Photo Lake 33

Creating WOW Sunset Photos

I’m out shooting sunrise this morning. We’ve had such bad weather this last winter that sunrises were few and far between. Another storm was moving in and I really needed to get out of the house and do some photography!

The light and color in the sky at sunrise and sunset can add a lot to your travel shots. In this post, I’ll talk about what goes into making that great sunrise or sunset photo – the type of photos that people love to like!

In this post, I’ll talk about the “wheres”, “whens”, and “hows” of taking quality sunrise and sunset photos.

But as with everything – practice is key. So this morning I’m writing this post just down the road from home as I wait for the sun to rise.

So, grab your tripod and let’s get started!

Photo Lake 33
I was thinking about sunrises the other day as I was sitting by a beautiful lake in near pitch-black waiting for the sun to come over the horizon. Then a blog I follow “The Daily Post” set sunrises and sunsets as this week’s theme. It must be fate!

Composition: The “Wheres” of Sunset Photos

The first thing to think about is where to take these sunrise or sunset photos.

I know you’re thinking, “How hard can it be? Just point the camera at the sky when the show’s going on and whammy! It’s amazing!” But getting good sunrise and sunset photos takes more than that. Taking a photo only OF a sunset isn’t enough.

Sunsets and sunrises are experiences and you may be feeling amazement at the time, but to get that feeling across to someone viewing the photo – someone who isn’t standing next to you experiencing the sunset for themselves – you’re going to have to do more.

Sunsets and sunrises need to be anchored by good composition.

In the photo above, these two trees are perfect anchors to the sunrise composition. They provide interest and scale to the scene. There are nearly 40 individual lakes at Busch Memorial Conservation Area southwest of St. Louis, but Lake 33 has the trees so it’s the best for sunrise photos.


Popular subjects for sunrises and sunsets are trees, buildings, mountains, bridges – that sort of thing. Find a place that has a nice focal point that isn’t obscured by trees, buildings or the like. Somewhere where your subject and the skies will be in harmony. Not as easy as it seems!

Apps like PhotoPills are designed to help photographers figure out where the sun will be in relation to the landscape. I use this app sometimes, but most of the time it doesn’t matter to me exactly where the sun will rise or set. I just need a general direction. Though there are times that I care exactly where the sun is setting like the times of year that the sun sets directly through the Gateway Arch.

Photo Sun Through the Arch
We’d been trying to photograph the sun setting through the Arch for a week, but the weather has made it difficult. For this sunset, a break in the clouds! 10 minutes later, the clouds were back.

One side note here in case you haven’t been paying attention your whole life (I hadn’t) saying the sun sets in the west is a broad generalization. The sun moves back and forth across the horizon as the year progresses. Return to the same spot in 6 months and the sun will rise or set in a different place.

Composition: The “Wheres” of Sunset Photos — Part 2

Ok, now that you’ve found the perfect composition and figured out where the sun will set, you’re ready to create that terrific sunset photo. Great, got it? Now, MOVE!

You’re not going to want to move. You’ve found the best spot — or have you?

I know that you’ve come to this spot because you think it will make a great sunset composition, but don’t stand here the entire time. Sunset takes a bit of time.

If you don’t move, you’re likely to get the same photo over and over again. It maybe an amazing photo – but you don’t need 100 of them. Get the shot and then move.

Photo Red Sunrise
Sunrise over the Mississippi River just before the storm clouds moved in (again). Climbing down into the muddy riverbed was a good move for my photo, though not necessarily for my shoes which smelled like rotten fish for a week!

Move up, move down, take a step to your left, or three steps to your right. And definitely try looking behind you!

Colors of sunrise and sunset can wrap around 180 degrees. Some of the best color may actually be behind you. I like to shoot directly into the sun, but I think this is technically a no-no (oh well, rules are meant to be broken), but facing east at sunset does not necessarily make you a crazy photographer who doesn’t have a sense of direction!

Photo Edge of Sunset
This photo was taken at Cadgwith Cove in Cornwall (U.K). This photo taught me an important lesson. The sun was setting directly behind me, but sunset light wraps around.
Sony A7II 55mm 15sec@f22 ISO50

I’ll admit that moving is a bit of a gamble. Maybe you did have the best shot to start with, but you’ll never know until you move.

Timing & Weather: The “Whens” of Sunset Photos

Now that you’ve scouted out a good composition, it’s important to get there in time for the main event.

Where ever I am, I always know  sunrise and sunset times, but this time isn’t what you’re aiming for! Sunrises and sunsets take place over time – roughly 90 minutes (sometimes more!). I show up at least 30 minutes and preferably 60 minutes before the event. I usually show up earlier to a sunrise than I do a sunset, but I stay later after a sunset.

Bring a book to pass the time or just enjoy the experience, but in fact you’ll probably be taking photos the whole time. On a good day, the sky will change right up until sunrise or sunset. If you’re really lucky, sun rays will break through the clouds. Be quick! The rays are fleeting as the clouds move through the sky.

Photo Italian Sunset
Rays burst through the clouds at sunset over the Cinque Terre coastline from Riomaggorie, Italy

Once the sun does what it’s going to do, STAY PUT! Don’t move that tripod! There’s more to photograph!

Many photographers, especially those photographing sunsets, leave before the action is finished. Sunsets can seem like they are finished soon after the sun dips below the horizon, but sunsets can throw up a surprise or two. Wait at least 30 minutes. Sometimes it takes a while for the sunset to work up to its best colors.

Photo The City Goes Dark
The sun has set behind the St. Louis skyline, but colors linger during blue hour over the Mississippi River.

The best sunsets and sunrises come when the weather report says “partly cloudy.” The sky will color up even if there aren’t clouds, but in a very predictable way. What creates those amazing sunset and sunrise photos are those unpredictable and moving clouds and particles in the atmosphere. See Stephen Corfidi’s article for a more scientific view.

There’s a website called SunsetWx for helping photographers figure out if there’s going to be a good sunset. I’ve used it with mixed results.

I can’t do much about the weather when I travel. All I can do is show up someplace interesting and watch the show. Sometimes I get lucky – other times it’s a bust.

Photo Manarola High Seas
This sunrise overlooking the picturesque town of Manorola in Cinque Terre Italy was a bit of a bust as clouds rolled in and the seas become stormy. The color was very washed out.

Technical Things: The “Hows” of Sunset Photos

I’m not a big tripod user, but I happily sling that tripod over my shoulder when I’m going out to photograph sunrises and sunsets. My shutter speeds are just too slow to handhold when the sun dips below the horizon.

I want a nice clean image so I’ll often shoot in Aperture priority mode at f14 or f16 to start with and then change it over to manual mode as the light changes. Since I’m on a tripod, my ISO can be at 100 to reduce as much noise as possible. If I’m shooting into the sun and want a nice starburst, than I switch the f stop to 18 or 20.

My subject really determines my shutter speed. If I’m photographing something static like a building or a mountain, than it really doesn’t matter what my shutter speed is. I can probably leave the camera in Aperture priority mode. If the wind is blowing and moving around clouds and trees I probably want a faster shutter speed – to get this, I’ll have balance it with a higher ISO. But if I want to see the clouds moving or smooth out the water, I’ll slow down my shutter speed. I love the look of silky water so I’m all about those long exposures!

Photo STL Cityscape
I do like to photograph bridges and especially with long exposures. This is an example of the Musial Bridge over the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Though I’ve broken every rule in the composition book, I love the bridge at the mid-point equally dividing the water and the sky.
Sony A7II 41mm 15 sec.@f22 ISO100

I use the zebra feature on my camera – that tells me when something is too bright and I’m losing detail – and use my exposure compensation dial freely. Cameras can have a difficult time with sunsets and sunrises – scenes that has such wide dynamic range. It will either chose to expose for the light or the dark parts of your image.

I’ll employ neutral density filters to allow for slower shutter speeds starting with a 6- or 10-stop ND filter when the sun is still bright and switching out to a 3-stop later. Eventually, the sky will be dark enough on it’s own and I remove the filters.

My Sony A7RIII has quite a dynamic range and I know that I can alter parts of the image by almost 2 stops one way or another in post-processing. But each camera is different and has more or less play in the exposure adjustments. This means that as long as I have detail in the highlights and shadows, I can even out the exposure in post-processing.

I don’t often process HDR images, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not taking HDR images in the field. This means setting up my camera to take 3 or 5 photos of the same scene each with a different exposure. Lightroom, Photoshop and other software programs blend the exposures together taking the best from each photo. Sometimes the dynamic range is just too wide and an HDR is what you need.

But HDR can have a stylized look about it and I find that I don’t always need to blend exposures. Shooting in HDR allows me to have multiple exposures to chose from when I post-process. Sometimes I post-process just one of the images rather than combining them into an HDR, but at least I have a number exposures to choose from.

Also, having the HDR images means I can do a sky replacement using one exposure for the sky and another for the landscape. I don’t necessarily do this a lot, but if I’ve taken multiple exposures in the field than at least I have the option.

Final Thoughts 

Sunsets and sunrises are prime photographing time. The color in the sky can make everything look magical.


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