Sunrises & Sunsets - 6 Tips for Sunning to Stunning

by Sheen Watkins using Nikon 70-200mm  f/2.8

There’s something special about sunrises and sunsets. What’s not to love. Each represent transitions. Sunrises watch the world wake up. Sunsets represent the magic hour when the world moves from day to evening.

When you search sunsets and sunrises in the myriad of photography sharing sites, hundreds, if not thousands of images pop up ready to be reviewed. Many of these images have beautiful colors, skies and clouds. Some images pop, while others may blend in with the next image on the screen.

What are the characteristics of stunning sunrise and sunset images? We all have our own personal preferences. However, there are a few tips that can bring a bit more of the ‘wow’ factor to sunrises and sunsets.

Before we delve in, each of the images below were taken using different focal lengths and lenses. The best lens for the task is the one you have with you.

The Sun is a Star (starburst)

Our sun is the massive star at the center of our solar system. It is our most vital source of energy. The colors emitted by the sun change throughout the day. Before sunrise and after sunset, known as the blue hour, the colors in the sky feel soft and a bit cooler. After sunrise and before sunset, the golden hour covers the landscape in warmer hues.

At the point of when the sun is cresting near the horizon, take advantage of photographing the sun as a star. When composing your image, adjust your aperture to f/16 or higher.

An effective technique in photographing starbursts is when the sun is peaking or partially visible. The horizon line, pier beams, mountain peaks, trees and many other subjects can serve as tool for creating starbursts.

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Sunrises & Sunsets - 6 Tips for Sunning to Stunning

by Sheen Watkins using Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8

Sunrises and sunsets move fast. Be prepared to compose and adjust camera settings quickly so that you’ll be rewarded with variety of images to select in post processing.

Bonus tip: How many starburst points will you get with your lens? If your lens has an even number of blades such as six or eight, that will be the number of starburst points you’ll have in your image. If your lens has an odd number, the starburst points will be double. A seven blade lens will have 14 starburst points.

Painting the Sky

When photographing landscapes, optimal composition typically includes a foreground, middle ground and background. There are moments where composition guidelines just beckon to be ignored. Instead of going for the traditional approach, use camera settings and a slight movement to paint the sunset. This technique works really well when there are no subjects or points of interest.

After the sun dips below the horizon, try adjusting your settings to achieve a one second (or a little shorter) shutter speed. When pressing the shutter, gently and evenly move your camera from left to right. This is creating a soft blur and a soft pallet of color.

Related reading: Try These 3 Ideas to Start Shooting Abstract Landscapes

Sunrises & Sunsets - 6 Tips for Sunning to Stunning

by Sheen Watkins using Lensbaby Velvet 56mm

Smoke & Mirrors

For variation at dusk and dawn, try slowing the shutter speed to capture a different mood. Reflections, clouds, waves and other subjects take on a different dimension.

A tripod and cable release provide stability and minimize shutter shake. These two tools are crucial when working with slower shutter speeds.

A neutral density filter reduces the amount of light passing to the sensor without changing the scene’s color. Neutral density filters are available at different densities. Today I use my ND6 or my ND10 filter.

The image below was taken with a neutral density filter. The blue chairs on the beach were taken before sunrise. With an ND6 filter, the shutter was open for 90 seconds. The morning beach scene turned into a soft blue, smokey haze.

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Related reading: Guide to Long Exposure Landscape Photography

Sunrises & Sunsets - 6 Tips for Sunning to Stunning

Sheen Watkins using Nikon 85mm f/1.8G

Sun & Shadows Create Leading Lines

When the sunrise provides backlighting for building structures, leading lines and shadows pull the viewer in. Wide and extra wide lenses optimize the use of leading lines.

Sunrises & Sunsets - 6 Tips for Sunning to Stunning

Sheen Watkins using Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8

Bonus tip: Extra-wide lenses push sunsets and other subjects in the distance further out in the image. When working with extra wide lenses, the foreground and middle ground need to have interest and punch.

Stormy Horizons

Sunrises and sunsets do not always need to be pink and blue hues. We all have those occasions where the weather didn’t cooperate. There are also images that look okay in color. Convert the bad weather or okay image to black and white. It may turn in to a personal favorite.

Sunrises & Sunsets - 6 Tips for Sunning to Stunning

Sheen Watkins using Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8

Peaks, Valleys & Woods

The minutes before the sun rises and after the sun sets can bring dramatic and soft hues of pinks and blues.

Sunrises & Sunsets - 6 Tips for Sunning to Stunning

Sheen Watkins using Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8

The sun casting the light from behind you can load a scene with rich color. The mountain range in Utah glowed deep reds as the sun lit up the rocks. Dramatic shadows that are typically avoided add depth to the morning moment.

Whether shooting sunrises or sunsets, having a plan for your shoot will help maximize your time. Arrive in advance to scope out multiple scenes. Use your weather app or The Photographer’s Ephemeris to know the sun’s position.

With a few creative ideas in mind, the right tools and a plan, you’re almost guaranteed to leave with amazing photographs to work on in post processing.