The holy grail of travel photography is a stunning photo looking into the vast distance taken at sunrise or sunset. It seems to just work as a blend of color, composition, and light to create something that often makes the viewer utter that famous word that any photographer wants to hear, “Wow!”.
But why is it then that so often when you look at your own sunrise or sunset photos they don’t look so stunning? Here are 5 reasons why your sunrise or sunset photos don’t live up to your expectations.
#1 – What’s the point?
I remember a picture editor once told me, “This might sound controversial, but a sunrise or sunset is actually pretty boring.” What he was referring to was the lack of compelling subject matter in a photo of a sunrise or sunset like for example an empty beach with just the setting sun.
While sitting on a beach and seeing a sunset can seem like a wonderful experience, unfortunately, the camera cannot replicate that. Most successful photos of sunrises or sunsets have a point of interest in them, in that there is a subject that is the main story and the sunrise or sunset is providing the light and the atmosphere.
That story doesn’t necessarily have to be a person or an object in the frame. The story could be the beautiful scenery or the crashing waves against the coast. But the key point is that there is something that gets the viewers’ attention. So, don’t just rely on the sunrise or sunset, try to build your composition using it as an addition rather than the story.
#2 – Clouds or no clouds?
For example, one element that can dramatically improve your sunrise or sunset photos is some clouds. Take your generic empty beach scenario from above, but this time add some dramatic clouds that the light can bounce off and suddenly you’ll go from something mundane to something that looks fantastic.
Of course, you can’t control the elements and no clouds in the sky means, there’s nothing you can do. In that scenario, you just have to work harder to frame your shot and give the viewer a point of interest.
While you generally want some clouds in the sky, too much cloud cover and you will often find the light seems flat and dull and the whole photo looks uninteresting (unless the sun can set below the clouds and light them up from underneath). So, in conclusion, while you ideally want some clouds, it’s important not to have a completely overcast day. You can, of course, plan your shoots around times when you will have the best conditions.
#3 – Are your highlights and shadows correct?
One of the big challenges in photographing sunrise or sunsets is the vast contrast you get between highlights and shadows. Your highlights are the light areas of your photo (such as the sky for example) and your shadows are the dark areas in the photo (for example your foreground).
If either is pushed too far you will get completely white areas for highlights and completely black areas for shadows. This means that these areas contain no pixel details and is something you want to avoid.
The problem you face when photographing sunsets or sunrises is that your sky will be bright, and your foreground will be dark (a high dynamic range). The way that you can ensure that your highlights and shadows are exposed correctly in this scenario is to use a graduated neutral density filter to balance out the difference in the highlights and shadows.
There are also other techniques such as exposure bracketing as well that can help you achieve this in post-production and actually just brightening or darkening these areas in a software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. But whatever you decide, just make sure that your highlights and shadows are exposed correctly and fine-tune them if you need to in post-production.
#4 – The image isn’t framed correctly
One of the key elements in ensuring the final photo looks great is to frame your composition correctly.
The easiest way to do this and a good starting point for any photographer is the famous Rule of Thirds where you try to place key points of interest on the intersection of the lines. But the Rule of Thirds is also worth remembering for your horizon line. Usually, you will find that placing the horizon either on the top third or the bottom third will look better than slap bang in the middle.
But try to consider the whole picture when framing your shot. Think if there are any areas that are just wasted space where you can crop in tighter. Or if your camera angle is slightly off and you can benefit by just moving a little to either side.
The beauty of photography these days is that you can usually take as many photos as it takes to get your shot framed right. So, play around with your composition and capture a few alternatives that you can then review later in post-production.
#5 – You haven’t fixed mistakes
Usually, the first bit of feedback that I often give newbie photographers when I look at their sunrise or sunset photos is on elements that could easily be fixed in post-production. Whether you are an advocate of post-production or not there are certain things that you simply should not forego on any photo.
The two biggest of these are:
- Ensuring that your photos are straight, that means the horizon line needs to be dead straight.
- Making sure you have the correct white balance for the photo (if you haven’t already done so when taking the photo). Think about the scene that you are showing, is it a warm and golden scenario or is it a cool and crisp setting? Either way, tweak your white balance until it is correct.
If you do nothing else in post-production, just making sure these two settings are correct will immediately improve your photos.
Sunsets and sunrises are wonderful times in the day to photograph things. The soft golden light can transform an ordinary scene into an extraordinary one. When done well, they are often the photos that will be the “show stoppers” in any portfolio.
But always remember that a sunset and sunrise needs to work in combination with your composition and subject matter to create a wonderful photo. Follow these tips and you’ll be on your way to capturing great photos of sunrise and sunsets.
Now it’s your turn to get involved. Share your great sunrise and sunset photos below.