Crucial Tips for Improved Sunrise and Sunset Photos
I love a good sunset. Especially one at the beach.
It's hard to beat that incredible Golden Hour lighting, the feeling of the sand between your toes, and the smell of the salt air.
Well, I say it's hard to beat that, but getting a fantastic shot of a sunset is one way to make the moment even better!
But sunrise and sunset are tough times to get a really magical image.
The difficulties with exposure alone are enough to derail many of us.
But throw in a few compositional considerations, weather that won't cooperate, and not having the right gear, and sunrise and sunset can be downright impossible to photograph well.
In that spirit, I've put together a few tips and tricks that will make a noticeable difference in your ability to capture spectacular Golden Hour photos.
Don't Use Auto White Balance
One of the best ways to ruin the impact of your sunrise and sunset photos is to leave your camera on auto white balance.
Now, I'm not saying that auto white balance isn't a valuable tool in many scenarios. In fact, I rarely feel compelled to take my camera out of auto white balance.
That is unless I'm photographing a sunrise or sunset...
The problem with auto white balance is that one of its primary purposes is to make the colors of the scene look neutral. That's why it's such a valuable tool because you can fine tune the colors in post-processing without having to worry as much about color casts.
But when you photograph a sunrise or sunset - a time of day in which the sky is absolutely bursting with color, you don't want auto white balance to dull those colors. Instead, you want to enhance them.
The question is, what white balance setting is best for enhancing the colors of Golden Hour?
Like many things in photography, the answer is, "it depends."
However, in most cases, if you've got a scene with a lot of warm tones - yellows, pinks, and oranges - the shade or cloudy white balance setting is ideal. It will enhance these colors (and help draw them out of an otherwise lackluster sunset too) because this setting is intended for warming up cool lighting situations.
Fortunately, it has the same warming effect when warm tones are present as well.
For a quick refresher on white balance, give the video above by Joshua Cripps from Professional Photography Tips a quick review.
Too Many Clouds Can Be a Bad Thing
There is a fine balance when it comes to sunrise and sunset and the presence of clouds.
On the one hand, a cloudless sunrise or sunset can be a bit on the boring side without the benefit of having some textural details in the sky.
What's more, some of the impacts of the incredible colors of this time of day are lost without clouds to reflect that light.
On the other hand, too much cloud cover isn't ideal either. After all, if the sun is obscured by clouds, you won't have an opportunity to even get a shot of the sunrise or sunset.
We obviously don't have control over what the clouds are going to do on any given morning or evening when we're out shooting.
Having said that, a moderate level of clouds - just enough to add light and texture without overwhelming the shot - is what you should look for, like in the image above.
With a few clouds in the sky, your image will benefit from a broader range of colors and tones that add even more layers to your photo.
When paired with things like interesting landscape elements, a silhouetted figure of a person, or a city's skyline, you have all the makings for an eye-catching sunrise or sunset photo. After all, lighting is what makes or breaks any photo!
Gear Up With a Reverse ND Grad
You've no doubt heard of neutral density filters, and I'm guessing the chances are pretty good that you might even have one in your kit.
ND filters are great for minimizing the amount of light that reaches the camera's sensor so you can create long exposure images, even in the daytime.
You might have also heard of graduated ND filters, which help landscape photographers overcome the difficulties of exposing for a bright sky and a dark foreground.
Unlike a traditional ND filter, a graduated ND filter has a varying level of stopping power - it's dark on top and clear on the bottom such that the light from the sky is filtered somewhat, resulting in an improved exposure.
There's also a handy little gadget called a reverse ND graduated filter that's designed specifically for sunrise and sunset photos. Watch the video below by Formatt-Hitech for a summary of the differences between a reverse ND grad and other filters:
A reverse ND grad is dark on top, even darker in the middle, and then has little or no filtering power on the bottom.
This is advantageous for photographing sunrises and sunsets because the sky will be bright and the foreground will be dark, but the brightest area of the scene will be on the horizon - where the sun is either rising or setting.
That means that a reverse ND grad is an ideal tool for overcoming the complexities of shooting at sunrise and sunset.
The dark upper half will stop some of the brightness of the sky while the darker middle portion will handle the extreme luminance from the sun. Meanwhile, you won't have to worry about foreground elements that are too dark because a reverse ND grad will allow in all the light possible to brighten things up.
The reverse ND grad pictured above is a solid choice for sunrise and sunset photography.
This particular filter is by Formatt-Hitech.
The quality of the reverse ND grad you use is obviously extremely important, and Formatt-Hitech takes that to heart by using the highest-quality 1.55mm optical resin.
What's more, the reverse ND grads from Formatt-Hitech come in various strengths, including 1-stop, 2-stop, and 3-stop variations, so you have a wide selection that will help you address even the most challenging early morning or late evening lighting conditions.
These filters are also available in a host of sizes, from 67x85mm up to 165x200mm.
Best of all, Formatt-Hitech doesn't just make a good quality product, but they also price them aggressively.
That means you can get a nice reverse ND grad for your sunrise and sunset shots without having to spend a pile of money.
When you can combine quality with a great price, that's a good day in my book! Better still, combine a reverse ND grad with the other tips discussed above, and you have a recipe for capturing much-improved sunrise and sunset photos.