Many photographers consider sunset shots an essential element in their photo albums. A few would add sunrise shots, although more effort is required to obtain them. Unfortunately, many shots taken at these times are disappointing. But they need not be if you take the right approach.
1. Understand the Light
Particles of dust and moisture in the air absorb the shorter wavelengths in the spectrum, shifting colours towards orange and red. There tend to be more of these particles late in the day, so sunsets are usually redder than sunrises.
Dust in the air has enhanced the reddish glow in this shot taken at 5:38pm in the Flinders Ranges during May, 2010. (Canon PowerShot G10 at 30mm, ISO 100, 1/60 second at f/5.6.)
Weather conditions are more likely to be stable around sunrise as the cool air of the passing night is less likely to be disturbed by wind. In contrast, the hot air of late afternoon can create interesting cloud patterns and potential for interesting shapes in foregrounds that include grasses and trees.
It pays to arrive early; at least half an hour before actual sunrise. And stay on location for at least half an hour after the sun has set. You can't know when the best shooting conditions will occur, but at least you can be in place during the best time slots.
Sometimes the best colours appear after the sun has set, particularly in the tropics. Taken on the Ord River near Kununurra in Western Australia at 7:58pm. (Canon EOS 5D Mk II with 24-105mm lens at 88mm, ISO 200, 1/350 second at f/11.)
2. Use the Right Equipment
Including the sun in the shot is possible when it's close to the horizon as the light is attenuated, although still bright. Taken just after sunrise near Lismore in northern NSW. (Canon EOS 600D with 18-135mm lens at 135mm, ISO 200, 1/1000 second at f/11.)
Lens hoods are essential when shooting into the light to prevent veiling flare and loss of contrast. If you don't have a hood, shade the front of the lens with a hand or a hat - making sure it's not included in the shot!
A tripod is mandatory when working with long lenses at relatively low light levels. As a rule of thumb, if your shutter speed is less than the reciprocal of the lens focal length (eg, 1/200 second for a 200mm lens) stabilisation will be required. Lenses and cameras with built-in stabilisation will provide between two and three f-stops of compensation, enabling you to use shutter speeds as slow as 1/50 or 1/25 second with a 200mm lens. But you can't guarantee every shot will be sharp; a tripod stacks the odds in your favour.
A stabilised lens enabled this shot to be taken from a slow-moving vehicle just south of Maree in SA. (Canon EOS 40D with 17-85mm lens at 17mm, ISO 200, 1/25 second at f/18.)
If your camera has an interval timer, use it to capture a sequence of frames at, say, one-to-two-minute intervals to cover the transition between day and night. Aim to have roughly half the shots taken while the disk of the sun is above the horizon and the remainder when it is below.
Flash can be used to illuminate foreground objects when you don't want them to be silhouetted. Reduce the flash exposure by 1EV (or more) to minimise the unnatural effect of the flash. Avoid using flash when foreground subjects are less than about 1.5 metres from the camera.
3. Shoot to Emphasise Colours
Under-exposing by 0.7EV intensified the colours in this shot taken just after sunset at the Cape Borda lighthouse on Kangaroo Island. (Canon EOS 5D Mk II with 24-105mm lens at 84mm, ISO 400, 1/10 second at f/9.)
You can also bracket exposures manually with the exposure compensation function, taking one shot at -0.3 EV, a second at -0.7EV, and a third at -1.0EV. When the camera is set to the shutter-priority mode, the lens aperture will close with each shot; in the aperture-priority mode, the shutter speed becomes faster with each step.
Alternatively, try metering on different areas, starting by shooting the scene as a whole using multi-pattern metering. Then swap to spot metering and point the camera towards the foreground. Half-press the shutter button to lock the exposure, recompose the shot and make another exposure. Finally, repeat this procedure, this time metering on the sky.
This will give you three different exposures: one averaged for the entire scene, a second favouring darker tones (the sky may be too bright in this shot) and the third centering all tones on the sky. The third shot will usually be the darkest.
The auto white balance setting will usually produce natural-looking cooler hues in sunrise shots but may fall short with sunsets. Setting the white balance to Cloudy or Shade will warm the image slightly.
If more warming is required and your camera provides white balance adjustment, moving colour rendition towards the amber end of the amber/blue axis of the adjustment graph will yield the most natural-looking results. Further fine-tuning can be applied with a slight shift towards magenta on the magenta/green axis.
Point-and-shoot cameras may deliver satisfactory results with the Sunrise/Sunset modes in the Scene sub-menu. Cameras with automatic scene recognition often include detection for these types of scenes and deliver good results with the Full Auto mode.
4. Shot Composition
Silhouettes add interest to this scene which has a relatively bland sky and dark foreground. The shot has been composed so the vehicle blocks direct light from the sun. (Canon EOS 5D Mk II with 24-105mm lens at 50mm, ISO 200, 1/500 second at f/9.)
Silhouettes of foreground objects can create points of interest in shots because they add context to scenes. They can also block the direct light from the sun, enabling you to capture the warm ambient lighting without risking your eyes or your camera.
Wind turbines provide dramatic silhouettes and block the sun at the wind farm outside Albany in WA. (Sony SLT-A55 with 18-55mm lens at 18mm; ISO 100, 1/500 second at f/13.)
Many of the most dramatic sunset pictures include clouds. Whether they are heavy clouds that cover large parts of the sky or thin, wispy trails, they can reflect back the colours produced by the sun and turn a bland scene into a dramatic picture.
There's no 'right' position for the horizon, so position it to focus the viewer's attention on the most interesting area in the scene. Make the horizon low when the sky and clouds are the main feature; make it high when you want to draw attention to interesting lighting on the foreground.
If you're near water, capitalise on reflections to add interest. Experiment with different viewpoints: high, low, angled. Each will give you a different perspective and potential for a new and interesting picture.
Reflections on the Frankland River in WA just after dawn. (Sony SLT-A55 with 18-55mm lens at 55mm; ISO 100, 1/25 second at f/14.)
Shoot panoramas when you can't encompass the entire scene. If you use a longer lens this technique will enable you to make the sun on the horizon an important compositional element.
A panorama created from five frames captured facing away from the sun just after sunrise. (Canon PowerShot G10, 10mm focal length, ISO 100, 1/50 second at f/5.6.)
Turn around. The scene directly opposite the sun may be an even better subject than the sunset itself. The colours may be less intense and the tonal nuances more subtle, but both can produce attractive photographs.
High vantage points give you a different perspective than shooting at ground level. This is why hot air balloons are so popular with photographers. Even shooting from a hill or cliff overlooking the sea can provide some of the advantages a high viewpoint brings. Tall buildings can be used with similar results.
Ground mist over farmlands in northern NSW, photographed from a hot air balloon. (Canon EOS 600D with 18-135mm lens at 135mm, ISO 200, 1/125 second at f/9.)
This image has been severely cropped at top and bottom to focus attention on the main area of interest: the line of the horizon with the subtle pre-sunrise colours behind it. (Canon EOS 5D Mk II with 24-105mm lens at 84mm, ISO 400, 1/10 second at f/9.)