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Sunrise and Sunset Photography: Composition and Techniques

Landscape photography is all about light, and if you ask most landscape photographers when their favourite times of day are you’ll find that most will say sunrise and sunset. It’s easy to understand why – who can resist the high drama that often accompanies these times of day? A colourful sunrise or sunset is one of nature’s great shows, when the light can be special and even the most mundane subjects look magnificent.

The light at the beginning and end of the day can be very similar, with the low sun casting long shadows and revealing form and texture in the landscape and warm colours. There are slight differences in the light and colour, however. With cleaner air at sunrise, colour is less diffused and can be more intense than at the other end of the day. At sunset, the colour can be less vivd but there are more particles in the atmosphere, which can scatter the light across a larger part of the sky, rather than being focused around the sun.

Let’s look at some techniques that you can use to photograph sunrises and sunsets.

Predicting a Good Sunrise or Sunset

Nobody likes a wasted journey, especially if you’re planning a sunrise shoot which necessitates getting out of bed at some ungodly hour. While predicting impressive sunrises and sunsets is far from an exact science, there are a few things to look out for which can increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time.

You want a certain amount of cloud cover (around 50 – 70% is good) but the position of the gaps in the cloud is important too, and it is unfortunately impossible to predict. Even with the right amount of cloud cover, if there is a thick band of cloud on the horizon, then it is unlikely that there will be any colour spreading through the sky.

On the other hand, even when the cloud cover is almost 100%, if there is a break on the horizon the colour could radiate all around. High clouds get more saturated colour, as they catch more ‘unadulterated’ sunlight, which has not passed through the atmospheric boundary layer (the layer near the surface of the earth which contains most of the dust and haze).

Although they usually catch less colour, low clouds can have a lot of impact in dawn and dusk shots, as they suggest gathering storms.

White cliffs at sunset
Even when there is almost total cloud cover, if there is a gap close to the horizon, the sky will light up.

One weather condition to look out for at sunrise is mist. Although thick fog will kill off any hope of early colour, a low-lying ground mist can really enhance a sunrise, hiding clutter and simplifying the landscape below, as well as adding tonal contrast to the scene.

Low-lying mist sunrise landscape
Low-lying mist can transform rural scenes at sunrise, hiding clutter and simplifying the landscape.

There’s nothing quite like a pink sky above a sea of mist with trees and hilltops breaking through. Misty mornings can occur at any time of year but are most common in late summer, autumn and spring. Keep an eye on the forecast and look out for clear, still nights with the temperature falling after a warm day, and high humidity towards sunrise.

Composition

It’s all too easy to be seduced by the stunning colour at sunrise and sunset and forget that a strong composition is as important for these shots as any other. All the usual rules of composition apply – achieving balance by applying the rule of thirds or the Golden Section and using foreground interest to lead the eye into the shot and suggest depth.

However, you should also seek out bold objects which would make a good silhouette against a colourful sky. Objects with a clearly recognisable shape work best, for example, trees, buildings or recognisable landmarks, as otherwise there is a risk of confusing the viewer.

Placement of the horizon is an important consideration: if the sky is dramatic, don’t be afraid to go with a bold composition, keeping the horizon low in the frame and filling the rest of it with sunlit clouds. On the other hand, with a clear sky, you can keep the horizon at the top of the frame, or even crop it out altogether.

Windmill silhouette against pink sky
Don’t be afraid to abandon the rule of thirds and give priority to the sky in the right conditions. When shooting silhouettes, choose easily identifiable subjects.

While it is tempting to shoot towards the sun, unless it is diffused by cloud or haze this is really only possible when it is very low in the sky or below the horizon. It’s always worth keeping an eye on what’s going on around you as, depending on the cloud pattern, colour often appears in other parts of the sky – even directly opposite the rising or setting sun. Some of the best dawn or dusk shots are actually taken looking the ‘wrong way’.

Planning Your Shoot

Location choice is a key ingredient in dawn and dusk shoots. It sounds obvious to say that you should look for an east-facing location for sunrise shoots and west-facing for sunsets but there’s a little bit more to it than that. Remember that the sun rises and sets in quite different positions at different times of year – quite far to the south in winter and to the north in summer. As a result, there are many locations which will shoot well at one time of year and not another and some where there is a window of just a couple of weeks or so to get them at their best.

Rural locations consisting of rolling hills and so on rarely look their best when the sun is below the horizon (misty mornings are an exception). So, when shooting in the countryside, look for locations which will be side lit – or at least, partially so – when the sun is low on the horizon.

Water always works well in sunrise and sunset shots as this will double the impact of any colour; so if the conditions look promising, head for the coast, lakes, rivers or even ponds.

Sunset reflected with trees
Double the impact of sunset and sunrise colour by shooting near water. Even a pond will work well in the right conditions.

Research and planning are crucial to make sure you end up in the right place at the right time. You can check out locations using OS maps or online resources such as Google Maps; apps such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris and PhotoPIlls are invaluable for working out the direction of sunset and sunrise on any particular day anywhere in the world.

Having done your online research, you should then scout locations to check out potential compositions. This is especially important for sunrise shoots, where you will be arriving and setting up in the dark and it’s therefore essential to know exactly where you’re going and what composition you’ll be framing.

Once on location, you can use the ‘augmented reality’ features of your apps to double-check you know where the sun is rising or setting.

Learn how to photograph sunsets and sunrises
The strongest sunset colour often occurs 10 minutes or so after the sun dips below the horizon.

With both sunrise and sunset shoots, aim to get there in plenty of time: a minimum of 30 minutes before sunrise (preferably more) and around an hour before sunset. Sunset is in many ways easier, as you will arrive and set up while it’s still light and your eyes have time to adjust to the lowering light levels.

The strongest colour is often when the sun is some way below this horizon, so at sunset, don’t pack up too early; the ‘afterglow’ is often much more photogenic than the sunset itself.      

Shooting Technique

Probably the biggest technical challenge when shooting at dawn and dusk is the huge range of contrast in the scene. Even pre-sunrise and post sunset, the difference in brightness between the land and the sky can be surprising, as there is no direct light on the land but the sky is still lit from below by the sun.

Even with modern cameras and their exceptional dynamic range, this contrast will often be greater than the sensor is able to capture, meaning that either foreground will be completely underexposed or the sky will be blown out.

Graduated neutral density filters (dark at the top and clear at the bottom) will tone down dark skies, thus enabling sensors to capture the full tonal range. Graduated filters come in different strengths, typically ranging from one to three stops, and have ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ transition zones. Hard grads are most useful when the horizon is flat and soft grads are best suited to broken horizons, such as ranges of hills.

Read more: The Essential Guide to Landscape Filters

There are also ‘reverse’ graduated filters, which have their strongest density on the horizon line, then fade away towards the top of the filter. These are particularly useful when the sun is close to the horizon; in these situations, the horizon is then the brightest part of the scene and the part where you need the strongest filtration.

Coastal landscape at golden hour
‘Reverse’ graduated filters, which have their strongest density on the horizon line, are a useful tool for sunsets and sunrises.

The alternative to using filtration is to take two or more bracketed shots (i.e. with different exposures) and then blend these in software to create a single image which contains the full range of tones. This is especially useful in exceptionally contrasty scenes when even with filtration it is impossible to capture all the tones, or when horizons are particularly uneven and the transition zone of a graduated filter would cut into the foreground noticeably. Some photographers prefer to blend images as a matter of course rather than use filters, as they feel it gives them greater control.

With the sun low on the horizon, especially if it is partially hidden behind trees, rocks or clouds, there is the possibility of creating a ‘starburst’. Starbursts are caused by lens diffraction, so to encourage the effect, select a small aperture such as f/16 or f/22.

Read more: How to Create Sun Stars in Landscapes and Avoid Lens Flare

photographing sunrises and sunsets
With the sun low on the horizon, and partially hidden by an edge such as a hill or cloud, it is possible to create a starburst effect.

In the low light of dawn and dusk, long exposures are inevitable, so a tripod and remote release are necessary. With most cameras, if you need to shoot exposures of longer than 30 seconds, you will need to switch to Bulb mode and then lock the shutter open for the desired length of time with a remote release. When calculating exposure times, remember to allow for the fact that at the beginning of the day it will be getting lighter while the shutter is open and at the end of the day it will be getting darker – an adjustment of around half a stop will usually be about right.

Finally, be prepared to adjust your white balance. Although auto white balance copes very well with most outdoor lighting, it can misinterpret strong sunrise and sunset colour as a colour cast and ‘correct’ it so that your camera fails to capture the beautiful reds and oranges that are often present at these times of day.

If you shoot raw, you can adjust the white balance to taste during processing, but nevertheless it can be a little discouraging when you review images on location, only to see that the glorious colour is missing.

Successful sunrise and sunset photography is about planning and good technique, combined with a little bit of luck and lots of practice. Sometimes it doesn’t come off.

It’s worth remembering that the best thing about shooting at these times of day is not the results you come back with, but being there, enjoying the moment and appreciating the beauty that nature is capable of displaying.

Mark Bauer has been a professional landscape photographer for over 10 years. He is the author of 4 books, his most recent being ‘The Art of Landscape Photography’ (co-authored with Ross Hoddinott), and has won a number of awards in various competitions, including the Take a View Landscape Photographer of the Year, International Garden Photographer of the Year, Outdoor Photographer of the Year and International Landscape Photographer of the Year.

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