8 Tips for Photographing Sunrises and Sunsets

Photographer Rob Sheppard shares his favorite tricks for photographing dawn and dusk without dulling their natural brilliance

10-15-2010 // Rob Sheppard
Sunset at Maine's Bass Harbor by Rob Sheppard

FOR NATURE PHOTOGRAPHERS, sunrise and sunset are often the best parts of a day. Light from the setting or rising sun is soft and golden—ideal for photography. And as an added bonus, wildlife is also often most active around dawn and dusk.

Taking a photo of a sunset is easy, right? Just point and shoot the camera. Well, with today’s gear, that will get you a photo, but it won’t necessarily get the best shot. Here are some tips on getting better sunrise and sunset photos:


1. Check your white balance

I put this first because auto white balance, the default setting of digital cameras, is one of the worst offenders for making sunrises and sunsets look less than their best. Auto white balance is designed to automatically make colors look more or less neutral, which is exactly what we don’t want with a sunrise or sunset. We want brilliance! Try setting your camera to a daylight balance such as “sunny” or “cloudy” to get better colors at these times.

2. Look for clouds

Blank skies will often give less interesting sunrises or sunsets because there is nothing for the light from the rising or setting sun to illuminate. If clouds block the eastern (sunrise) or western (sunset) horizons, you might get nothing. But if clouds are breaking, especially along the right horizon, you may be rewarded with stunning color and light.

3. Watch your horizon

I often see students in my BetterPhoto.com classes so excited about the sunrise or sunset that they put the horizon in the middle of the photo. The problem with that is that the ground is usually so dark that it is just black, so you end up with a photo that is half black. Use your whole sensor and capture more of that glorious sky. Put the horizon near the bottom of your photo or don’t include it at all and just show off the great sky. Check your LCD playback to be sure.

4. Work with silhouettes

When you are shooting toward the sun, anything that sticks up into the sky is going to be a silhouette anyway, so why not look for interesting silhouettes? Find a tree or tree branch with an interesting shape. Get down low to put some flowers against the colorful sky. Or find an interesting rock formation that tells a bit about your location. Never put these things in the middle of your image -- it is the sunrise or sunset sky that should be the star of your photo. The silhouettes are supporting players that can be at the bottom, corners or sides.

5. Photograph before and during the sunrise or sunset

The light and color will keep changing with a sunrise or sunset, and you cannot predict this, so hang around and enjoy the changes as you take pictures throughout the sunrise or sunset. You never know when the best shots will occur.

Sunrise over the Santa Monica Mountains by Rob Sheppard

6. Keep your camera out and keep shooting after the sun has set

Photographers often pack up and go home when the sun drops below the horizon, yet there are stunning colors and images to be had after sunset. You will need a tripod because shutter speeds will get slow, but start looking at the scene all around you, not just the place of the sunset. Be patient because the light often looks poor for about the first 10 minutes after sunset. After that, if you have an open view to the western sky, you will often find some amazing light illuminating the scene around you. This doesn’t happen every time and you can get some dud lighting, but when it occurs, it is well worth waiting for.

7. Put on the telephoto or zoom in for a telephoto view

Zoom in all the way or use your strongest telephoto lens and start looking around the sunrise or sunset along the horizon. (Do not stare into the sun through your camera, as this can damage your eyes. You may use Live View with your camera, however, and stare at the sun on your LCD). You will often find amazing color and tonalities.

8. Put on your widest-angle lens or zoom out for a wide-angle view, then tilt up to shoot the sky

Wide-angle shots that have the sunrise or sunset at the bottom of the image and big sweeps of colorful sky above it can make for very dramatic images. Be sure to emphasize the sky by shooting upward—you don’t need much ground in the photo for this shot.


Rob Sheppard is a photographer, writer and photography teacher in southern California. He is the former editor of Outdoor Photographer and PC Photo magazines. Visit his blog Nature and Photography for more photography tips.

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