How to take better Sunrise and Sunset Pictures

Sunrise on the beach

Sunrise on the beach

I have been a photographer for many, many years. And one of my favorite subjects is sunrises. Yeah, I know, I am an early-bird so that makes it easier for me. But besides luck, I have found that there are a few important factors in getting those exceptional shots that people ooooh and ahhhh over. And if you don’t like getting up early, sunsets also provide stunning colors.

There are a number of factors involved in getting better than average sunrise and sunset pics. Many of these will be obvious to any experienced photographers out there. But even the pros have their areas of specialization and if this isn’t yours then maybe I can give you a few pointers. You can bet that I read other people’s blogs and articles to learn as much as I can.

Look at the weather forecast. But don’t be fooled, a totally clear morning may well mean boring and dull skies in your sunrise pictures. But you also can’t always rule out the forecast that says mostly cloudy. A break in those clouds at the right time could give you a great shot. Having some clouds in your picture can add a lot of variety, texture and color.

An important factor is location. If you can find a spot with a reasonably open body of water, like a lake or ocean, that helps. Reflections can really add to the effect. Or a good silhouette to use such as an old barn. Or even better, something nobody else has done that you can think of that will accentuate the brilliant colors. I try to scout out the location ahead of time, when possible, to know what features are available.

Composition is always important in any photograph. Try to compose the image to get the best effect. Some photographers believe that you only need one shot to get it right if you know what you are doing. Personally, I have had success at taking a variety of perspectives, angles, and settings and over a wide range of times. In fact, I frequently get several good shots from each sunrise or sunset because I take such a variety of shots throughout the shoot. Colors, clouds, wildlife, many factors can vary immensely and provide distinctly different photos of the same exact location.

Move around in all three dimensions. You would be surprised what a difference a shot from 6 inches off the surface of the ground or water will look like compared to eye level. Even zooming in or out (or using different lenses) to include different terrain features and varying colors can give a very different look.

The next thing is don’t start at “sunrise”, the official time. Some great colors show up about 30-45 minutes before sunrise, or 30-45 after sunset. Be patient and be early.

Shoot with a negative exposure compensation. Not too much, but 1/2 to 2/3 of a stop. It helps pull out those great colors even more.

Use the highest number (smallest opening) aperture that gives a good image to get great depth of field. And focus about 1/3 of the way into the image area so that everything is sharp. And of course, use a tripod and cable release or timer.

And finally, be patient and have fun. Not every attempt will produce great shots. Mother nature is not always cooperative.

Oh, and I almost forgot to add something. Look around, sometimes the best shot is behind you, whether shooting sunrises or anything else. Don’t be so focused on one thing to the point of missing other equally interesting pictures that you had not anticipated.

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