Everyone loves photographing sunrises and sunsets, but it can be harder than you think to get it right. These scenes are often challenging, especially because there is usually a lot of contrast between light and dark at sunrise and sunset, typically more than your camera can handle. In the video below, I share my top 5 tips for shooting stunning sunrise and sunset photos.
If you want to get the most stunning sunrise or sunset skies, you need clouds to catch the color. Total overcast will block the light, and clear skies can be boring, so something in between these two extremes works best. I wait for partly to mostly cloudy skies to get the best sunrise and sunset results. When you have lots of clouds, and just a small gap on the horizon where the sun is going up or down, this can be a recipe for the entire sky lighting up with amazing color. For example, with this photo below taken on Lake Superior, a storm front began to pass at sunset. As the clouds broke up, the setting sun found a tiny gap at the horizon, painting the entire sky a fiery gold. Sony a7RIV, Venus Optics 9mm lens, ISO 100, f/16, 0.6 second.
Your sunrise and sunset photos will look best if you make the image about more than just the colorful sky. If you just zoom in on the sunrise or sunset itself, you'll capture pretty colors, but otherwise your photo probably won't be all that interesting. Rather, try to construct a compelling composition using other available visual elements. For example, with this photo below taken on the south shore of Lake Superior, I backed into a small sea cave, using the sandstone walls of the cave and pools of water to frame and reflect the sunset outside. I asked a friend to pose at the entrance of the cave, completing the composition. Sony a7RIV, Venus Optics 9mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, 1/50 second.
You're going to want to point your camera towards the most colorful part of the sky, which is almost always going to be where the sun is rising or setting. This will also be the brightest part of the sky, so bracket your exposures to ensure you capture the entire range from light to dark in the image. That way, you can blend the photos together if you want to retain detail in both shadow and highlight areas (for example, using Merge to HDR in Adobe Lightroom or Camera Raw). With this photo below (once again taken in a sea cave along the south shore of Lake Superior), the contrast range between light and dark meant I needed to bracket and blend my exposures to capture the entire scene. The sunrise outside the cave was bright and colorful, and the water reflected and bounced that light and color into the cave, painting the entire scene with a gorgeous reddish glow. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm lens, ISO 100, f/11, multiple exposure blend.
PRO Video: Adding Color to the Sun
When including the sun in your photos, it is often challenging to retain detail in the sun itself. The sun is very bright relative to everything else in the scene, so unless you drastically underexpose (losing all detail everywhere else in the process), you'll end up with overexposed highlights in the sun. Exclusive for PRO Members, the following video shares a technique in Adobe Photoshop for restoring color to an overexposed sun. A PRO membership takes a deeper look at how compelling photos are made, and unlocks access to this video as well as a number of my other courses and tutorials.
If you want to learn more about my basic digital darkroom workflow, check out my Digital Darkroom Course, which is available as part of the PRO Membership.