How to Take Better Sunrise and Sunset Photos

Marianne Stenger
28th June 2016

There’s nothing quite as magical as watching the sun dip behind a mountain or rise gloriously over the ocean, and there’s a good chance you’ve attempted to photograph a sunset or two yourself, whether casually with your phone or more purposefully with a compact digital camera or DSLR. 

Since the light at this time of day can play tricks on your camera, however, you may find that your photos don’t always capture the magnificence of the scene in front of you.  

With this in mind, professional nature photographer Chris Nicholson has shared his insights on how to take better sunrise and sunset photos. Whether you’re photographing the sky itself or using it as a backdrop for some other subject, here are six simple ways to get better results. 

1. Understand the subtle differences between sunrises and sunsets

Although to the untrained eye there may be no obvious difference between a sunrise and sunset, when you set out to photograph either of these scenes, it can help to understand their subtle differences and how your photographs might be affected. Nicholson points out that one of the primary differences is that in warmer and more humid weather, cool light rays are filtered out, which gives the sun and surrounding sky a warmer look. Since the temperature and humidity are generally more intense at the end of the day, sunset photographs will often appear warmer with more vivid colours.

“Humidity makes sunsets look warmer-toned than sunrises,” he explains.  “During the summer especially, a sunset sky will look more orange or red, while a sunrise sky might look more blue or pink.” He notes that the same effect can be seen if a lot of dust is kicked into the atmosphere, which happens more frequently during the day than overnight. But while sunsets can produce more spectacular colours, shooting around sunrise may allow you to create some interesting effects involving fog or dew droplets. So if you’re deciding when to shoot, keep in mind that neither is better or worse; it just depends on the sort of photograph you’re trying to create.

2. Choose the right camera settings  

Shooting in automatic mode generally won’t cut it if you want to accurately capture a sunrise or sunset, because the camera’s metre will likely overexpose the scene in its attempt to create a balanced exposure of what it sees.

“The problem at sunrise or sunset is that the very bright sun throws off that balance,” says Nicholson. “So if your camera allows you to control the exposure directly, shorten your exposure by two or three stops. For example, if it wants a shutter speed of 1/125, try 1/500 or 1/1000 instead.”

Alternatively, if your camera has an Exposure Compensation feature, he suggests setting it to -2 or -3 EV. But don’t despair if your camera doesn’t allow you to control the exposure directly, because most cameras have a Sunset Mode, which accomplishes the same goal, albeit with less control.

Either way, says Nicholson, you should use your camera’s LCD screen to make sure you like the result you’re getting, as results vary with conditions and these settings may be only a starting point.

3. Use a tripod whenever possible

Shooting while the sun rises or sets means you’ll be working with less light than you might be used to, so if you want to avoid camera shake and experiment with longer exposures, a tripod is essential.

“My philosophy is that if a photo is worth making, then it’s worth using a tripod for,” says Nicholson. “The results will always be better, even if only incrementally.”

Of course, he notes that there are circumstances that may be an exception. For instance, if taking time to set up the tripod means you’ll miss a serendipitous shot, then you might want to forgo the tripod. But 99% of the time that won’t be the case.

If you do need to shoot without a tripod, Nicholson suggests looking for someplace you can put the camera down, such as a boulder or a tree stump that will keep it stable.

“If you have to hand-hold, good form is critical,” he adds. “Brace the elbow of your camera-holding arm on your lower rib cage, and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. This will stabilise your body and help minimise camera movement while shooting.”

4. Create a sense of depth

Once you’ve taken a couple of sunrise or sunset photos they can all start to seem a bit similar to one another. Nicholson points out one that way to make these photos more interesting is to add a sense of depth by looking for scenes with receding elements, such as mountain ridges that fade off into the horizon or a shoreline that curves off into the distance.

“Atmospheric elements will make the distant features look hazier, which lends a feeling of depth to the image,” he says. “Another trick, which makes sunrise or sunset photography more interesting, is to include a foreground element that adds visual interest or perhaps suggests a sense of place.”  

For example, he points out that a photo of just a sunset might not look as interesting as a photo of the sun setting behind a palm tree or behind the silhouette of a pelican.

5. Plan ahead

If you want to get really great sunset or sunrise photos, you should get into the habit of planning ahead.

“We learn in grade school that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west,” says Nicholson. “But if you use that to plan a photo, you’ll end up disappointed, because the actual coordinates are more precise and always shifting.”

In reality, he explains, the sun rises and sets due east and due west, or close to it, only for a short time each year. Over the course of 12 months, the sun will appear to shift further south and north, which is why we have shorter days in winter and longer days in summer.

“If you want to photograph the sun rising or setting in a specific spot or near a specific object, you need to do a little research,” he says.

“This could be as simple as noting where the sun sets today and knowing it will be in essentially the same spot at almost the same time tomorrow. Alternatively, you could use an app that tells you the time and location of the sunrise and sunset anywhere on Earth. My favourite is called Photographer’s Ephemeris, but Photo Pills is another good one.”

6. Safety first

Before you begin snapping photos of the sun, Nicholson cautions that looking directly at the sun through the camera’s view finder could actually be dangerous and damage your vision, especially if you’re using a powerful telephoto lens.

You’d probably never consider looking straight into the sun at midday when the light is strong and hurts your eyes, but even early morning or evening sun can be harmful to your eyes, and when you’re using a telephoto lens or zooming in, the effect will be magnified.

“If your camera has Live View, use that to compose your photo,” says Nicholson. “If you need to use your viewfinder, though, don’t look directly at the sun and don’t look through it for too long.”


In the pages of Photographing National Parks, Chris Nicholson delves into how to best research and prepare for a trip to explore the artistic opportunities of photographing national parks. He teaches you on how to travel safely and photograph in the various environments found in the park system, including desert, alpine, forest and coastline.