/sunset photo is not as simple as pointing your camera at the horizon. Here is what you need to know to photograph beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
The Sun as a Subject
Your subject is the sun. Yes, but you have to consider context. Are there clouds in the sky? Do you have a great foreground subject like wildlife, wildflowers, or a breathtaking reflection? All these elements add to creating a much more compelling sunrise/sunset shot than just shooting the actual event itself. Pay attention to your surroundings at the location you have chosen.
Position of Light
When facing the rising or setting sun, you are back-lighting your subject. If the sun is to your side, you have side light. If it is behind you, the sun is front-lighting your subject. All of these lighting positions enhance your sunrise or sunset. They force you to change your camera settings for the best exposure. Pay attention to the direction of light and how it affects your histogram.
A histogram is a graph you can call up on your LCD that tells you how much of the image falls within certain brightness ranges. Lines to the left indicate darker areas while lines to the right indicate brighter areas. The lines on the histogram are taller or shorter depending on how much the image falls in the light or dark ranges. For maximum flexibility in post production, you never want lines that spike too high in your histogram. Extremely dark or extremely light areas of a scene could be very hard to recover when editing, even in RAW.
When the sun is shining from directly behind you. It lights up whatever you are looking at. It typically lights up everything with few shadows being seen because those shadows are falling behind the layers of what’s in front of you. This is also a great direction of light to use when illuminating a subject’s eyes.
When the sun is illuminating your subject from the side. But it could also be shining directly down on your subject from above (down lighting). Or it could be lighting your subject from below in the form of up lighting. All three of these lighting directions are considered “side light”. It is when only part of your subject is being lit by the light.
This type of lighting creates extremely dramatic shadow and highlight contrasts. The key to side light is the drama that it creates within a scene.
Happens when the sun is directly behind your subject. This is how you get silhouette and “fringe light” shots. Best used when there is a well-defined subject in front of you, like wildlife or a tree.
Shutter Speeds for Sunrises and Sunsets
Think about the subject in front of you during a sunrise/sunset. Is it moving? Is it still? Would picking a shutter speed to enhance or remove movement from your photograph help your final image? Shutter speeds of 1/60th of a second and faster will typically stop subjects like flowers in wind. Shutter speeds of 1/30th of a second and longer will allow motion to be blurred in your photo. Use shutter speeds longer than a second to get a dreamy effect if your main subject is flowing water. Learn more about this in Mastering Long Exposure Photography.
Aperture Settings for Sunrises and Sunsets
Aperture is probably the most controversial setting for sunrise/sunset photographs. Many photographers worry about chromatic aberration at aperture settings above f/11. I typically don’t worry about it and choose my aperture according to my scene and perspective. If I am using a super wide angle lens, like a 16mm, with a subject that is extremely close to my camera, I will use an aperture of f/22.
When shooting a short/mid telephoto in the 70mm-135mm range with the main subject being further out in the scene, I will use a middle f-stop like f/11. These middle-range apertures are typically the sharpest settings for most lenses. It is pretty rare that I would ever use an aperture lower than f/8 for a sunrise/sunset. Most photographers want as much in focus as possible when shooting these kinds of scenes. Learn more in What is Aperture in Photography?
ISO Settings for Sunrises and Sunsets
Shutter, aperture, and ISO are all reciprocals and we cannot adjust one without adjusting one or both of the others. ISO becomes my most-changed camera setting during a sunrise/sunset scene. If we know that our aperture is going to fall somewhere above f/8 and we are setting a shutter speed to remove or allow motion, then ISO becomes the adjustment that we really need to focus on for proper exposure during a sunset.
If your subject is moving and you want to illustrate that movement, you will need a low ISO. Think ISO 100 or even 50. If you want to stop the motion, your ISO should be set to 400 or higher. Set your shutter and aperture first, then adjust ISO to bring your camera’s meter into a proper exposure range.
Light at sunrise or sunset is extremely contrasting. The sky is typically much brighter than the foreground. If you expose for the foreground, your sky will be overexposed. Conversely, if you expose for your sky, your foreground will be rendered black. So how do we fix this?
There are two solutions:
• Take two different exposures and blend them in post. Learn more about this in High Dynamic Range vs Multiple Exposure Blending Editing for Photographers.
• Use a graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky and allow the foreground to be properly exposed.
My personal preference is to use the graduated neutral density filter. This technique yields much less post processing work and allows for a single RAW capture.
Graduated Neutral Density Filters
Graduated neutral density filters come in both circular screw-on and rectangular drop-in formats. It contains a darker (or denser) coating on about 50% of the filter with the remaining 50% being clear. The circular screw-on format is basically useless unless the horizon of your sunrise/sunset photo is directly in the middle of your composition.
Because of this, I prefer the rectangular version. I can slide the dividing line on the filter between light and dark up or down in my composition to perfectly blend the highlights and shadows of scene. I use Live View to place the filter perfectly in my composition so that you cannot see the dark/clear dividing line in the final image.
Exposure blending is useful if you forget your filters at home or don’t own any. Basically, you will shoot two exposures in the field: one exposed for your sky and another exposed for your foreground. Then blend the two photos into one using Photoshop or another image editing tool. The techniques associated with this are pretty advanced and could produce an entire article in itself. Learn more in the video below.
One last setting you should think about on your camera for an amazing sunrise/sunset shot is focus. Turn autofocus OFF! Manually focus your camera. In the days of film, we would use hyperfocal charts to figure out focal distance. The chart would specify a focus distance setting for a given aperture and lens focal length. You can now download a number of hyperfocal apps that will calculate this for you.
My strategy is I will focus on something in my composition that is about a 1/3rd of the way into the scene. This technique will usually put into focus the closest foreground elements through infinity (provided you are using a wide angle to short telephoto lens – like in the 16mm – 70mm range).
If you are shooting a DSLR, you can try this and then press your depth of field preview button (if your camera has it) to verify that you chose the proper distance in your composition. Press this button and the lens will stop down to the aperture that you have set. You then see a preview of what the final image will look like through your viewfinder. With high-quality LCD screens with Live View, this is less an essential tool than it used to be. That is because with film cameras there was no way to preview an image before taking it. Electronic Viewfinders and Live View won’t display the darkening effect you get when using the depth of field preview button on an optical viewfinder.
Now it’s time to go out and grab some amazing sunrise or sunset photographs. Remember, shutter speed should allow or stop subject motion, aperture should be f/8 or above, and your ISO should be the setting that yields the proper exposure with the shutter and aperture you have already chosen. As you get more advanced, you can experiment and break these rules.
Last modified: July 7, 2021