Tips for Photographing Into the Sun at Sunrise or Sunset

Los Angeles Sunrise
Sunrise over Los Angeles from the top of Kenneth Hahn Park

The settings for the shot above, I used a 100-400mm zoom lens at 200mm, 1/3200 second @ f/5.0, ISO 125

Photographing into the sun can be tricky, but if you follow a few tips, you can get spectacular results!

  1. Get there early, before the sun rises or sets, find a spot and setup so you are ready to shoot when the action begins. The sun sets and rises very quickly, you will only have a few minutes to get that iconic shot. There are several apps Sunrise-Sunset, The Photographer’s Ephemeris (available for android and iphone) that can help you find out the exact time at your location.
  2. Shoot in the Raw format to retain the broadest range of colors and tones. You will need to process your Raw files in Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom, or other editor. There are plenty of tutorials on the internet you can find to help you get started, if you are new at processing Raw files. An explanation or lesson is too lengthy for this blog post.
  3. Shoot in Aperture Priority, because the light will be changing rapidly. The sharpest part of the lens is usually two or three stops from wide open, I recommend starting there. F/5.0 – f/8 in this range, will also work well. Or, for more drama, try stopping your aperture down (very small opening) to f/22. This will enhance the rays coming off the sun, giving them a starburst look.
  4. If you have a lens that has an image stabilizer built in, only use it if you are hand-holding. If you are using a tripod, turn image stabilization off. There will be a switch on the lens, if it has it. Just remember to turn it back on when you are finished, otherwise your next photo session could have some blurry shots.
  5. Hot Tip! Use exposure compensation to underexpose your shots. Sunrise and sunsets work best underexposed by a stop or two less.
  6. Do not use any sunset/sunrise automatic modes, if your camera has them. They are fully automatic modes designed to assist those with no technical knowledge, but in most cases these modes will not give you the best results.
  7. Tripods are recommended. Although you will be shooting at fast shutter speed, I still recommend a tripod. It forces you to be more deliberate with your composition.
  8. Auto white balance is ok, but if you want to more control of the warm tones, set the white balance to shade. This will increase and enhance the orange hues.
  9. Remove the UV filter if you have one on your lens. I stopped using these filters long ago, and found they offered no benefit, and in fact could make things worse. Light will bounce of the filter and refract all around the inside of the lens, creating bright areas. These filters can also reduce contrast and saturation because the glass often has no coatings.
  10. Meter the scene away from the sun itself, on a medium-bright areas in the frame. never directly into or on the disc of the sun itself. Use Evaluative (Canon/Sony) or Matrix (Nikon) metering modes.
  11. Turn off Auto focus. Manually pre-focus on an object (cloud, mountain or building) in the distance nearest the sun. A tripod is recommended, and this will prevent your auto-focus from hunting, if it has trouble focussing. Because you only have a brief time to get the shot, any delays will cut your shot count down and you may miss the best shot.

Composition Tips

  1. Clouds are your friend. Best sunset/sunrise shots are right after a rainfall, when the clouds are beginning to clear. Although, any clouds can add more drama to your shots. Low lying fog or mist can also add drama.
  2. Find an interesting foreground object, a building, tree, people, anything that adds interest, and creates depth, and include them in your composition.
  3. Avoid centering your horizon line. Set the horizon either closer to the bottom or to the top of the frame, dependent upon what is more interesting, the sky or the foreground. Most likely, it’s the sky, so place the horizon lower. The rule of thirds overlay in your viewfinder can help you compose. But, rules can always be broken, so do what you think works best.
  4. I like using a telephoto lens for sunrise/sunset shots. Any focal length from 100mm – 400mm will work great. At long focal length, the sun will appear oversized, and the foreground and background will become compressed (appear closer together). Conversely, if you prefer to make the sun look small and the scene to appear more vast, use a wide angle lens.

Happy photographing!

Ivan Boden

I'm a designer and a photographer. I play well with others and I don't run with scissors. I know how to tie a fisherman's knot! And, I can pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time. I'm a Multitask er. I'm married to Julianne, who spins circles around me. I've got two daughters, who spin me in circles. Our dog Molly... she's a picky eater and sometimes sits and spins to itch her butt. And, there's Sock Puppet, the cat. Sometimes we call him Chicken, Little Eddie Munster or... Kitten.

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