Some tips for sunrise and sunset photos

This post is a guest post by Andy Towle. View some more of his work online at:

Perhaps an introduction is in order. My name is Andy Towle. I’ve been a professional photographer for close to 40 years. My experience spans a wide range of photographic categories from commercial to scientific to photo-journalism to wedding/portraiture to medical, et. al. Most of my photography has been in wedding/portrait and photo-journalism, but with a fair amount of time as a commercial and medical photographer. Once I understood that my strengths were with shooting people in their environment, I focused on photo-journalism and have been successful in this arena. However, I like finding unique landscapes, sunsets, sunrises, and fascinating cloud formations. It is another form of expression that brings a sense of peace, joy, and fulfillment.

Mark has asked me to write about some of my sunsets. Truth be told, sunrises are more my forte than sunsets. Some of the same guidelines apply however, whether it be a sunrise or a sunset. Being an early riser and morning person, I am off and out of the house before sunrise, camera in hand, and dog scampering here and there, as we take our morning walk. My morning stroll has a dual purpose: I get exercise I need; and it affords me the opportunity to capture unique moments when the quality of light is at its best. However, many of my best, and most unique shots have been before the sun breaks the horizon.
sunrise photography

Time of year is an important consideration for getting the best colors at sunrise or sunset. Because the earth is in transition more in the spring and fall; these are ideal seasons for spectacular vistas of sky, cloud and earth colors as the sun rises and sets. My experience has been that fall is a great time for reds, yellows, and orange variations in the sky and tinting of clouds as they move across the horizon, during, and just after the sun sets. A window of opportunity for great shots is longer for a sunset than a sunrise. It is an important point to make a note of and keep focused on when you are ready to shoot.

Spring is more unpredictable for color than fall, with the colors generally being red, orange, blue, and magenta. The colors tend to be richer, stronger, and more saturated. By watching the sky on a daily basis at sunrise and/or sunset over a long period of time one does get a sense of when to be ready to shoot those great sky colors. The quality of clouds is most important, as they will give you the greatest colors when the sun strikes them before actually making its own appearance.

The three major types of clouds are: Cumulus, Stratus, and Cirrus. Cumulus clouds are the big puffy clouds that generally form into large storms. Stratus clouds can form into rain clouds but generally don’t provide large thunderstorms. Cirrus clouds are the high thin clouds that are generally long and narrow and aren’t storm related, as they are too high in the atmosphere. The color they provide depends on their thickness and relation to the sun as it sets. The closer to the horizon the more intense and bright the colors of sunset or sunrise. It is what gives them their oohhs and aahhhs, as the sun decends or rises over the horizon.

Another important consideration is place. What are you looking for? A calm lake with a boat in the water? A mountain in the background? A favorite spot on a trail you hike? A fantastic view of an open clearing or valley? Whatever it is, be there before the sunset or sunrise actually takes place, like an half hour before. Find your spot and wait.

If you own a DSLR, shooting Raw as opposed to the other choices available is the best choice. Raw records the most information and is the best method for adjusting your images once in a photo-manipulation program. Some DSLRs also have the choice of 8 bits, 16 bits or 32 bits per channel. The higher the bit rate the more information that is recorded, thus giving one the greater range of manipulation and smoother transition from color to color. Never settle for just a few shots. Shoot your subject matter until you think you’ve taken too many exposures. Vary your perspective and composition: shoot it vertically, and horizontally.Vary your exposures from two stops over exposed to at least two stops under-exposed. Shoot the same subject from several different viewpoints. Once you have the shots, using an image manipulation program can be helpful in shifting colors, emphasizing colors and/or adjusting exposure. Photoshop is my program of choice. Whatever program you use by shooting all of your images in Raw, there is a greater possibility of adjusting your settings with a greater degree of latitude.

Though not exactly a purist, I tend to not wander too far from the path of the actual color settings. Of course there are exceptions to guidelines of any kind and one them is; let your imagination wander and use the tools at hand for a wide variety of manipulations that are available. Be very critical of your work. Save only the best images. Be honest with yourself about what is good and what is just average. And then there is this; Like they say in the real estate trade it’s; location, location, location. It photography it’s; practice, practice, practice.

To recap the important highlights;

  • Take your camera everywhere.
  • Know your subject matter; i.e. sunsets or sunrises and the best season to shoot them according to your geography.
  • Shoot in raw format if at all possible.
  • Shoot a variety of exposures with different settings; compose both vertically and horizontally.
  • Manipulate your image until you have a desirable composition.
  • Save only the best and keep shooting.
  • This post is a guest post by Andy Towle. View some more of his work online at: and also online at:

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    Author: Mark

    Mark is a fine art wedding and portrait photographer from Northern California. He has been passionate about photography since childhood and started his studio 12 years ago to bring a fresh style of photography to the wedding and portrait world.

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