Sunsets and sunrises are some of my favorites things to shoot. Over the past couple years, I have tried to learn all i can about shooting them. Taking good photos of sunrises and sunsets can be accomplished by anyone, regardless if you have a fancy-pants DSLR or a simple point and shoot. I have even seen some truly stunning iPhone shots. These are some of my confused photographic ramblings on how to improve your dusk and dawn shots. Feel free to add to the tips below; these are from my experience! I hope these help!
1. Observe Patience!!! Its tough, I know. If you really want to get that “once in a lifetime shot” over and over again, you need to dedicate some time. This is expanded upon a bit more in number 2, but sometimes sitting there patiently staring at the sky will pay off.
2. Arrive Early, Leave Late: Sometimes the most compelling moments of a sunrise or sunset can be significantly before or after the sun dips or rises. The vivid, unique, eery colors that come an hour before sunrise or after sunset could be the highlights of the entire shoot. This also plays in to the “golden hour” – that photographer’s favorite time when the sun cuts through the atmosphere just right to produce a peaceful, orange sheen.
By the way, one of the coolest apps out there is called “Golden Lite“. This can give you sunrise/sunset times around the world, geo-locate you and tell you when the “golden hour” will start and end, and is only 99 cents (it might even be free, I can’t remember). Get this one. OK, just checked, I guess its free. Now you won’t even have to pony up the steep 99 cents to try it.
3. Know your equipment: Fantastic, colorful skies can be here and gone in moments. Practice with your equipment on subpar evenings or boring afternoons and you will know how to manipulate your gear when you need to quickly. I shoot with an Olympus P&S from time to time, and even those simple little cameras have some wonderful options to play around with.
3A. Keeping on the subject, you should know how aperture, ISO, shutter speed and filters all play in. Specifically, changing your aperture can be used for some pretty cool effects. By lowering you aperture (closing the eye of the lens, letting in less light), you can create star effects around the sun (also neat for lights at night), create motion and movement in objects, or glassify rushing water and waves (yes, I declare glassify a word).
4. White Balance: Something I use to leave on Auto full time… Once I realized how much I could enhance a scene by modifying the white balance, I was blown away. There is no easy tip for this (that I know of, if you have one, please share), so take some time playing around with it. Trial and error is still how I get the white balance settings I want for 85% of my shots.
5. Use a Tripod: Especially when shooting in HDR, a tripod can ensure consistent, accurate shots and almost no camera shake (to be even MORE still, use the “Q” or quiet mode on your camera; It will open the mirror, capture the image, and then close it, ensuring the movement of the mirror doesn’t move the camera). This is also KEY for any timelapse work, which requires the camera be in one place for the entirety of a sequence (that isn’t entirely true, but I’m not going to get into timelapse here…).
6. Scouting: When driving to work, walking the dog, or doing just about any other thing you do on a day to day basis, think “what would this scene look like if there was an amazing sunset in the background??” If it seems like something that would be cool, try it out! You are allowed to plagiarize as well. Check out other photographer’s work and if a location seems like a keeper, use it. I guarantee, it won’t be the same photo and there is no shame in “stealing” someone’s secret location…
7. Read the Sky: You can figure out 80% of the time what kind of sunset will come by early afternoon. Obviously, there are sudden storms and other scientific weather thingies that will affect weather patterns, but most of the time, predicting a sweet sunset is pretty easy and usually accurate. Look for big, fluffy white clouds, dense checker-board patterns, and marbled, smooth, thin floaters. Obviously no clouds at all will usually mean a boring sunset (not all the time!). Other things like smog, ash, sand, and fog in the air can create some pretty nifty effects as well.
8. Composition: Sometimes a beautiful sunset can make a truly magical photo with the right composition. By having something compelling in the foreground, you will compliment the sweet sunset behind. I won’t speak about how you should compose here, as that is something you get a feel for over time, but really anything can work. On the other hand, an amazing sunset alone can be just as cool. (The trick is to contradict yourself in every tip, then you can’t give bad advice).
8a. Sun Composition: I like to place the sun anywhere but the middle of my photo (use the rule of thirds for some nice effects). This also can give you some nice halos (which some people don’t like – I do). For the first picture I posted here I placed the sun off to the side then cropped it to the middle later, as you can see with the halo to the left. Changing aperture can change the type and shape of halos you get as well. Try it out!
9. Shoot in HDR: OK, this is a personal preference. If you have never shot in HDR, hate looking at it, and never want anything to do with it, then you are missing out on a very neat way of capturing the world the way it actually looks. My procrastination has prevented me from making a tutorial so far, but you can find a great one here that will answer all your questions better than I ever could. I have started shooting most sunrises and sunsets now in HDR. Either handheld or via tripod, this gives you an opportunity to add much more dynamic range to your already awesome photos.
10. Have fun. This seems like a wasted tip, but for 95% of us the reason we shoot photos is because we love it! Who cares if you screw up the “perfect” sunrise or sunset. You will learn from your mistakes and ultimately improve. Plus, you have another 729 in the next year to catch
I hope these helped! If so, please feel free to share, re-tweet, like, or stumble this post. Check out some of my general tips on how to catch better photos. Thanks!!