Evocative sunrises and sunsets are the foundation of countless travel photography portfolios—and social media followings. Familiar scenes take on a totally different character when photographed at the bookends of the day; there’s a subtle magic in a sunrise and an otherworldly charm to a sunset that wins over the hardest hearts.
With some practice and an understanding of fundamentals and technique, anyone can learn to photograph the sun well. Here are some tips from my years of trial and error—and dogged determination to get out of bed with the first alarm.
1. Focus on the Foreground
It’s not the sun itself that defines a great sunrise or sunset, but its effect on the landscape and people in its path, so seek out a compelling foreground element.
Consider this sunset image, shot on the Mui Ne sand dunes in Vietnam. The clouds give the sky great character, and the sun is so low on the horizon that the light it emits is soft and even. But it’s the leading footprints and the silhouette of the man on the dune that provide the drama. To add impact, I got low to the sand to accentuate the footprints, and focused on the silhouette. Additionally, I used a circular polarizer (CP-L) to filter the polarized light, increasing contrast with the clouds and darkening the sky overall.
Now consider this image, shot 26 minutes earlier, when the sun was higher in the sky. I knew I wanted to try something interesting to showcase the vastness of the Mui Ne sand dunes; it so happens that I had this glass orb in my camera bag (purchased on a whim at a Ho Chi Minh market). I used the hand and the orb as my foreground element, but focused through the orb and into the sunset—in post-production, I had to flip the image due to the orb’s refractive nature. Don’t be afraid to experiment with such unconventional methods or techniques. Notice that I used a large aperture (f/3.5) to soften the background and push the focus into the orb. Now consider this image, shot 26 minutes earlier, when the sun was higher in the sky. I knew I wanted to try something interesting to showcase the vastness of the Mui Ne sand dunes; it so happens that I had this glass orb in my camera bag (purchased on a whim at a Ho Chi Minh market). I used the hand and the orb as my foreground element, but focused through the orb and into the sunset—in post-production, I had to flip the image due to the orb’s refractive nature. Don’t be afraid to experiment with such unconventional methods or techniques. Notice that I used a large aperture (f/3.5) to soften the background and push the focus into the orb. 2. Choose a Variety of Vantage Points
Give yourself time to document sunrises as they evolve—and keep in mind that the best images may not even picture the sun at all. Consider this one, shot from Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver, looking back at the city of Vancouver’s skyline. It’s dark, there’s nothing in the foreground to capture the viewer’s attention, and the fireball in the sky is overwhelming. In short, this is not a strong sunrise image.
Luckily, I remembered to take my time and look around. I shot this image of the iconic lighthouse only moments later; while the sun itself is not present, the image does feature a strong foreground element, smooth lighting, and a strong composition. My shutter speed slowed considerably, calling for a steady hand (I would have shot at a lower aperture, like f/8 or f/11, had I been able to steady a tripod on the slippery rocks).
I continued exploring Lighthouse Park, and captured this next image a few hundred yards from where I was standing when I made the previous image. As much as I love silhouettes, dark skies, and moody drama, I also love shooting in the high-key, blowing my skies to white and making things bright. Shooting in Aperture Priority, I used my Nikon’s exposure compensation to easily over-rule the matrix metering, resulting in a bright, soft image that communicated what the morning felt like to me. Matrix metering is a multi-segment light meter and is the default setting on all Nikon DSLR cameras – it is accurate and reliable in most shooting situations. Within a matter of minutes, I shot three completely different images of the same sunrise.
3. Incorporate Off-Camera Light
With time to kill while waiting for a ferry to take me and a friend from Krabi to Railay Beach in Thailand, we marveled at the setting sun, and wondered how we could photograph the longboats swaying softly on the water; with the sun already set behind the rocks, the boats were completely lost to shadow, and their silhouettes were not distinct enough to present a provocative image.
Enter the Nikon SB-910 Speedlight (now replaced by the SB-5000), and the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS): Nikon’s Speedlights are the best in the industry and create light to accentuate otherwise difficult-to-capture scenes. For this image, I used my camera’s built-in flash to trigger the SB-910 wirelessly, which my friend, positioned roughly three feet to my right, was aiming at the boats. (Nikon’s new D7500 also incorporates a built-in flash that serves as a wireless trigger for compatible off camera Speedlights.) The result is one of my favorite images to date.
This is another image I shot with an assist from a Nikon Speedlight. I loved the character of the setting sun and the quality of the light in this scene, but if I didn’t have a Speedlight at my disposal, I would have had to have made a difficult choice; expose for the landscape, putting the musician into silhouette, or exposure for the musician, and blow out my background and sky. I used an SB-800 Speedlight in a softbox which helps to soften the light from the Speedlight, camera right, to add light back on the musician and complete the scene.
Tips for More Advanced Shooters…
4. Manipulate Your Shutter Speed
With a little patience and a stable shooting platform, you can manipulate your shutter speed to achieve dramatic effects. While in Rovinj, Croatia, I knew I wanted to shoot a sunrise image that communicated something of the town’s tranquility; I also knew that crashing waves in the foreground were not going to help.
My solution was to set up a tripod, lower my aperture and ISO, and shoot a 5-second exposure to smooth the water as much as possible. I had to work to find a balance between smooth water and blurry boats; I found that 30-second exposures left too much time for the boats to sway, while 1-second exposures didn’t smooth the water enough.
You don’t need any special gear to achieve an image like this—you don’t even need a tripod although I recommend one, if you have a stable shooting surface. All Nikon DSLR cameras, including the new D7500, offer full exposure control.
Now consider this image, where I took this technique to the next level. I wanted to capture an image of hallowed Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) that would speak to the sweeping, desolate nature of Australia’s Red Center; I got up early to get into position, set my camera on a tripod, and dialed in my settings – f/18 to keep the entire scene sharp from front to back, a lower ISO of 50 to keep a long-exposure free of noise, and a shutter speed of 145-seconds (achieved with a remote trigger).
This long shutter speed helped to smooth the clouds as they traveled across the sky, and helped even my light across the entire image; the result is something that feels quintessentially Australian to me. This next image was shot only a few moments later—the sun had risen, giving the sky a totally different character, and the clouds had changed, too, thanks to my shutter speed of 1/3 sec. Drama happens in an instant when you’re shooting the rising sun.
5. Take Advantage of Bracket Exposures
This is an advanced technique, but one you’ll wonder how you ever lived without once you’ve mastered it. The concept behind bracketing is simple; in scenes where light is uneven or even extreme from one section to the next, your camera allows you to shoot photos a set number of stops brighter or darker than your selected exposure, to capture as much dynamic range as possible.
Think of this as the Goldilocks technique; you don’t want an image that’s too bright or too dark. You want one that’s just right. In this example, shot at Lake Maninjau in West Sumatra, Indonesia, I was shooting towards the sun that had just set beyond the mountains in the center of my frame. When I attempted to expose for the fishing nets in the foreground, my background was too bright. When I exposed for the background, my foreground was lost to darkness. I used my camera’s automatic bracketing function to shoot three frames—each three full stops apart—and combined them later in post. The result is an image that’s just right.