Perhaps the most important change you can make to improve your photography is to change the time of day you are shooting. It is as simple as that. Photos taken in the middle of the day all have problems that can be avoided if you photograph near sunrise or sunset. Photographers agree on very little, but they all seem to agree that the times around sunrise and sunset are the best for photography. In fact, many photographers go so far as to put their cameras away during the hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Getting up at dawn, or hanging around after sunset, is generally not convenient. It is no fun to get up well before sunrise, especially in the summer when sunrise comes early. But if you want to elevate your photography, that is how to do it.
You may have heard all this before, but in this article I will explain why, and show you some of the reasons why sunrise and sunset can help you take better photos.
Reason #1: Avoid harsh contrast
The bright light of the midday sun creates harsh shadows in your photography. Nearly every object within your view will create harsh shadows. Obviously large objects like trees and buildings create such shadows, but it goes at lot further. When photographing a person, for example, you will likely encounter harsh shadows on their faces. Even something as small as grass or leaves will leave unsightly black shadows in your pictures.
Photographing near sunrise or sunset fixes this problem. At those times, the sun’s rays are coming from a more horizontal angle, which means that the rays have to pass through a lot more of the earth’s atmosphere before reaching you. That makes the light more diffused.
In addition, the times just before sunrise and after sunset don’t involve any direct rays at all. At those times you are dealing only with indirect rays of the sun. You will not have a problem with harsh shadows.
Reason #2: Maintain tones within your camera’s dynamic range
In all outdoor photography you have to cope with the problem that the sky is invariably brighter than the foreground. Sometimes it is much, much, brighter. If you meter light based on the brightest part of your camera’s view, which is inevitably the sky, the shadows in your picture will end up as pure black. Conversely, if you meter light based on the foreground or shadows in your camera’s view, the brighter portions of your picture will be overexposed or even blown out (pure white).
For pictures taken during the middle of the day, this problem can be exacerbated. That is when the sky is at its brightest. If your foreground is not as bright, you are will have a problem where the scene is beyond the dynamic range of your camera.
When photographing around sunrise or sunset the sky is not quite as bright as it is when the sun is high in the sky. This cuts down the dynamic range your camera has to capture, so it is possible to capture the entire scene in full detail.
Reason #3: Avoid the commonplace
You simply cannot take a unique picture by photographing the same places, at the same time, from the same angles as everyone else. If you want your pictures to stand out from the crowd, you need to do something different. Photographing at sunrise and sunset goes part of the way in giving you that something different.
Most people are used to seeing the world as it exists in the middle of the day, they are not used to seeing it at sunrise and sunset. A typical day will have 10 hours of midday lighting, but the sunrise and sunset last only a little while. Further, people often miss them entirely. People are usually sleeping at dawn, or if not, are getting ready for work and not focused on the sky.
By photographing at sunrise and sunset, you are showing your viewers something they don’t see all the time. It avoids the commonplace. It will make your pictures more interesting to your viewers.
Reason #4: Capture the sky at its most vibrant
People often go to scenic locations to watch the sunrise or the sunset. There is a reason for that: because those are the times when the sky is at its most dramatic. As a photographer, that is the sky that you want to capture.
Skies at sunrise and sunset are full of color. The orange of the sun combines with the blue of the sky and creates interesting colors. When there are clouds in the picture as well, there can be a variety of different colors. Conversely, in the middle of the day, the sky is blue (if you are lucky, otherwise it is grey). By photographing at sunrise and sunset, you can capture those colors in your pictures. To make sure you are capturing the colors at their most vibrant, set your camera to meter off the sky and then underexpose a little bit.
I hope this article explains the advantages of photographing around sunrise and sunset. It is one thing – and perhaps the only thing – that I can guarantee will improve your photography. But one final note to help you maximize the benefit, is that you should not arrive at your location at sunrise and/or leave at sunset. Rather, arrive about 45 minutes before sunrise and hang around at least that long after sunset. These periods when the sky is bright, but the sun is beyond the horizon, sometimes result in more dramatic images than the sunrise/sunset itself. I have often seen people pack up when the sun dips over the horizon, only to miss the most dramatic colors of the day.
I would also encourage you to check out the importance of photographing at these times for yourself. The next time you are on your favorite photo sharing website, look at your most-liked photos. Make a quick note of how many of them were taken at sunrise or sunset. My bet is that it will be a lot of them.
So if you want to take more dramatic and interesting photos, take them at sunrise or sunset. The good news is that it doesn’t cost you anything. You don’t have to buy any special gear. Yet this one change will make more difference than any new camera or lens.