4 Reasons Shooting at Sunrise and Sunset Will Help You Take Better Photos

4 Reasons Shooting at Sunrise and Sunset Will Help You Take Better Photos




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.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jim Hamel shows aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. Check out his free photography guides and photography tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. The free tips, explanations, and video tutorials he provides are sure to take your photography to the next level. In addition, check out his brand new Lightroom Course where Digital Photography School readers can use the Promo Code "DPS25" to get 25% off!

  • love the chemtrails in the last pic … those airforce guys get up *really* early

  • Pro Photographer

    Great article. As usual.

  • Thanks! Appreciate it.

  • They do. And I thought I was out there early.

  • Pro Photographer

    What’s to say it isn’t just commercial aircraft? It probably is.

  • Richard Taylor

    Good tutorial. The only things I would suggest, is always keep safety in mind. If shooting alone let somebody know where you are going and what time you will be expected back and take a torch or head lamp to help find your way in the dark.

  • Rich Kirkby

    Love shooting sunsets, great point about the “before and after time”. It’s great to get dramatic shots as the sun dips lower, but the range of colours after it has dropped below the horizon can be truly awe inspiring….

  • Linda G

    As somewhat of a novice I’m confused about whether or not I should use a polaroid filter when shooting a sunrise or sunset. Could you comment on this please? Thank you.

  • Steve Goldschmidt

    The catch (to me anyway) is that although there are both technical and aesthetic reasons that make sunrise/set shots so good, sometimes it also feels like low hanging photographic fruit. It’s difficult to make a beautiful clouded sunrise or sunset into a bad photo and they get a bit repetitive to my eye. I feel inundated by such photos and it’s hard to make any particular composition stand out. I think the real trick is to still find your unique photographic “voice” and be able to say something other than just “here’s another pretty sunset”. All that said, who can resist hitting the shutter when the sky blows up at those time? 🙂 Not me! A day seeing both the sunrise and sunset is a day well spent indeed!

  • I tend to use one if it helps the scene. Polarizers do two things: 1) they cut down on glare from reflective surfaces 2) they deepen the color of the sky. The disadvantage is that they also don’t work well pointed directly at the sun. I find good scenes to use them are sunsets with water in the shot or lots of foliage that reflects the low angle light. Also shots that are in the blue hour sometimes get a little more interesting with that on. It will greatly lengthen the shutter speed though, so you must be on a tripod. I’d say be on a tripod anyway to capture a great sunset.

  • Marc Thibault

    nice tutorial…thanks,,i use hdr….bracketing(3 photos) -2 +2..raw and cr2..post-traitment for finition……..thanks…

  • Linda G

    Thanks for the info Stephen. I think that using a longer shutter speed on a cruise ship (where I was taking a sunset) would not work but I will try that on land and use a tripod. The polarizer should work at sea though.

  • francesca

    Sunset Light

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  • guest

    I understand the comment of metering off the sky but how do you underexpose with a digital camera?( Purposefully)

  • guest

    I understand the concept of metering off the sky, but how do you under-expose purposefully with a digital camera? Do you use aperature mode and set for a small aperature?

  • Yes, you can reduce the size of the aperture to underexposure, but only if you are in manual mode. If you are in aperture priority mode and set your aperture smaller, the camera will make an offsetting adjustment to the shutter speed to keep the overall exposure the same. Therefore, simply adjust the exposure compensation level (check your camera manual if you don’t know how to do that). Just reduce it by the desired amount and now the camera will underexpose by whatever level you set. Hope that helps.

  • Dominic Bolaa
  • Nayt Housman

    Couldn’t have said it better. Also midday photography is also an aesthetic right? Photography is as much about communication as it is visual stimulation and sunsets as you so eloquently put it are the “low hanging photographic fruit”. They don’t say much. Sunsets shots are more an expression of somebody’s love of Sunsets and photography, no more. Of course their are exceptions to everything.

  • Peter Cleife

    Strange no mention of filters, especially GND’s. I usually use a 8 or 16 over the top half of my sunsets.

  • Victor Orazi

    It s true, 9 to 5 is a killer, the sun is so bright that your pictures will look out of focus.

  • Victor Orazi

    With exposure compensation

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