How To Take Better Sunset & Sunrise Photos

While it is possible to capture outstanding sunrise and sunsets by being at the right place at the right time, it is far more possible to obtain an awesome shot by planning out your adventure in advance. After all, it is more often than not that search for excellence can be it own reward. “Luck favors the prepared”, as Louis Pasteur would say.

There is only a 30 to 45 minutes window for sunrise and sunset photography, therefore on the day of the shoot, plan on arriving at the location at least an hour before the event.

The best way to prepare is by scouting the location a few days before the actual shoot. While there, look for foreground elements and silhouettes that will enhance the image as well as a location to setup your equipment.

Speaking of equipment, here are the basics I recommend:

  1. Sturdy Tripod
  2. Remote shutter release
  3. Lenses
  4. Extra batteries
  5. Sunglasses
  6. Jacket (lets you stay comfortable while trying to capture those early or late shots)
  7. A graduated neutral density filter (optional)
  8. Polarizing filter to cut down glare (optional)
  9. An umbrella if you are chasing a storm

Use a Tripod

Because of low light levels, shooting sunrises and sunsets may require long exposure times. Exposures of several seconds are common. Many digital cameras have replaced the cable release with a remote control. If your camera has one, bring it. This will reduce the possibility of camera shake during exposure times. You can also use the self timer to be completely hands free.

Sunrise and sunsets are moving targets so keep shooting and look around for other opportunities. To quote Rick Sammons, “Look forward, look back, look left, look right, look up and of course look down”. That piece of advice helped me get one of my favorite moonrises and all and I had to do was turn around.


Keep in mind the Rule of Thirds when shooting sunrises and sunsets. If you don’t remember the Rule of Thirds, check out a previous article to brush up. Of course those who know me know that I love to break the rules whenever possible. Placing the horizon line dead center should be avoided unless there is an awesome element in the composition that makes it work.

It’s best to place the sun off center, to help create drama. Include foreground elements such as an interesting a tree or house into your scene. Just because you are shooting a sunset doesn’t mean you have to only include the sun. Because of the suns brightness any foreground elements will most likely be produced as silhouette, which can help to build visual interest in the image.

The use of a variety of lenses, from ultra wide to telephoto, can make the experience creative.

  • A wide angle lens you will produce sweeping landscape images but not do much for the actual sunrise or sunset.
  • A 24mm-70mm telephoto lens is a perfect mid-range lens. If you want to get up close and personal I recommend using a 70mm – 200mm telephoto or larger lens. These lenses will give you a variety of focal lengths to work with that will grant you creative latitude.

ISO Settings

Setting your ISO to its lowest setting (100 or less) to help reduce digital noise for the longer exposures.  Although with today’s new technology digital noise is becoming little concern at higher ISO’s.

Setting Exposure

When shooting bright events like this, I recommend using aperture or shutter priority modes. I personally prefer shutter priority mode.

Using shutter priority mode, set the aperture to it smallest opening (that is the largest number) and forget about it. Then adjust the shutter speed to get the desired effect that you are looking for. A faster shutter speed will produce a darker richer image, and a slower shutter speed will produce a brighter image. Now is the perfect time to play with exposure value compensation (EV). I regularly set my EV from -2/3 to -2 when shooting bright scenes. I often switch to manual mode to really take control of the creativity that sunrises and sunsets offer you.

Sunrises and sunsets offer a wondrous range of warm colors; don’t let the camera take that from you by using Auto White balance (unless you are shooting raw images). Here is the time to rotate that dial or push that button to the cloudy day – you know that icon that looks like a puffy cluster of clouds. The shade setting is also a good choice.  This setting adjusts the camera to take advantage of the beautiful warm tones. If you really want to get crazy, throw that bad boy over to tungsten for a frame or two, just remember to switch it back. Remember to have fun and experiment, after all digital film is free.

Top Tips To Catch A Great Shot

  1. Use reflection as much as you can. There is nothing like catching a sunrise over a calm lake except catching a sunset over the ocean.
  2. Use a graduated neutral density filter. A graduated neutral density filter is a filter that covers the front of your camera’s lens. It will be clear on the bottom and get increasingly darker, moving upwards. This filter will allow you to take only one photograph and correctly expose the sky and the foreground in one photo. The filter will expose the foreground and darken and enrich the top half of the photo.
  3. The best sunrises and sunsets are after a rain or thunderstorms, so take a chance and drive to the beach at the end of a stormy day.
  4. For sunsets, hang out after the sun dips below the horizon as there is a remarkable event that happens at this point. City light come on and cars turn on their light. It’s time to take advantage of the post sunset afterglow.
  5. You will always hear me preaching that if your subject is horizontal shoot horizontal and if you subject is vertical shoot vertical. Here is a perfect time to break that rule and shoot both you may be surprised to see what this simple rotation of the camera will yield.
  6. Getting up early to photograph a sunrise is just as rewarding as a sunset. In some cases it is even better as there is less distortion in the air and sometime there is a mist or fog that can enhance the mood of the image.
  7. What time should you get started? I have found that is by far the best place to get the important information such as the weather, sunrises and sunsets times, wind and temperature.

Warning: Safety First

Here is where I but on my safety hat. I would rather you read this one more time, than have an issue that could affect you the rest of your life.

  1. The sun can damage your eyes if you are not careful. Never stare at the sun with the naked eye and never through the eyepiece, as it can cause irreversible damage to your eyes!
  2. Please keep in mind that direct sun can also damage the sensor of a digital camera, and this effect will lessen as the light intensity decreases.

Copyright 2009 – Ray Mabry Photography

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