Meet Me On the Dock at Sunset… and I’ll Show You How to Take Great Photos

The simplicity of a silhouette is its strength. Here three kids hop across the rocks at Webster Park on Lake Ontario.

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.

Create Silhouettes
Shooting into the low sun makes it easy to create silhouettes. It also helps you avoid exposure problems because a range of exposures can create attractive silhouetted subjects against the bright sky. To get best results, you should compose the scene so the sun is either all or partially behind a subject, or even outside the picture if it still creates a silhouette of the subject of interest.

A variety of subjects work well when silhouetted, but the best approach is to choose a subject that offers visual interest when it becomes only a black shape. Barns tend to be boring, lighthouses interesting. Windmills, trees, and sailboats are silhouette staples, as are barnyard animals and people, especially those leaping, running or biking. Only you can decide which works.

Look Away From the Sun
Sometimes that red orb drifting above the horizon is so compelling that we can’t take our eyes off of it. But you should. Indeed, turn your back to it. Only then will you learn that the best sunset photo may be the one behind you. When you do look behind you, you’ll see low light raking across the landscape, highlighting the textures of everything it strikes. You’ll find its warm rays brushing copper hues on faces, trees and buildings. Those colors call out the time of day and instill a sense of warmth and appreciation when we see them.

The Joy of Twilight
Often the best colors occur when the sun is below the horizon – for both sunrise and sunset. Since more of us opt to photograph sunsets, don’t leave too soon after the sun sets. Often the clouds reach their best color several minutes after the sun sets (or before it rises), and sometimes the clouds in the high east still receive light from the sun that has just dropped beneath the horizon.

Another advantage of early twilight is that some light from the bright sky still illuminates the landscape, and the blue of twilight contrasts nicely with the yellow glow emanating from artificial lights in houses, barns, bridges, vehicles and streets. The darker it gets the more difficult it becomes to balance the increasingly dark landscape with bright artificial lights. So try to shoot these scenes within 20 minutes of sunset. That means you’ll benefit by arriving at your location by the time the sun sets. You’ll either need a tripod or a high ISO of 400 to 1600 to enable shutter speeds at which you can handhold the camera without blurring the picture. Typically, the slowest shutter you can make acceptably sharp pictures with  while handholding the camera is about 1/15 second.

Use a Telephoto Lens to Magnify the Sun
Visually, the setting sun seems enormous. Photographically, it’s small. Unless you use a telephoto lens. To make the setting sun photographically meet your expectations, use a focal length of 135 to 300mm. To keep images sharp at those longer focal lengths, try to use a shutter speed of 1/300 second or higher. With the sun, that usually isn’t a problem.
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Wait…there are more tips
Go to lifeinthefingerlakes.com and click on sunset photos, to find a few more helpful tips and several more pictures that discuss how you can take great photos.


story and photosby Derek Doeffinger