Sunsets and people, no two are the same. Perhaps that is what makes them so interesting to photograph. Photographing sunsets and sunrises are a great way to develop your photography skills (pun intended) because of the difficulty in getting the correct exposure, it’s a crash course in the relationship between aperture, shutter-speed, and ISO. And good news for you, the sun rises every single day… unless you are in Alaska, sometimes they go months without seeing the sun, sorry Eskimos and Polar Bears.
So if the sun sets 365 times a year and it rises 365 times a year you have roughly 730 (weather permitting) opportunities to work on your sunset/sunrise photography skills each year. If you’re planning on practicing photography for the another five years you would have the opportunity to photograph 3,650 sunsets and sunrises. The point is, the first step in enhancing your sunset and sunrise photography is practice. Common sense so far, right? Read on.
Here is where the rubber meets the road so to speak. Most sunset and sunrise photography could go from good to great with just a few tweaks of the composition. Centering the sun in your frame with just the tips of the trees making an appearance at the bottom of the frame is boring, Google images is overflowing with the same photographs. Instead find an interesting subject and make that your focus with the sunset being used to enhance the overall photograph. This does not mean you can’t have the sunset take up most of your frame, it just means there is an element in the photograph that will grab viewers attention.
One of the biggest gripes I hear, from people starting out in photography, is that they can never get the sunset on film (digital or otherwise) to look the way it did to their eyes. This is due to the simple fact that God has created the most advanced image sensor in the world and it’s called your eyes. No sensor in the world can come close to capturing the dynamic range that your eyes do. Once you accept that you will enjoy photographing sunsets and sunrises much more.
Unless you are going to do something fancy like laying two images on top of one another to create one image with exposed for both the sky and the foreground you’ll need to choose which you’d like to expose for. Chances are if you are photographing a sunset or sunrise you’ll want to expose for the sky, this way the sky will retain its beautiful colors. If you expose for the foreground then you will lose a lot of the color shades in the sky from the highlights.
If, however, you are feeling creative you could always do as I mention above. Take two photographs, one exposed for the sky and one exposed for the foreground. Exposure bracketing comes to mind but generally I’ll manually dial in the settings because it’s typically more than a stop or two to ideally expose either the sky or foreground. Once you have your shots you can combine them in post processing using any number of editing programs.
Exception: If you own and use a graduated neutral density filter you can, at times, capture both the sky and foreground metered correctly. The filter is darker on one side (the side you’d put over the sky) and lighter on the other (to keep the foreground from being underexposed).
If you are still unsure what a graduated neutral density filter is or would like to learn about the other filters you can use to really enhance your photography check out my article on lens filters here.
Arriving at the place your going to shoot a sunset or sunrise about an hour before is a good idea. This works especially well for sunsets as it will still be light enough to see as your making your way to the spot you want to set up on. The actual sun setting and rising is beautiful but you’d be amazed at what the sky looks like before and after this… plan on shooting for another 30+ minutes after the sun has set to capture the most dramatic shots.
The shot below was taken well after the sun had set and was one of the best ones I captured on that particular night (or week to be more precise).
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