How to take Beautiful Photographs of Sunrise and Sunset

With the release of my latest Photo “Birubi” (shown below) I thought i would do a quick introductory write up for any photographers that are interested in improving their sunrise and sunset photos.

The problem with photographing sunrise and sunsets is that often the sky is very bright and the ground is very dark and few cameras today have the capability (dynamic range) to capture all the details in both without clipping the bright parts to pure white or the dark parts to pure black. There are a number of ways of dealing with this problem.

The easiest thing to do is to expose for the highlights; i.e. darken the exposure until you capture all the details in the sky. You may lose some details in the land but it will at least do justice to the star of the photo; the beautiful sunset colours in the sky.

If you want to take your photos to the next level, it will require a bit more effort and a bit more gear. At a minimum, you need a good tripod for your camera and some good editing software. After you have this, there are a couple of options for capturing and combining the dark and bright parts of the photo:

  • Use graduated neutral density (GND) filters – this is the more traditional way from the days of film which involves using a GND filter to darken the sky (a piece of glass or resin that attaches to the front of your lens and darkens one half by a set amount).
  • Use exposure blending in software – to use this method, you must take at least one dark exposure for the highlights and one bright exposure for the shadows and blend them together in software (either HDR (High Dynamic Range) or manual layer blending).

Personally, I use the latter method as it offers the most flexibility and doesn’t require purchasing an extra filter. For the photo “Birubi”, I took one dark exposure for the sky and two bright exposures for the foreground (the two exposures were for a focus stack which is an entirely different topic for another day). I manually blended these photos together in Photoshop after some initial enhancement in Lightroom to give a close representation of what it looked like at the time. If you want to learn more, just Google search the above techniques, there is plenty of free online content about them.

A few other tips:

  • Go out when it is partly cloudy around the sun – this usually creates amazing colours in the clouds as they capture the last light of the sun. A clear sky will never be as interesting.
  • Try and get something of interest in the foreground e.g. a good rock.
  • Reflections are your best friend, try and get them in your shot. See how the reflections in “Birubi” show off the beautiful sky. It just makes the photo better.
  • Wherever you can, try and balance the colours in the photo. “Birubi” has the green lichen (or moss?), the blue sky and the orange and yellow clouds creating a very nice colour balance.

Well I know this was a long post, but I hope it was helpful to someone. Thanks for reading.

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