How to shoot heavenly sunrises and sunsets anywhere

Composition Basics: Gifts from the Sky

Follow these helpful picture-taking tips to get the best shots at the beginning and end of the day. If you've seen one sunset photo, you haven't seen 'em all!

When I was in high school and beginning to get seriously interested in photography I had a powerful hankering (as John Wayne might say) to be out in the Wild West shooting scenic images of canyons and deserts and cow pokes (whatever they were) minding the range. Unfortunately, I was stuck in the 'burbs in Connecticut, and the wildest scenery I had available was a nearby beach on Long Island Sound.
 

Follow the people: People provide an interesting foreground subject for sunsets, so head to where people hang out at the end of the day. I shot these fisherman at a Connecticut state park. And yes, the sky color was manipulated a bit in Photoshop using Hue/ Saturation!

I soon discovered, however, that if I went to those beaches at the right time of day--sunrise or sunset--they would be magically transformed into splendid scenic settings. The wildness (or, in my case, tameness) of the location simply didn't matter: A great sunset is a dramatic and colorful event no matter where it occurs.

Over the years I've shot some great sunset photos in all sorts of locations from the swamps of Florida to streets of Paris to the deserts of Arizona and Utah (yes, I finally made it). And no matter how many thousands of sunsets I've photographed, I've yet to tire of their beauty.

Getting great sunset shots is relatively simple and if you miss a great shot on one day, you'll get another chance the next. (By the way, I'm not much of a morning person, so I'll use the word "sunset" here; you can substitute "sunrise" if you are one of those people.)
 

Think thin: Many sunsets and sunrises, such as this one, shot in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville, Florida, lend themselves better to a vertical format.

A Frame to Hang Your Dream In

One of the great things about sunsets is that they are inherently pretty; getting good pictures is largely a matter of (as photographers often joke) "f/8 and being there." But while nature will do a lot of the work for you by providing a colorful sky and nice lighting, it's still up to you to provide an interesting framework in which to display her handiwork.

A shot of a fiery sky all by itself isn't half as exciting as a sailboat silhouetted in front of that sky. You need to provide the viewer with something interesting to latch onto and preferably a subject that thematically compliments the setting--a lone saguaro cactus in the Arizona desert, for example.

Because you're shooting into the sun and you want to expose to get a dramatic sky (more on exposure in a minute), you're unlikely to retain much foreground detail, so look for easy-to-read, bold objects to silhouette. I've used palm trees on tropical beaches, a silo and barn on a rural hilltop, and rocky outcroppings in the desert. Simple shapes are perfect.

Finding Your Place in the Sun

If you're at home and you know approximately where the sun sets, life is a dream--just pack up your cameras an hour or so before sunset and head out to an interesting location. But if you're in a new and unfamiliar place, figuring out exactly where the sun will set (relative to where you are) takes some planning.
 

Where does the sun set around here? Believe it or not, this harbor is called Burnt Cove. I found it with the help of a motel owner in Stonington, Maine. The colors have not been manipulated--this is the gift that nature gave me.

Whenever I'm traveling, I carry a small pocket compass to tell me roughly where the sun will hit the horizon. Knowing where "west" is might seem like a pretty obvious bit of knowledge, but if you're lost in the canyons of Manhattan for the first time, knowing that you should be heading toward (or at least looking toward) the Hudson River (and just where that is) might not occur to you. A compass will point you there.

Don't be shy about asking locals for the best sunrise/sunset locations. I found Burnt Cove (appropriately named, don't you think?) near Stonington, Maine by asking the motel owner where the best place to watch sunsets might be. It's one of my favorite shots and I would never have found it on my own.
 

Choose the "wrong" exposure: Manipulating exposure can provide some very dramatic results. I shot this image at a local beach near my home in Connecticut after a storm and used exposure compensation set to -2 stops to darken the foreground and sky.

Exposure Variations

Getting a perfect exposure with a sunrise/sunset is rarely critical because there are so many variations of good exposure that will provide an acceptable image. If you underexpose the shot the colors will be more saturated and if you overexpose slightly, they'll have a more pastel appearance. I tend toward underexposure simply because I like richer colors. Don't know if you should under- or overexpose? BLH! (Bracket Like Heck--in other words, shoot a range from under to overexposed images.)

Despite your exposure flexibility, you need to aim your camera carefully when taking a light reading. Keep the sun itself out of the frame, and point the lens just to the left or right of the sun. Use your exposure lock feature to hold that exposure setting, then re-compose and shoot.

Remember: With most digital cameras you can "lock" the exposure by just pressing the shutter halfway down and then holding it there while you recompose the scene. To take the photo, just continue to press the shutter release all the way. This usually locks focus as well, but since most sunset shots are focused at infinity, this simply won't matter.

If you are using a digital SLR or a camera that has a manual exposure setting or one that lets you manipulate exposure with an exposure-compensation feature, you might want to play with some exposure variations. I'll often use exposure compensation to add or subtract one or two stops of light and manipulate exposure further during editing.
 

Photoshop fake-out: This shot is a composite of a sky shot in Florida and a rock formation shot near Mexican Hat, Utah. I combined the two images in Photoshop--a really simple trick to learn.

Enhancing Nature

And speaking of image editing: If you have some picture-editing skills, don't be shy about using your image-editing software's levels adjustments or (if you are really good) the curves control to manipulate exposure, contrast and color. In virtually all of the photos here I also used the hue/saturation and color balance tools to tweak the images' colors. Sunrises and sunsets are all about color and passion and excitement, and not necessarily about capturing pure reality.

If you're really brave (creatively speaking) you can even take the sunset from one location and plop it into a completely different foreground. I shot the "Utah" sunset in two different states: the rock formation was shot in Utah and the sky in Florida. See Diane Miller's Photoshop Workshop, A slide sandwich--with a dash of digital, for one technique for combining images. There's also a free tutorial on my website that explains exactly how I did mine: http://www.jeffwignall.com/pages/17/index.htm.
 

Top Five Sunset Tips

Finally, here are my top five sunset shooting tips--and they work just as well with point-and-shoot cameras as they do with SLRs.

  • Don't forget to turn your back on the sun. The glorious light that is filling the sky has a great effect on the landscape behind you, too. Be sure to turn around and look.
  • Be a storm chaser! The best sunrises and sunsets follow rain and thunderstorms, so take a chance and drive to the beach at the end of a stormy day. You may just get lucky.
  • Don't automatically put the sun itself in the center of the frame; very often you can enhance the image design by putting it to the extreme left or right, or high or low in the frame.
  • Mix up your shots with verticals and horizontals.
  • Be sure to wait for the "afterglow" that comes after the sun has slipped below the horizon. So often I see other photographers packing up before the real show has begun.

© Adorama Camera, Inc.;  revised 7/09

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