Photos taken at sunrise, sunset and twilight can provide some of the most provocative and haunting photos you’ll ever take. Both the start and end of day pack an emotional punch that’s been with us since the dawn of the human race. Even today the onset of darkness carries a sense of fear and the return of light brings with it a relief and excitement at the start of another new day.
But the spring solstice and the lengthening daylight hours are reason enough to celebrate the near horizon sun (a term I use to cover both sunrise, sunset, and their associated twilights). Photographically speaking, the near horizon sun offers opportunities for dramatic photos. Colorful skies, orange-painted subjects, light raking across the landscape, deep silhouettes, and more await you.
But photographing the sun also carries numerous photographic challenges, so let’s see how to get great results taking pictures of the near horizon sun.
Before We Start – A Safety Warning
Be careful when photographing the setting or rising sun. You do not want to damage your eyes. Do not stare at the sun through a traditional optical viewfinder (the kind you hold up to your eye), especially when using a telephoto lens because it magnifies the sun. If your camera lets you use an LCD or electronic viewer (most cameras do) to see and compose photos, bright sunsets are the time to use it. With it, you won’t be looking directly at the sun as you would with a traditional optical viewfinder.
Including the near horizon sun in the viewfinder can drive your camera-meter crazy. Often it results in pictures far too dark. The meter tries to make the brilliant fireball of the sun appear as a normal subject (such as your spouse’s face) by dramatically darkening it, which means everything else will be way too dark. The only time that meter successfully works without your intervention is in extremely hazy skies that reveal the sun as a lurid red ball. If the sun retains its brilliance, you need to exclude it from the picture or increase exposure by a full stop or two (using the +1, +2 settings on the exposure compensation control). If your camera offers the RAW file format, use it so you can gain greater control when using your image-editing software.
Lastly take two additional photos and increase exposure by one stop in each successive photo. That means you’ll end up with three photos, each a bit brighter than the one before it. For instance, the camera suggests 1/1000 second at f/11 for the first photo. Take that shot. Now make a brighter photo by setting the exposure compensation dial to +1, which, in this instance, would give a setting of 1/500 at f/11; then take an even brighter photo by setting the exposure compensation dial to +2 (in this instance that would give exposure settings of 1/250 second at f/11 . You now have three photos of different brightnesses to choose from. Choose the one you like best.
story and photos by Derek Doeffinger