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Photographing Sunrises and Sunsets

Alan R. Lichtenstein | Published on 3/25/2024

                   PHOTOGRAPHING SUNRISES & SUNSETS                                                      

By Alan R. Lichtenstein



        Images of sunrises and Sunsets produce some of the most vivid and impressive photographs where colors are dynamic and the image itself connotates a feeling of serenity and calm.



Unfortunately, in just about every image I have seen on analysis of the EXIF data, the image shows itself to have been considerably post-processed to achieve the results shown in the final image. In many images, one doesn’t even have to peruse the EXIF data; anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the elements of photography can draw that conclusion just from viewing the image.  This is not to take anything away from the final image; it can be a thing of beauty.  But the purpose of this article is to offer suggestions as to HOW to use and tweak standard photographic techniques IN CAMERA, which should be part of the photographer’s knowledge base in the first place to permit the photographer to get those dramatic images SOOC (straight out of the camera).




Photography is like fishing (a former hobby).  Fishermen always say the way to catch fish is to be there when the fish are there.  Great advice!  The only trouble is, the fish don’t tell you when they’ll be there, so you have to be there frequently.  Fishermen say that’s “putting in your time.”  Put in your time and you’ll catch fish.  It’s the same for photographing sunrises and sunsets; you have to be there when nature decides to give you dramatic display of colors because of sky conditions.  So, if you want to take dramatic pictures of sunrises and sunsets, you, like the fisherman, have to “put in your time.  However, here, the fisherman has an advantage; he can study the tide tables, the hatch cycles and generally know when the baitfish will be there and then the predator fish follow.  Unfortunately, weather predictions offer only limited information as to cloud cover and other local atmospheric conditions, thus, making photography less predictive.  So, you really must put in your time and be there when the conditions are likely to be best if you want great images SOOC.


   AlanSS3    AlanSS4



SUNRISES-I find the best time to start is during the last gasp of the blue hour.  This generally begins from 40 minutes to an hour before and lasts to 10 minutes before actual sunrise.  Here, you get the first peek of reds refracting through the atmosphere against the dramatic sky of the blue hour’s blue/purple, with the most dramatic colors coming usually from 10 minutes before actual sunrise.  However, the closer you get to actual sunrise, the sky begins to take on the blue of daylight, and you get less of the fading blue hour, but you get more of the reds, oranges, and yellows.  I generally arrive about an hour before sunrise as the sky in the blue hour can be dramatic against the rising colors. What you get depends on the cloud cover, so it pays to be there early, as you never know what you’ll get. 


          AlanSS5  AlanSS6


Here, the image on the left shows a sunrise approximately 15 minutes before actual sunrise.  Note the reds highlighted against the cloud cover with the sky still retaining the blue-purple hue of the dying blue hour.  Also note the image is darker on its left side as opposed to its right.  The left side of the image faces west while the lighter side faces east, the direction of the sun rising.  Unfortunately, I did not have my wide-angle lens on.  Had I had my wide-angle lens, the difference of light from east to west would have been even more dramatic.  The image on the right, although not taken the same day, taken just as the sun was rising, does show how the blue hour fades as the sun begins to rise.


SUNSETS- For the most part, the best time to shoot sunsets is pretty much the reverse of sunrises; from about 10 minutes before the actual sunset to between actual sunset and 40 minutes  to an hour beyond, depending on how much you may want of the blue hour.  I see any number of people at the Bluffs taking pictures of the sun high in the sky just prior to and into actual sunset, and these can be pretty much striking.  But  those images taken during that time are present every day.  The image taken during that time today will be pretty much the same as the image taken during that time last week, last month or even last year, and will be pretty much the same as the image that you’re going to take tomorrow during the same time.  This time can be impressive as the image shown below on the left illustrates.  But wait a bit longer when the blue hour commences to get the image on the right.


        AlanSS7   AlanSS8


TIME OF YEAR-I’ve gotten my best images or sunrises from after the winter solstice, approximately December 21st to the end of January.  This is because the time of refraction is much shorter and one gets the reds, oranges, and yellows in rapid succession, but unfortunately, they don’t last long.  The same would be true for sunsets.  Although this is a generalization, it is not meant to say that one won’t get great images at other times of the year.  Images taken during spring, summer, and autumn, tend to last longer, because the angle of refraction is longer.  I’ve gotten some good shots during those times, so it can be a crap shoot.  It all goes back to the first piece of advice:  In order to take great images of sunrises and sunsets, you just have to put in your time.  Here’s a couple of other images taken at other times:


        AlanSS9   AlanSS10

OK.  Now that you’re there and are putting in your time, you’ve got to set your camera.  No, not in AUTO, not if you want great images.  You’ve got to know what lens to use and some basic settings, the first of which is what lens to use.  In my view, the best type of lens to use would be a wide- angle lens.  Most wide-angle lenses are available between 12mm-22mm.  These are generally used by landscape photographers who are taking images over a great distance and need a very wide angle to get the best image.  If you don’t have a wide-angle lens, the next best lens to use is a zoom between 18mm-200mm.  I generally will switch between my wide -angle lens and my medium zoom and then back again.  Makes for some quick changes and given the brief period of time these light shows are available makes for a need for great dexterity.  The next most important setting, in my view is white balance, so I’ll digress a bit for some information on white balance before I go into the other settings.




        Adjusting white balance is the process of removing unrealistic color casts so that objects that appear white to our eyes are actually rendered white in the image.  Our eyes are very good at judging what white is no matter what the light source is, however, our cameras, no matter which manufacturer’s camera you own, have great difficulty in making the same judgments.  In the days of film, you purchased special film designed to take images under the light source available, and such film types such as daylight and tungsten, for example, were common.  Film cameras relied on the type of film to match the conditions.  Use the wrong type of film and you got unnatural color casts.


        Digital cameras have no physical film; they have digital film (your sensor), so when using digital cameras, it is critical for the photographer to tell the camera what white is under the conditions the image is going to be taken.  Like the film photographer who told his camera what the light conditions were by the physical film used to expose the image, the digital photographer similarly tells his/her camera what the light conditions are by setting the white balance.  White balance is based on the Kelvin scale where each wavelength of light is assigned a Kelvin Temperature based on the color the light.  Below is a typical Kevin Scale:




Proper white balance must take into account the ‘color temperature’ of a light source.  We generally assign qualitative terms to light, tending to call bluer colors cooler and redder colors warmer.  As you can see from the above scale, the qualitatively ‘cooler’ colors have a quantitatively higher Kelvin Temperatures, while the qualitatively ‘warmer’ colors have a quantitatively lower Kelvin Temperatures.  One must be careful about this distinction when one uses language.  Most photographers use the term based on their qualitativemeanings, so when you read or see someone talking about ‘warming up an image’ they are referring to adding more red, orange, or yellow by lowering the Kelvin Temperature.  The following scale illustrates this apparent contradiction:



For this article, I am going to use the qualitative descriptions.  However, it is important to know how the author is using the descriptions when reading articles regarding white balance.


        As you can see from the first chart of the color spectrum in Kelvin Temperature, neutral white light (meaning a relatively equal distribution of all colors) has a Kelvin Temperature of approximately 5,500o.

Color wise, this is ‘white.’  But as you can see, a light source from something such as a candle has a far lower Kelvin Temperature, while a cloudy day has a far higher Kelvin Temperature.  What this means is that a candle flame has a far greater preponderance of orange-red color while a cloudy day has a far greater preponderance of blue/green.  Simply put, if you tell your camera there is more blue-green light in the conditions of light under which you are photographing images, the camera compensates according to the algorithm by adding and emphasizing what are areas of orange/red, ostensibly, making your image appear with the correct colors.  Most cameras have algorithms with various presets that are designed for various conditions.  Using the presets can help you avoid incorrect colors and give you more accurate color representation.  On the next page is a sample chart.  The icons for the presets are standard regardless of which brand of camera you may be using:


Your camera has a setting AUTO that most photographers use for general use.  It works well, but even apparently neutral white can give color casts that are unnatural as illustrated by the following examples:



AUTO white balance uses an algorithm to judge color distribution.  Works pretty well when there is a good distribution of colors, but not so much when there isn’t. The image on the right is an image taken using AUTO white balance, while the image on the left is an image taken using CUSTOM white balance.  What’s the difference?  In the image using AUTO, most colors are in the red range, so the camera algorithm sees the red and approximates the Kelvin temperature of the red image, and accents the blue of the image, giving an unnatural blue cast to the background.  The most common error that produces is when one takes images of snow scenes, where AUTO frequently gives a blue tinge to the white snow.   You can eliminate this by using the presets for white balance that your camera offers, or if your camera offers SCENE modes, even better.  The presents and/or SCENE modes do a better job of setting the white balance based on the lighting conditions than AUTO but remember:  They are approximate based on your camera manufacturer’s algorithm for the color temperature they specify.  But you can do an even better job by measuring the white balance.  So, your first step is to take that measurement.


MEASURE THE WHITE BALANCE-As you can see, the biggest mistake photographers, amateurs in particular make is relying on AUTO.  That usually gives your images color casts, almost always when photographing sunrises and sunsets.  AUTO does a reasonable job of setting white balance where there is a general distribution of color temperatures such as in daylight and you will probably get some color casting that may not necessarily look that bad or unpleasing to your eye but will be noticeable.  The best way to eliminate unwanted color casts is to actually measure the white balance.  You can do this by downloading a free app called Light Meter.  That gives you the actual Kelvin Temperature.  Once you do this, in your camera’s white balance menu, set the white balance to “Custom,” which is generally symbolized CWB, dial in the Kelvin Temperature you measured by following your camera’s instruction manual for doing this and you’re good to go.  When photographing sunrises and sunsets, be aware that the white balance constantly changes as the sun rises or falls, so you have to measure the custom white balance frequently.


The next best way is to measure the white balance using one of your camera’s vacant presets.  These are symbolized by the camera with the two pie-shaped wedges under them.  They found in the menu with your other presets, and are vacant, meaning they have to be set and can be continually reset.  If you can’t measure the exact white balance, using these is the next best thing.  Setting them usually requires your setting your camera to photograph a piece of plain white paper in the light you are going to photograph your image.  Your camera instruction manual will tell you how to achieve and set the vacant presets.  You might not want to lug around a piece of white paper or cardboard, as the paper usually becomes wrinkled and is useless at that time for measuring white balance, so you can purchase handy device called an EXO DISC.  This handy device is much smaller than a piece of white paper and can be hung around your neck.  You use this to set your vacant present in the same way you would use a piece of white paper, but it is a bit easier, although it requires a bit of manual dexterity, as you need both hands.


If you can’t measure the white balance using the app or setting your vacant preset, the next best way is to use one of the presets.  These will give you an approximate Kelvin Temperature not as good as setting one of the vacant presets, and surely not as good as the exact custom white balance, but it’s a whole lot better than AUTO.  Now you’ve set your white balance, and you’re ready for the next step.


SET YOUR METERING- Your camera has a built-in light meter that measures the intensity of light, but it will do so under the area you select.  Most cameras have a metering mode that allows the photographer to meter the intensity of light over the entire area and adjust the entire scene to that measurement.  It goes by different names in different brands, so you should consult your camera’s manual to see what your camera calls it.  That generally is good for most scenes, but not particularly effective for sunrises or sunsets, where the intensity of light varies over the entire scene.  I find that center-weighted average is effective for sunrises and sunsets.  This metering measures the light in the center target area outlined by our camera, and everything outside that center usually is darker  (or lighter) as related to the image in the center.  The next type of metering is ‘spot.’  This type of metering focuses literally on a spot and everything outside the spot is darker.  This can be useful in the waning period of the blue hour.  You can also meter for the shadows or highlights.  Practicing each metering mode under differing conditions will help you select the one most suitable for photographing sunrises and sunsets.  Icons for these types of metering differ slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer which is why they aren’t shown here.  


SET YOUR TARGET AREA – Here is where a mirrorless camera has a big advantage over a mirror-box DSLR.  You literally have an infinite number of target focus points over the entire scene as opposed to a more limited number of focus points DSLR’s offer.  The better your DSLR camera, the more target focus points you have, with the higher end DSLR’s offering the greatest number of target AF focus points.  But even the cheapest entry-level mirrorless camera offers an unlimited number of. focus points, however, since you’re focusing on relatively distant scenes, using the full field AF target area is generally good however, this may change depending on what land elements you have in your scene and how much you zoom in (or out).


TAKE A TEST SHOT – Now if you’ve set your white balance correctly and metering correctly, you’ll get an image that reflects the way your camera’s algorithm sees the light.  This may or may not be exactly the same way your eye sees the colors and intensity of the light because our eyes are infinitely superior at discerning color differences and light intensity than our cameras are.  Roughly, your image reveals the camera’s interpretation of the intensity (brightness) or lack thereof (darkness) that the uncompensated light SHOULD be, which itself is probably not exactly as the way our eyes judge the light intensity should be.  But. Now you have a frame of reference of both the color and light intensity in various parts of your scene.  Knowing this ‘test’ will enable you to modify how you may want to record the image, which you do in your next step.  Here’s an example of a test shot I took after I set my metering and white balance, where I let the camera set the iso, aperture and shutter speed.  It was taken at 7:54 in the evening after the sun had gone down.  Notice that it doesn’t look like nighttime.  The only way you know it was night was because you see the streetlamps illuminated.

So, given that, what do you do, and now we go to the next step.




COMPENSATE, COMPENSATE AND COMPENSATE – Your test shot will probably appear brighter than the actual brightness of the scene if your compensation is zero when you shot the image.  It will be necessary for you to compensate by underexposing in order to obtain images that accurately reflect the amount of light you actually see.  Compensating by underexposing generally has the additional benefit of intensifying colors. Here, mirrorless cameras again have an advantage, because you can see the light intensity of the compensated image in your viewfinder which you can’t do with a DSLR through the viewfinder; you’ll have to switch back-and-forth from live view to get the same benefit, a cumbersome process.  Alternatively, you can bracket do to do this.  so, you should vary your EV Compensation until you get the precise scene light intensity that your eyes see is correct.  Here’s the same scene (on the next page), taken two minutes later, same settings except compensation is set to -1.7.  It takes a bit of practice in order to know how much to compensate which means you have to be out there at the tail end of the blue hour to actual sunrise (or vice-versa for sunsets).  I have found my compensation needs to be between -.3 to -2.0.  and the level of compensation changes as the sun either rises (reduce-less underexposing) or as the sun falls (increases-more underexposing).  So, for example, you may be shooting a sunrise and your compensation starts at -1.7 and becomes less negative as the sun rises.  You may start out at -.3 as the sun is setting and becomes more negative as the blue hour takes over and the darkness becomes more intense.  Compensation is necessary because you are letting the camera set the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.  If you use low -light photography, where you set a particular ISO, then you’re shooting in Manual Exposure, and you won’t need to compensate because you’re setting each individual setting.  This requires considerably more skill.




USE THE ‘WRONG’ WHITE BALANCE- Sunrises and sunsets don’t have the same Kelvin Temperatures over the entire scene.  Your test shot gave you the white balance over the part of the scene you measured.  This may make the colors of the sky (particularly during the end of the blue hour) different from what you see, because they have a significantly different Kelvin Temperature from the part of the scene you used to measure the white balance.  This can be changed by telling the camera you’re measuring light with a different color concentration.  In general, if you use a Kelvin Temperature measured on the oranges and reds against the dying blue hour, you may need to lower the Kelvin temperature even more by “warming up” the scene.  Do this and you’ll add more blue to the scene.  This technique is useful for adding more blue in the last gasp of the blue hour against a rising sun.  The reverse is true if you use a white balance with a Kelvin Temperature greater than in your test image; you’ll then add more yellow/orange.  This is useful for adding golden hues to sunsets and as already said, adding blue to the sky for sunrises.


    AlanSS17   AlanSS18.

Here the picture on the left was taken with an accurately measured white balance of 5800.  The picture on the right was taken with a white balance 4800.  Note the blue cast to the rocks at the bluffs on the right.  If you look carefully if you go to the Bluffs and look at these rocks, you’ll see that they have minute intrusions of silica that reflect the blue.  All I did was lower the white balance to tell the camera it needed to emphasize the cooler Kelvin temperatures.   You can lower the white balance to enhance the blue-purple of the sky in sunrises or sunsets.  In these examples the white balance is lowered far more than you would probably do just to make the sky more blue against the reds and oranges of the rising or setting sun, and is offered just to give an example.  The next two images exhibit an even more dramatic use of using the “wrong” white balance.


    AlanSS19.  AlanSS20.


The image on the left used the preset for the lightbulb (tungsten) while the image on the right used the preset for fluorescent.  I took these just to see how the shift of white balance worked under certain circumstances.  But practice using the white balance, in particular the “wrong” white balance gives the photographer a frame of reference as to how he/she can make the image more dramatic.


        Hope this article has given you some perspective in taking pictures under these challenging conditions.  But as I said initially, between putting in your time and practice, you’ll also be able to get those dramatic images.  Here are a couple more.

        AlanSS21  AlanSS22