Useful Tips

How to take sunrises and sunsets


Author: Artyom Kashkanov

Sunset is one of those plots from which many amateur photographers have made and are taking their first steps in the field of art photography. In principle, it is not difficult to explain - nature itself draws a beautiful picture, the task of the photographer is only to press a button and, in principle, the photograph will almost certainly turn out to be interesting. However, there is a flip side to this natural phenomenon. Let's remember a children's toy - a kaleidoscope. Each time you look into his eyepiece, each time you see a new picture - sometimes with an interesting pattern, sometimes "so-so." But no matter how much you shake the kaleidoscope, you will not see anything fundamentally new in it. Sunset is the same. How many do not shoot, the story is battered. Yandex when it searches for “sunset” finds about 2.5 million (.) Images, most of them similar to this:

Unfortunately, I can’t indicate the author, because I don’t have such information, this photo was distributed all over the Russian Internet

Well then what? Do not shoot sunsets at all? Of course not. I just recommend taking photos more responsibly, in which case you will have a chance to photograph the sunset really beautifully and originally. And it’s not so easy!

Technical difficulties when shooting sunsets

The first difficulty is that sunset requires a good dynamic range for your camera. It is necessary to simultaneously work out both the bright sky and the dark earth. Alas, only DSLRs can boast of this and that is not all. But even on a full-frame apparatus (it is believed that their dynamic range is maximum) it is very difficult to achieve simultaneous high-quality study of both heaven and earth when shooting sunset. Is it worth talking about soap dishes that confidently “color” everything below the horizon in a “radical black color”? When shooting a sunset over water, this problem seems to disappear - the mirror of the reservoir reflects the sky and looks bright. However, the shores fall further into blackness. A huge influence on the quality of photography has a lens. A critical parameter in this case is the lens flare. When the sun enters the frame inside the optical system, the number of light reflections from the lens surfaces increases significantly, due to which the picture loses contrast and “blooms” with a lot of sun bunnies.

Author photo

This photo was taken with a Canon 75-300mm amateur lens. As you can see, glare resistance let us down - a yellow “veil” turned out around the sun and the photo came out not as high-quality as we would like. There is a belief that the use of a hood can reduce stray light. I have to disappoint - when shooting sunset, the lens hood "does not work", since the sun in such cases falls into the frame and no lens hood can reduce the light intensity. During sunset shooting, such a phenomenon very often arises such as the flow of a charge from “illuminated” pixels to neighboring ones. This phenomenon is called blooming. The result is the "growth" of the sun in size and the appearance of a colored border around it.

As you can see, the sun took a strange elongated shape - apparently the glow of the clouds around the solar disk also affected. If you "unscrew" the levels to failure, you will clearly see the color component of blooming - a green border.

The above picture, of course, is extreme, but it shows why sunset photographs are difficult to process. Nevertheless, it is full of fans in a similar way to "exaggerate" and put your creation on the Internet. Do not do this, please!

The artistic side of the landscape at sunset

Rule number 1 - do not make the sun the only key object in the frame. The sun in photography is of much greater value as a light source than as an object of photography - so use it for its intended purpose! Find a plot that would play in the sunset light and photograph it. Many people shoot sunset over the sea or a large body of water in windy weather, looping on the sunny path and completely forgetting that the spray from the surf in the backlight sometimes looks just magical! Find a pier, a dam, on which the waves break and try to take them - I am sure it is much more interesting than the sunny paths that got tired of it.

Rule number 2 - the most interesting sunsets happen during a change of weather Sunsets in good weather are monotonous and boring and represent an uncomplicated picture, like a white circle (sun) in a pink or yellow sky and an almost black bottom. When the weather changes, clouds can be observed in the sky, often of bizarre shapes. When the sun sets over the horizon these clouds briefly glow with a bright red light - do not miss this moment!

Sorry, I could not find a suitable foreground.

Rule number 3 - the stronger the diaphragm is clamped, the longer the rays from the sun Rays are obtained due to diffraction of light at the corners of the diaphragm opening. When the diaphragm is open, its shape is close to a circle, when closed - to a polygon (in the number of petals). On the one hand, diffraction by a strongly covered aperture slightly reduces the detail of the picture, on the other hand, it allows to obtain an interesting optical effect.

And no cross filter is needed!

In addition to the basic rules, I would like to add something about the filters. The greatest value when shooting sunsets is a neutral gradient filter - it allows you to slightly darken the sky to allow the camera to better work out the earth.

A polarizer when shooting sunset is useless. Someone advises using color filters - in my opinion, this is not very rational in terms of digital photography. Such a filter can be easily made in Photoshop or Lightroom, especially if you are in the habit of shooting in RAW format. On the other hand, do not forget that every extra glass reduces the glare resistance of the optical system. In conditions of such hard lighting as at sunset (if the sun is in the frame), you may need to temporarily remove the protective transparent filter. Do not forget about safety when using a telephoto lens. If you look at the sun through the lens for a long time, damage to the retina is quite possible. In order to protect myself from such a nuisance, personally, when I compose the shot, I press the "DOF Control" button (for Kenon - on the front panel, at the bottom, to the left of the lens). With the aperture closed, the picture in the viewfinder darkens significantly and you can look at the sun with virtually no risk of spoiling your eyesight. By the way, keep in mind that when shooting a sunset over water with a telephoto lens, it is quite possible that the quality of the photo will deteriorate due to the effect of the “trembling” atmosphere. Water evaporating from the surface of the water causes refraction of light, which is why the straight lines in the photo become a little curved.

Shutter speed, aperture, ISO sensitivity, white balance

In what mode to take pictures, what to set shutter speed, aperture and ISO sensitivity when shooting sunset - a fairly common question. I will try to answer it. In principle, the general principles of exposure are not much different from those generally accepted in landscape photography, namely:

I recommend photographing the sunset in manual mode. There are several reasons. The most important thing - each lens has a certain range apertureon which it gives out the best picture quality, as a rule, it is f / 5.6-f / 11. The landscape (including sunset) is not a "DOF-dependent" genre (you do not need to separate plans with blur, as in a portrait), so you can safely clamp the aperture. When the aperture is clamped to 22 or more, the overall detail of the picture slightly decreases, but the effect of diverging rays from the sun appears, as discussed above - perhaps this will be an occasion to sacrifice technicality for the sake of artistry. It makes no sense to shoot a sunset on an open aperture - the detail is low, the depth of field will be small and not all objects will most likely fall into the depth of field zone (although this may be an artistic design - these are special cases).

Excerpt we select in such a way that the exposure level of the photograph approximately corresponds to what we see with our own eyes. Simply put, if the sky is bright in reality, it should also be bright in the photograph. In this case, the exposure meter can show an overexposure of up to + 2EV, do not pay attention - make sure that the area around the sun is not overexposed to whiteness and that the solar disk in the photograph is clearly guessed. The solar disk, by the way, is almost guaranteed to be white - there is nothing wrong with that. The exception is the final stage of sunset, when the disk has almost touched the ground, then it may well turn out to be yellow or red.

It is most convenient to use an LCD display or an electronic viewfinder when shooting sunset, since they make it possible to see the result before the shutter is released. For all its merits, the mirror viewfinder is less convenient when shooting sunset. Be careful when shooting the sun with a telephoto lens - you can spoil your vision if you look at the sun through the viewfinder for too long.

ISO sensitivity the smallest possible, but at the same time, ensuring the absence of "movement". Low sensitivity lengthens the shutter speed, but provides a smoother color reproduction and reduces noise levels. Raising the ISO sensitivity is only necessary if shooting with a telephoto lens without a stabilizer and a tripod - in this case, the likelihood of blurry images due to hand tremors increases.

It is not possible to give an unambiguous recommendation on which to install. white balance, probably the most correct recommendation would be shoot in RAW and then use the desired white balance when converting to JPEG, depending on your “vision” of the plot — some photograph will look better in cold tones, some in warm.

Time Phases

Sunset itself usually lasts only a few minutes, and is part of the so-called “regime time”, when sunlight is the most gentle and favorable for shooting scenes with natural light. Consider the main phases of the regime time. For simplicity, I will only talk about sunsets, for dawn everything is the same, only the phases of the regime time go in the opposite order.

As you know, midday light is white, very harsh (if we consider summer time at mid-latitude). As the sun approaches the horizon, its rays pass through the ever-increasing thickness of the atmosphere, and the light gradually becomes warmer. The moment when the light changes its temperature significantly compared to noon, can be considered the beginning of the regime time. This is usually about an hour before sunset. This time is well suited for shooting scenes in which the main subject (for example, a mountain peak or a building) is illuminated from the side. The light is still bright enough, so you can take it off your hands if you forget to take a tripod with you.

The main building of Moscow State University (Moscow), illuminated from the side by the soft light of the rising sun. ISO100 12mm f / 11 1 / 2.5s, panorama of 2 horizontal frames

Further, the light becomes warmer - first orange, then red, and then black (when the sun sets over the horizon). Having gone beyond the horizon, our luminary ceases to illuminate earthly objects, but it can very effectively illuminate the clouds. This is the time for backlit photography, when the camera is directed approximately to where the sun has set. There is already little light, you can still shoot with your hands, but getting a sharp shot is quite difficult.

The building of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow), backlit photography shortly before sunset over the horizon. ISO100 11mm f / 8 1 / 20s

After sunset, when the clouds "go out", dusk sets in. Usually this time is unremarkable. There is very little light and the shutter speed can reach tens of seconds (especially when using filters), which makes shooting with hands impossible. But do not rush to curtail your technique. Because sometimes in the twilight real magic begins - the water in the lake calms down, the sky begins to smolder with purple light, and it seems that everything around is filled with unusual calm and harmony.

Evening twilight on the Srednemultinskoye lake, Altai. 30-second exposure allowed to smooth a small ripple in the water, making the job more relaxed. The colors are real. ISO200 20mm f / 8 30s, panorama of 2 horizontal frames

Features of shooting in time

One of the main problems when shooting in time mode is the lack of light. As a result, when shooting handheld, many frames can be blurry due to “shake”. The situation is complicated when using light filters (for example, polarizing or gradient filters), which can increase the required shutter speed several times. The only effective solution is to use a tripod. If there is no tripod, you can try to put the camera on some hard surface, for example, the following panorama was shot (here the camera was lying on a granite slab):

Panorama of sunset in Victory Park (Moscow), reflected in a granite slab.

The main problem when shooting sunsets and sunrises is the large dynamic range (DD) of the scene being shot. DD depends on the direction of shooting: maximum in backlight (the camera is aimed at the setting sun) and minimum in the opposite direction. Modern SLR cameras, as a rule, easily cope with DD scenes when shooting scenes with side lighting. But for this you need to shoot in RAW and be able to accurately set the exposure. The RAW format stores much more information (compared to JPG, for example) and allows you to “stretch” to some extent small overexposures and overexposures during processing.

An error in determining the exposure can lead to loss of information and the appearance of serious “overexposures” or “overexposures” in the picture, even when shooting in RAW. Therefore, I recommend shooting in manual mode (M) to avoid camera automation errors.

This is nothing complicated. Put the camera on a tripod, set the minimum ISO value, set the aperture so that there is enough depth of field (usually f / 5.6 ... f / 11), set the shutter speed for the camera’s automation. Even in manual mode, automatic metering works in SLR cameras - look into the viewfinder and you will see a strip with the numbers -3,2,1,0,1,2,3+, and above it the risk - this is the exposure meter (in your camera it may look different):

If the risk is above "0", then the exposure you set is the same as that selected by the camera automation. If the risk is biased towards negative / positive numbers, then the camera considers that the shutter speed is too short / long, respectively. First, set the shutter speed so that the risk is above "0". Then make a test frame and look at its histogram. If the histogram is strongly shifted to the left, then increase the shutter speed, if to the right, then decrease. Take the next test frame and look at the histogram again. And so on until you get a frame with a good histogram, without overexposures and oversights. You can read more about the histogram, for example, here.

Do not forget to follow the histogram of individual channels! When shooting in regime time, there may be overexposure (clipping) in separate channels in the absence of overexposure in brightness. This results in color distortion. When shooting sunsets / sunrises, clipping is often in the red channel, at dusk - in the blue channel.

Example of clipping in the red channel with a slight general overexposure


In the case of backlight, the dynamic range situation is usually more complicated. It may happen that at any shutter speed there are overexposures or oversights in the frame - the camera can’t cope with too much dynamic range. In this case, you can shoot with exposure bracketing. As an example, I will give the original frames of the sunset shown above, shot at shutter speeds of 1/80, 1/40, 1/20, 1/10 and 1/5 s:

There are oversights in the upper frames, and overexposures in the lower frames. I combined these frames by overlaying them in the form of layers with masks in Photoshop, so that in the final work (see above) there are no overexposures or oversights. This method is called “tonmapping,” which I will discuss in detail in a future article.

Shooting with bracketing can be useful even if you don’t know how to do tonmapping. If you are a little mistaken in determining the shutter speed, you can always be sure that at least one of the bracketing frames has turned out with the correct shutter speed. In addition, perhaps in the future you will learn how to do tonmapping, and then you can return to the previously shot sunset.

Gradient Filtering

In some cases, DD scenes can be reduced using gradient filters.

Singh-ray Gradient Filters (4 × 6 ”)

Such filters allow you to darken part of the image. For example, if the top of the image is much lighter than the bottom:

When shooting without a filter, a significant part of the sky turned out to be overexposed

then using the gradient filter you can darken the upper part, so that the image will not overexposure:

To shoot this frame, a neutral gray gradient filter of 3 stops with a soft border was used. Svetloye Lake, Ergaki Natural Park, Krasnoyarsk Territory. ISO100 20mm f / 11 1 / 15s

The highest quality (and expensive) rectangular gradient filters are made by Singh-ray, the very good by Lee, and the good by Hitech. Unfortunately, they are almost impossible to purchase in Russia. Хорошие фильтры отличаются от дешёвых нейтральностью и качеством изготовления. Например, фильтры Singh-ray практически полностью нейтральные, Hitech имеют небольшой фиолетовый оттенок, заметный при съёмке днём в пасмурную погоду, доступные в России фильтры Cokin имеют паразитный оттенок, заметный почти во всех сюжетах, кроме закатов и рассветов.

Градиентный фильтр в ряде случаев позволяет снять сцену одним кадром, без брекетинга. В этом вся прелесть таких фильтров: одно нажатие на кнопку затвора, минимум обработки, и в результате получается очень естественная фотография. However, gradient filters are not a panacea. In the case of a more or less complex border between the dark and bright areas of the scene, the gradient gradient darkens not only the bright area, but also the dark. This is clearly seen in the photographs given in this section, where, along with the sky, the gradient gradient darkened the mountains.

If you do not know where to start, buy one neutral-gray gradient filter for 2 stops with a soft border (see the left filter in the photo above). It will be useful in 90% of the plots, and at the same time it will not be visible in the pictures (in the sense that the picture will look completely natural). Filters for 3-4 stops are needed much less often, and you can easily go too far with them, too darkening the top of the frame. 1 stop filters are generally completely useless.

The sun in the frame

A photograph of an early morning or late evening can become much more interesting and dynamic if you include the sun in the composition. Here are some simple tips to help make your frame better.

  • To get long rays, you need to pinch the aperture to f / 22. The stronger the diaphragm is clamped, the longer the rays. The number of rays will be equal to the number of aperture blades in your lens.
  • If the sun is in the frame, then the lens hood will not help you, it can be removed.
  • Any defects or dirt on the optics lead to the appearance of a large number of spurious glare. Therefore, it is better to remove all filters from the lens and make sure that the front lens is clean.
  • Even without filters, there may be glare caused by internal reflections in the lens. You can get rid of them by putting the camera on a tripod and making two frames: one ordinary, and the second with the sun closed with your finger:

If you close the sun with your finger, the stray glare in the lower part of the frame disappears

Then in Photoshop you can overlay one frame on another with a mask, thus getting rid of glare:

Dawn on the river Poperechnaya Multa, Altai (in this place the river flows under stones). Here, two frames are superimposed with the same exposure (see above) to get rid of glare. Then a frame with a slower shutter speed was applied to get rid of overexposures in the sky. All shots were shot on f / 22 when the sun just peeked out from behind the mountains. ISO100 20mm f / 22 0.4s

There is one complication - the sun can significantly reduce the contrast of the whole frame as a whole, and therefore a simple blending of frames will not work, because they will vary greatly in contrast. This problem can be avoided if you shoot at the moment the sun sets behind an object (for example, a tree, mountain or building) when most of the solar disk is covered by this object. Then the overlay will be painless.

Equilibrium moment

Shooting sunset in the city has its own characteristics. The big city is full of light sources - the illumination of buildings, lampposts, car headlights - and this light can be used to make the most spectacular shots. As the sun sets, its light gradually diminishes, and the lighting in the city gradually turns on. When the intensity of sunlight and artificial light is approximately compared (30-45 minutes after sunset), the moment of equilibrium sets in - the optimal time for shooting sunset in the city. This balance does not last long, 5-10 minutes. At this time, the dynamic range of the scene is minimal, so you can shoot without exposure bracketing.

Sunset, 20 minutes before the moment of equilibrium, urban lighting is just starting to turn on. Due to the large DD, a significant part of the image turned out to be underexposed. ISO200 90mm f / 11 4min At the moment of equilibrium, the brightness of natural and artificial lights is equalized, the DD of the scene is minimal. Here is one shot, without bracketing. ISO200 100mm f / 16 2min


We can talk a lot about composition, this is an extensive topic worthy of a separate article. Shooting dusk and dawn is not special, the usual rules for constructing a composition work here. However, it is worth considering common errors.

No matter how gorgeous the sunset is, do not make the sky the main object of the frame. The main object should be terrestrial, and the sunset should only complement the frame, emphasizing the beauty of this object. Imagine that there is no sunset, and instead of it - a clear blue sky, the frame should remain interesting, albeit less spectacular.

A common story among amateurs: from below the sea, from above the sunset. No matter how beautiful it is, the plot is extremely battered. The advice here is simple - include a foreground in the composition, for example, stones on the shore, a pier, a boat - anything that seems interesting to you personally. Aim the camera so that the horizon is above the middle of the frame - so you focus on the foreground, not the sunset.

The foreground makes the photo significantly more expressive. Svetloye Lake, Ergaki Natural Park, Krasnoyarsk Territory. ISO100 24mm f / 16 3.2s

When shooting silhouettes in backlight, the silhouette should not dominate - its area should not exceed 30-40% of the frame. Of course, the shape of the silhouette should be interesting in itself.

The setting sun behind three spiers: two Kremlin and one hotel Ukraine. One frame, no processing. ISO200 300mm f / 8 1 / 4000s

Preparation for shooting

Consider how you can prepare for a shooting in a regimen time. Let's say that the month of May is now, and you wanted to take a picture of the Moscow Kremlin in a regime of time. First you need to study the selected object: find its photos on the Internet and / or come to the center of Moscow at any convenient time and go around it from all sides, choosing interesting angles. In the case of the Kremlin, one of the most spectacular (and popular) angles is obtained when shooting from the Patriarchal Bridge.

After we have chosen a shooting point, we open the program The Photographer’s Ephemeris and see if this point is suitable for shooting in regime time. We are looking for the Patriarchal bridge on the map and put a marker on it. The program shows the direction of sunrise / sunset and moon:

As you can see, the direction of the sunrise roughly coincides with the direction to the Kremlin (it is under the inscription “Moscow”), which means that the plot we have chosen can be shot at dawn. The sunset will burn in the other direction, so we will not come to this bridge at sunset. Now we look at what time the sun rises. Let's say it is May 1. The program on the right panel shows the time of sunrise and sunset of our bodies. In this case, the sun rises at 5:46.

As we already know, the picture will turn out to be the most effective if you take it when the clouds are already illuminated by the awakening sun, and the Kremlin’s illumination hasn’t turned off yet (the moment of equilibrium), this is about 40 minutes before sunrise. It is clear that you need to come to the shooting point a little earlier, say at 4:45. It remains only to wait for the good weather and find the strength to get up at 4 a.m. Most likely, you have to come to the chosen place several times before you can catch a beautiful sunrise, but it's worth it.

The Moscow Kremlin at dawn, view from the Patriarchal bridge. ISO200 50mm f / 11 10s

It is unlikely that you want to limit yourself to one plot. It makes sense to make a list of stories that you would like to shoot, and to do the described procedure with each of them - to determine at what time and under what weather conditions they can be removed. This list might look like this:

Kremlin, view from the Patriarchal bridge - an hour before dawn, clouds are needed (spring, summer)
Kremlin, view from B. Moskvoretsky bridge - half an hour after sunset, clouds are needed (mid-spring, late summer, early autumn)
Moscow State University, reflection in the fountain - half an hour after dawn, after rain (early spring, early autumn)

After compiling the list, it remains to wait for suitable weather. If you are shooting outdoors, then you have to honestly go to selected points every day in the hope of catching the light. But in the city your task can be greatly facilitated, since humanity has learned to more or less accurately predict the weather, in any case, the day ahead. In my opinion, the most accurate and detailed weather forecast is provided by Intellicast service. If the forecast says that during normal hours there will be 20-80% of the clouds (the “Clouds” column), then on this day there is a good chance of a beautiful light. And if a storm is promised a couple of hours before sunset, then you need to go, as the light show can be simply grandiose, the main thing is not to forget to take an umbrella.

Example weather forecast at

If you are unlucky with the weather

Colorful sunsets do not happen every day. If you came to shoot, but there is no light, then you should not be upset. Firstly, you can explore the area and try to find interesting places to shoot. Secondly, you can search for stories that do not require good light. If the sky is clear, you can try to shoot a plot with the sun in the frame. In dense clouds, you can search for stories without a sky. For example, in the forest you can take pictures of trees, streams and streams. The plot may not be so interesting, but you will not come back from the shooting disappointed. So, next time you will have more motivation to get up early in the morning to shoot the dawn.

Cloudy weather, drizzling rain - excellent conditions for shooting vegetation in the forest. Ergaki Natural Park, Krasnoyarsk Territory. ISO100 24mm f / 16 1.3s