Sunrises and Sunsets

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow

We all love to take sunrise-sunset shots. In fact, chances are good that when you got your first digital camera it wasn't long before you tried it out on a sunrise-sunset. One of the reasons that sunrises-sunsets are so popular is that it is so easy to get an image that grabs peoples' attention. Almost anyone can get a nice sunrise-sunset shot. We press the shutter, and we end up with all those glowing colors. However, it is this very fact that makes it difficult to create a sunrise-sunset shot that stands out. Everyone has sunrise-sunset images with glowing colors. For those photographers that want their sunrise-sunset images to rise above the norm, something more is needed. With this goal in mind, this article is about taking sunrise-sunset shots that rise above the typical glowing color, sunrise-sunset images.

The Basics

As with most things in life, it is necessary to get the basics right before worrying about the fine points when it comes to sunrise--sunset photography. As such, the first part of this article deals with the basics. These basics ensure that the image quality will be high.

Dynamic Range

One of the biggest challenges with sunrise-sunset shots is dynamic range: the range of tones in the sunrise-sunset, and the surrounding environment, can be greater than the camera can handle. This is particularly true if the sun is still above the horizon. Sometimes, it is possible to set the exposure to prevent the brightest areas from clipping; then, the other tones are left to fall where they may. However, this approach has its limitations. If there is detail in the surrounding environment that is important to the shot, this technique will not work. In such a situation, it would be necessary to keep detail in both the brightest areas as well as in at least some of the darker ones.

Two options exist that will resolve this situation. The first solution is called a graduated neutral density filter. Part of the graduated neutral density filter is clear and part is a neutral gray. In use, the dividing line (edge) between the clear and gray portions of the filter is placed along the horizon (or any other dividing line between the brightest and less bright portions of the image). The gray part of the filter is placed over the sky (or other bright part of the scene). The clear part of the filter is placed over the rest of the scene. This allows photographers to reduce the intensity of the light from the brightest parts of the image while leaving the intensity of the light from the rest of the scene unaffected. While this is a good option in many cases, it does have its drawbacks. Graduated neutral density filters cost money, and, in most cases, a photographer who chooses this route will need several graduated neutral density filters (different strengths and edge transition characteristics). Furthermore, anytime an extra filter is placed in front of a lens, image quality can be affected. Lastly, graduated neutral density filters do not work well when the division between the light and dark areas is not fairly straight.

The second solution is often referred to as a digital graduated neutral density filter. This "filter" isn't actually a filter at all. Rather, it is a technique that involves shooting the scene with two different exposures. One exposure is set to bring out the detail in the shadows and midtones (this image is given more exposure). The other exposure is set to protect the detail in the highlights (this image is given less exposure). Of course a tripod is mandatory for this method.

The two shots are then combined in Photoshop. This allows for the highlight detail to be taken from the image that received less exposure and the rest of the detail to be taken from the image that received more exposure.

Figures 1 and 2 show a scene that had a dynamic range problem. It was not possible to capture detail in both the land and the sky. The solution was to take two exposures. The exposures were later combined in Photoshop (for more information on how to combine exposures, see Digital Graduated Neutral Density Filter).

Figure 1: Image with Exposure Set for the Land
Figure 2: Image with Exposure Set for the Sky

White Balance

We shoot sunrises-sunsets because we love those beautiful colors. The problem is that the colors that cause us so much excitement can cause problems for digital cameras. The issue arises because many people leave their digital cameras on auto white balance mode most or all of the time. For sunrise-sunset scenes, this is a mistake. In auto white balance mode, the camera does its best to determine the color of the light and to make adjustments to remove any color cast in the light. However, we love sunrises-sunsets because they have a beautiful color cast. Without the colors of the light, a sunrise-sunset just isn't a sunrise-sunset. Since the Auto white balance mode may produce images with less saturated colors or colors that are different than what the photographer saw, a better option is to set the camera to one of the preset white balance options such as the daylight white balance setting (for more information on white balance, see White Balance).

Figure 3 shows a sunset image with just such a problem. In this case, auto white balance was a poor option because the color of the light is an integral part of the image. What the photographer saw was a gorgeous, orange sunset. The camera saw the same thing and immediately adjusted for it. The result is the rather unimpressive sunset shown in this image. Figure 4 shows the exact same image except that auto white balance was not used. Rather, the white balance was set to a daylight setting. This produced an image that much more accurately portrays what the photographer saw.

Figure 3: Problem for Auto White Balance
Figure 4: Image with a Daylight White Balance Setting


Proper exposure is critical when shooting sunrises-sunsets with digital cameras. When I first started digitally photographing sunrises-sunsets, I was very disappointed with the results. The colors came out rather dull and there didn't seem to be many tonal levels in the colors. When I used Photoshop to add some contrast and saturation to make the colors come alive, I mostly got a lot of noise. The problem was that I had exposed the sunsets the way that I would if I had been shooting with slide film. In other words, I tried to get the tonalities correct. I wanted the medium tones to look medium toned and the dark tones to look dark. This is not the way to go with digital cameras.

The problem that arises is that digital camera sensors are linear. What that means is that when the amount of light that reaches a sensor is doubled, the output of the sensor is doubled. Conversely, when the amount of light is cut in half, the output of the sensor is halved. This may not sound like a big deal; however, it causes major problems for the shadows. Combine this with the fact that much of a sunrise-sunset sky is dark and the result is not a pleasant one. The issue is one of tonal levels and signal-to-noise ratio (SNR).

At a simple level, it boils down to this: the more exposure that a sensor receives, the larger the number of tones and the better the SNR in the final image.

No wonder my early attempts at sunsets came out less than expected. By setting the exposure to make sure that the tonalities were correct (i.e., dark tones in the sky came out dark in the image), I had reduced the number of tonal levels in the sky (which explains why the images seemed to have so few tones in the colors) and had degraded the SNR (which explains why I got so much noise when the images were edited).

Figure 5: Histogram -- Maximum Exposure

The solution is to maximize the exposure. In the case of maximizing the exposure, the exposure is increased up to the point where the image has as much exposure as it can take without blowing out the highlights (i.e., getting the blinkies on the LCD or cutting off the histogram on the right side). The proper exposure can be checked with the camera's histogram. Figure 5 shows an image that received the maximum exposure. The histogram has been shifted to the right until the brightest pixels just touch the right side of the chart.

Figures 6 and 7 show a comparison of an image where the exposure was not maximized and one where it was. These two images show close ups of a sunset reflecting off a tide pool. In Figure 6, the image received a regular exposure. This image clearly shows problems with both noise (poor SNR) and banding (a result of too few tonal levels). On the other hand, the image in Figure 8 had the exposure maximized. As can be easily seen, the problems of noise and banding have been greatly reduced (for more information on maximizing the exposure see, Digital Exposure).

Figure 6: Shadows with Regular Exposure
Figure 7: Shadows with Two Additional Stops of Exposure
Of course, the problem is that the image may now appear overexposed. If printed without any corrections, the image might be too light. The solution is easy; the entire image needs to be darkened in a linear fashion. What this means is that every pixel needs to be darkened by the same amount. This is easily handled by the exposure adjustment in the raw converter or by Brightness/Contrast in Photoshop.


Since sunrises-sunsets are low light situations and the exposure will probably be increased in order to maximize the exposure, the shutterspeeds will likely be too long for the camera to be handheld. Thus, a tripod is a necessity for sunrise-sunset photography. To further increase the quality of the images, it is a good idea to weigh down the tripod, use a remote switch, and lock up the mirror (for more information about weighing down the tripod, a remote switch, and mirror lock-up see, Waterfalls).


Weather plays a big part in successful sunrise-sunset photography. The most dramatic sunrises-sunsets often occur at the very beginning or very end of storms. At these times, the color is often the most intense and the contrast the greatest. The best situation is for the sky to be partly cloudy. The resultant interplay of clouds and light creates the requisite drama for a great shot. However, if the clouds are too heavy, they will obscure the light and ruin the photo opportunity.

Enough of the Basics

We are done with the basics. The rest of this series will deal with specific examples of sunrise-sunset images.

The Biggest Mistake

The biggest mistake in photographing sunrises-sunsets is the same as was mentioned in the article on fall colors. Sometimes, we focus completely on the color and forget about everything else. In other words, some sunrise-sunset images are simply a patch of saturated color and not much else. The first time that we see such an image, we might be impressed by the intensity and saturation of the colors. However, after seeing several such images, they all begin to look much the same. On the other hand, a great sunrise-sunset image usually integrates the sunrise-sunset with other elements to produce a strong impact. In other words, a great sunrise-sunset image is generally a strong image that has a sunrise-sunset as one of its elements.

Sunrise-Sunset: Large Tonal Contrast

Figure 8: Sunset with Large Tonal Contrast

Some of the most dramatic sunsets are those that have a large tonal contrast. Figure 8 is a case in point. The sky in this image is quite intense. While there is a contrast of colors in the sky (warm tones near the sun to cooler tones at the edge of the image), it is the tonal contrast that makes the image. This is verified by looking at Figure 9. In this Figure, the image has been completely desaturated. No color remains. Yet the image still has impact. This is due to the tonal contrast.

Figure 9: Monochrome Version of Sunset with Large Tonal Contrast

Of course, a photographer has no control over the amount of contrast that a sunrise-sunset has. On the other hand, a photographer can learn to foresee when a sky is likely to produce a sunrise-sunset with a large tonal contrast. If a photographer can recognize such a sky, she can get into position to capture it when it occurs.

For this type of sunset, a photographer needs to look for a thin layer of clouds of varying density. The cloud cover needs to be thin enough that the light will have a strong intensity in the thinner areas. The varying density of the clouds will then produce the necessary contrast. In this situation, the light is often best when the sun is fairly low as the best illumination may occur when the light hits the clouds from beneath.

Sunrise-Sunset: Strong Color Contrast

Figure 10: Sunset with Large Color Contrast

Another factor that can lead to dramatic sunrises-sunsets is a strong color contrast. Figure 10 illustrates this point. The orange tones of the last rays of the setting sun contrast sharply with the deep blue above. In this type of sunset, it is often the case that the sun is very close to the horizon or even below it.

With this type of sunset, you usually get both good color and tonal contrast.

Sunrise-Sunset: Foreground

Figure 11: Sunset with a Foreground

A strong foreground can make or break a sunrise-sunset image. In a sunrise-sunset image, a foreground can serve several purposes. First, a foreground can add something of visual interest. This is the case in Figure 11. The sunset by itself is very colorful and eye catching. However, without any foreground, a viewer would quickly lose interest. This can be seen in Figure 12. In this figure, the foreground rock has been digitally removed. As can be seen, the image losses part of its impact without the foreground rock.

Figure 12: Sunset with Foreground Removed

Glancing back at Figures 8 and 10 shows two other uses of foreground in a sunrise-sunset image. Figure 8 shows how the foreground can be used to direct the eye of the viewer. In this image, the foreground rocks not only add visual interest to the scene, but the shapes of the rocks direct the eye toward the setting sun further strengthening the image.

Figure 10 shows how the foreground can be used to put the sunrise-sunset in its environment. In this image, the sunset is actually a fairly small part of the scene. By itself, the sunset wouldn't be all that interesting. On the other hand, when combined with the tower staircase and the tidepools, a totally different ambiance is created. The sunset now becomes part of the environment rather than just an isolated patch of color.

Sunrise-Sunset: Focus Attention

Figure 13: Sunset that Focuses Attention

When most people think sunrises-sunsets, they think of saturated colors. However, sunset-sunrise light has other properties. One such property is that sunrise-sunset light casts long shadows. This property can be used to focus viewers' attention in an image. Figure 13 is a case in point. In this image, the photographer wanted to draw attention to the spires. The photographer noticed a natural division in the image that could be used for this purpose: the spires (which are dominated by vertical lines) sit atop a triangular shaped base (which is dominated by horizontal lines). As the sun dropped in the sky, a nearby mountain cast its shadow on the rock formation. To accentuate the spires, all the photographer had to do was to wait until the shadows reached the dividing line between the spires and the base.

As a result, the deep red spires were caught between the shadows and the saturated blue sky. This makes the spires stand out. The result is that the viewer's attention is focused on the spires.

It is the shadows created by the sunset that create much of the impact of this image. This shows that during sunrises-sunsets, it is often as important to think of shadows as it is to think of light.

Sunrise-Sunset: Silhouettes

Figure 14: Sunset Silhouette

Sunrises-Sunsets can be used to produce dramatic silhouettes. With sunrise-sunset silhouettes, two factors often play a dominant role: composition and color.

Since the silhouetted objects have no detail, their primary role becomes one of composition. In particular, the shapes, curves, and lines become a central part of the image and must produce a visual or emotional response in the viewer. This means that, in the case of silhouettes, a photographer must all the more carefully plan out the response he desires to create in the viewer. The shapes, curves, and lines are then used to create that response.

Because of the simplicity of silhouettes, color becomes particularly important. Used properly, color can enhance the emotional response that a photographer desires to create. Thus, it is important that the color work in harmony with the shapes, curves, and lines.

Figure 14 shows a sunrise-sunset silhouette. The purpose of this image is to show the elegance of this plant. Therefore, many plants were examined to find one that had a preponderance of curved and diagonal lines. The curved lines help create a sense of elegance and the diagonal lines add a touch of the dynamic to the image. The colors of the sunset further enhanced the qualities of the image. The saturated oranges and reds strengthened the dynamic quality of the image while the magenta accentuated the feeling of elegance (the sunset behind the plant was primarily orange and red with a much smaller amount of magenta; the camera was deliberately placed to capture the magenta color).

Sunrise-Sunset: Mood

Figure 15: Sunrise that Creates Mood

When we think of sunrises-sunsets, we tend to think in terms of scenes with warm, saturated colors. In fact, most sunset-sunrise images tend to fall into this category. However, another type of sunrise-sunset image relies on the sunrise-sunset light in a different way. This type of sunrise-sunset shot uses the sunrise-sunset primarily to set a mood. In this type of image, the light is often used in a much more subtle, but equally powerful, manner than in the warm, saturated light images.

Figure 15 is an example of this type of sunrise-sunset image. This scene was captured shortly before the sun rose above the horizon. Thus, the light was reflected off the sky and then diffused through a layer of coastal fog. The result was a very soft, bluish light that enveloped the coastline. The result is an image that conveys a feeling of quiet beauty and solitude.

In this type of image, it is very important that the light match the mood and environment of the scene. A photographer that wishes to create this type of image must clearly understand the mood she desires to create in the image and must position herself to capture the light at the opportune moment that will create that mood. For instance, the image in Figure 15 required a cool blue light that had a very soft quality and a low light intensity. Without these light characteristics, the mood in the image could not have been created. This is demonstrated in Figure 16. This is the same scene as in Figure 15 only it was shot a few minutes later. By this time, the rapidly changing light had lost its bluish color and had increased in intensity. The result is a loss of the mood that characterizes Figure 15.

Figure 16: Loss of Mood

Sunrise-Sunset: Reflections

Figure 17: Sunset Reflection

Not all sunrises-sunsets need to be photographed directly. Often, a reflection of the sunrise-sunset is better choice. This is the case in Figure 17. This image, of a pond, was shot in a city park. Two factors made directly shooting the sunset a poor choice. First, there were only a few clouds in the sky; most of the sky was rather nondescript. Taking a shot of the sunset light hitting the clouds directly would not have produced a very impressive image. Second, the environment in which the park was located included all of the typical items associated with civilization: power lines, parked cars, buildings, and streets. Taking a traditional sunset over the horizon shot would have produced an image much a multitude of distracting detail.

These problems were easily solved by shooting a reflection of the sunset illuminated clouds in the pond. This produced a simple image that focuses the viewers' attention on the small part of the sky that was demonstrating the beauty of the sunset light rather than on all the distracting detail of the surrounding environment.


The edges of the day produce excellent opportunities for great images due to the nature of the light. It is up to us photographers to take these opportunities and to use our creativity to create something beyond the ordinary.