There’s nothing quite like an opportunity to capture the sun as it rises or sets to inspire many a photographer. For some, it can also be a frustrating experience, when the images don’t quite do justice to the spectacle. If you’ve ever been a bit disappointed in the outcome of your sunrise or sunset photos, or perhaps just want to give them a little more “punch”, we hope the tips in this article will help.
Opening photo copyright ©Dana O. Crandell. Captured with the Irix 15mm f/2.4.
What You Need to Know
Before we start, it’s important to note that this isn’t a complete photography course. You’ll need to have a good grasp of a few basics before this article will be useful.
- Know your gear: You’ll need to know how to use all the basic functions of your camera, lenses, and other equipment in order to follow the tips in this piece.
- Know the conditions: Some of the most dramatic sunsets and sunrises can be seen during the Fall and Winter months. Spring and summer storms can add amazing drama. Whatever the time of year, it’s important to know what you might encounter and prepare for it. Keep in mind, too, that remote locations may come with their own challenges.
- Check the times: Obviously, you’re going to want to know when the sun rises or sets, so you can be at your shooting location and ready to shoot in time. There are a number of apps that can show you not only when but where to expect the sun to meet the horizon, as well as much more. Two of the most useful are Photopills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris. Do yourself a favor and learn to use one.
Come Early and Leave Late
More often than not, the show starts early and ends late during a sunrise or sunset. Blue Hour photos are often just as striking as those taken during the Golden Hours. A pre-dawn sky will often have planets just above the horizon. The glow of Zodiacal Light before sunrise and lights below the horizon after sunset are both worth taking the extra time to capture. You never know what rare opportunities an extra hour before or after might provide.
Focal Length Considerations
Generally speaking, a wide focal length is probably going to be the optimum choice for shooting sunsets or sunrises. When that colorful display starts, you’re not going to want to miss any of it. There will certainly be exceptions, but we believe you’ll probably get the best results by going wide.
With many wide and ultrawide lenses, barrel distortion can be a serious problem. Not so with our two rectilinear wide angle lenses! Both the Irix 15mm f/2.4 and 11mm f/4.0 lenses provide extremely wide fields of view with absolutely minimal distortion. Check out these profiles:
Not only is the distortion in these two lenses minimal, Irix lenses are supported by Adobe, so the correction profiles for our lenses are resident in their software. That means correction is a matter of a couple of clicks.
Exposure Settings for Shooting the Sunrise or Sunset
These times of day present several challenges for a photographer, especially when the sun is still in the frame. The lighting conditions can test your skills as well as the limitations of your equipment. Fortunately, there are a few settings you can count on to help you rise to the challenge.
- ISO <= 800: You’re going to be shooting in fairly low light, so you may be tempted to crank the ISO up. Try to use a mid-range to lower setting to avoid noise. You’ll be glad you did. Bring the tripod.
- Small Aperture (High f/number): In most instances, you’ll want to maximize your depth of field, to get all the detail in the mid-to foreground as well as in the horizon, sky, and clouds. That means stopping down to a narrow aperture, usually around f/16 or smaller. Of course, if you want to deliberately blur the foreground or background for an artistic effect, this won’t apply.
- Correct Shutter Speed: Once the two settings above are locked in, you only need to determine the shutter speed that balances the Exposure Triangle. If you’re a manual shooter, you’ll use your own method. One of the easiest ways, using the values you’ve set above, is to simply set your exposure mode to Aperture Priority (A or Av). This allows your camera’s autoexposure system to select the shutter speed to maintain the “correct” exposure.
Bracket Your Exposure
While your camera’s exposure metering system is probably highly accurate, it’s also based on average conditions. Sunsets and sunrises are often far from average when it comes to contrast and dynamic range. This can make it very difficult to find an exposure setting that doesn’t over- or under-expose parts of the scene.
The most consistently successful way to overcome this issue is to bracket your exposure, by taking a series of photos at slightly different exposure levels. This gives you the opportunity to later use the exposure that suits your taste. Better yet, you can use one of several blending methods to create an image with balanced exposure from multiple images. HDR processing is one example.
Many modern digital cameras will offer AEB (Automatic Exposure Bracketing), which greatly simplifies the process. If it isn’t available on yours, you may be able to use Exposure Compensation to quickly change the exposure value between photos. If neither of these is an option, you’ll need to manually change your settings. Consult your camera manual for the easiest method.
While we won’t go into detail about exposure blending in this article, we may follow up with one on those techniques soon. Meanwhile, you’ll find many tutorials available from online sources.
Use Manual Focus
As the light changes and clouds move in and out of the frame, etc. your autofocus system may fail. It’s simply a matter of a difficult focusing situation. Rather than take the risk of losing great shots, switch off your AF and set your focus manually.
This is one of the areas where Irix lenses really shine! Our lenses all incorporate smooth focusing, as well as a focus lock ring. They also include two important focusing aids:
- a hyperfocal scale to show you the area of maximum sharpness, and
- a definitive detent (“click stop”) at infinity.
Bring More into the Scene
Sure, the brilliant colors and the glow on the horizon are amazing, but a sunrise or sunset photo should be more than just a postcard shot. Create more depth and and interest by including more subject matter in the frame. Give your viewers more to see and use the elements of the scene to give the photo impact.
Don’t be afraid to change your angle of view, move back or forward or to the left or right to create something unique.
Compose the Image
Don’t get so wrapped up in the light and color that you forget the rules of composition. Leading lines, the Rule of Thirds, Perspective, Geometry and all those composing techniques you’ve learned should be considered just as you would with any other photo. If you’d like to brush up on some techniques, check out the 8 tips in this article and this tutorial on using lines in wide angle composition.
Don’t Forget to Look Behind You
As the light changes, both before and after the sun rises or sets, don’t forget that the low angle of the light creates that wonderful, warm, golden light that reflects off of any surface opposite the sun. Buildings, clouds and even trees behind you can light up with an ethereal glow.
Did you know that when you see those amazing crespuscular “God’s” rays at are often mirrored by anticrespuscular rays on the opposite horizon? When the conditions are right, you can see them stretching across the entire sky.
All of these events and more may be happening while you’re busy shooting the sunset and none of them last longer than a few minutes. Keep an eye out over your shoulder. You might even want to have a second camera and lens on hand so you can be ready for them. (The Irix 11mm f/4 lens is a great choice for capturing those rays.)
Show Us Your Stuff!
We hope that this tutorial will help you capture amazing sunrise and sunset photos!
The Irix USA Team loves to see and share the work of our shooters! Show us your best sunrises and sunsets by any of these methods:
Tag @irixusa on Instagram or Facebook.
Post as a message to Irix USA on Facebook Messenger.
Post to the Irix Shooters group on Facebook.
Go shoot something! See you next time!