Essence of Photography: Sunrise and Sunset

Learn to take better photos of sunrises and sunsets.

December 15, 2021

If you are a photographer in nearly every place in the world, you have two opportunities every day to capture the sun rising and setting. These times can be full of beautiful imagery, dynamic light, and amazing colors.

While most of this information applies to both sunrises and sunsets, we will use the term sunset to describe these techniques.

What Changed?

One of the first things you may notice is that what comes out of the camera is not always what you see with your eyes. Different cameras have different dynamic range and it can be hard to capture a wide range of light and dark tones.

"Auto" mode on a dSLR/mirrorless camera, or for phones, the standard camera image without a special app, can usually do a decent job of getting the right settings to create sunset photos with rich orange skies. However, you may find that you end up getting something like the image on the left below. Here the camera was trying to expose for the flowers and foreground and make those lighter, but this made the sky look pale and not very exciting.

The image below right is the same photo from the camera, but was edited in an app (Adobe Lightroom) to create a gradient so that the top is darker than the bottom. This makes the sky look much more like a dramatic sunset, while maintaining the details in the flowers and foreground.

Try to play with the exposure settings on your camera or point the lens at a spot away from the sun to set the exposure (pressing the shutter half way down and hold) and then reframe the image and push the shutter completely to snap the photo.

This next photo was taken in the same location as the images above, just 10 minutes later. It illustrates how a few changes can create a totally different image at the same scene.

The first difference is the timing. During a sunset, 10 minutes can make a big difference. It is good to keep photographing before the sun is about to set and during the sunset, even for 10-20 minutes after it sets as the light will keep changing in often beautiful ways. Don't forget to enjoy the sunset too and not spend all your time photographing!

The second difference is the exposure was set a little darker in the camera so that the sky appears more orange and darker than the image above on the left. Both images were taken at f/5.6 but the image below as a fast shutter (1/400" vs 1/100" in the previous) which makes the exposure darker by two stops.

And finally, while both photos are from the same camera, a different lens was used. A telephoto lens allowed the photographer to zoom in on that little area of mountains that can be seen in the first photo at the top by the sun.

Different Lenses

The type of lens you use can make a big difference on the overall look of the image. If you have ever taken a sunset photo with your phone, you are using a wider angle. This makes the sun look smaller in the sky but you see more of the surrounding scene. Here is an example of a very wide angle (16mm) where the sunset is a backdrop for the rest of this beautiful scene.

Compare that to this next image taken with a telephoto lens at 400mm where the sun looks very large compared to the rest of the frame. In this image, the photographer is focused on an area further away from them so that it looks like a larger scene along with the sun.

The next photo also used a telephoto lens but it is not as much zoom as the previous (100mm vs 400mm in the previous). However, because the photographer is focusing on something closer to them (these plants), the image is framed with the sun taking up almost the whole background.

You can experiment with your sunset photography to try different settings, lenses, and areas of focus to see how that changes the image.

Silhouette Stories

You can also add subjects into the frame to create more interest. By learning how to expose to create silhouettes, you can create stories for your viewers by the different figures interacting in front of the sunset.

. by omid

Weather Changes

Remember to check the weather. Clouds and rain and other weather patterns can create dramatic skies and sunsets. Be careful the weather is not too extreme as in the case of this tornado sunset.




Essence of Photography is a series of tips, tutorials, and visual inspiration on a variety of photography skills and techniques.

You can practice these skills and more by purchasing a deck of Photo Cards from Zoom In Reach Out, a non-profit with a mission of teaching to see the world from a different perspective.

All photos in this article were posted to the Aminus3 Photography Community and are copyrighted by their respective photographers.

Click on any photo to see a larger version or to leave a comment for the photographer.

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