As a nature photographer, sunrise and sunset are my primary times to shoot. If you’re a regular reader of my weekly Tips, you know I love the “sweet light” of these two times of day. The color and quality of sweet light is unrivaled. The warm glow, the side lighting, and the vibrant and saturated colors can’t be had any other time of day, nor can they be faked in Photoshop. Every sunrise and sunset is different and the more you get out to shoot at these times, the more you’ll understand why I love them.
There are many ways to exploit the sun’s effect at sunrise and sunset. First, when clouds accompany a sunrise on the eastern horizon or a sunset on the western, vibrant color may enhance your subject. Clouds have the potential to take on electric colors and enhance any setting. Second, take advantage of the sweet light that falls upon the landscape and bathes it in golden tones of yellow, red and orange. Finally, and the focus of this article, is photographing the sun when it’s on the horizon. As a subject unto itself, unless the color in the sky is electric, you’ll find it’s better to include an additional element to add intrigue to the photograph.
In that the sun is a very bright source of illumination, unless it’s dramatically diffused, backlit subjects will reveal no shadow detail. With this in mind, find an interesting silhouette to greatly enhance the impact of the photograph. The more graphic it is, the better. For instance, an outline of a rectangular building will render as a large black blob, whereas a sky lined herd of elk will be much more pleasing. Equally as important as the choice of silhouette is where you place the sun and the main subject. Avoid compositions where both appear in the center. Try to use the rule of thirds as often as possible for both the sun and silhouette.
There are concerns that need to be addressed if you plan to add this technique into your repertoire. First and foremost, avoid looking directly at the sun through your viewfinder, especially if you shoot with a telephoto. You need to squint and look at other parts of the frame when you create the composition. If there are no clouds to soften its intensity, this becomes even more critical. In situations like this, wait until the sun touches the horizon. To get the proper exposure, take a meter reading without the sun in the frame and use this as your base point. Switch to manual mode and dial that exposure into the camera. After taking a photo with this reading, check your histogram to make sure you don’t clip either the highlights or shadows. If so, compensate accordingly. The exposure will change commensurate with the change in light level, so check your histogram often to make sure you don’t lose detail in important areas. Adjust the shutter speed to compensate. Bracket a series of exposures from minus three stops to plus three stops and run the files through high dynamic range software. Shadow and highlight detail will be maintained that would otherwise be unobtainable with a single capture.