Five Creative Ways to Enhance Your Sunrise and Sunset Photographs
The light of sunrises and sunsets – commonly referred to as the “golden hours” – provides a stunning blanket of light that can transform the landscape before you. This time has the ability to connect everyone to nature, and is a source of great inspiration that many landscape photographers treasure.
The golden hours have a unique set of challenges to overcome, but knowing how to approach them can unlock a plethora of creative avenues to pursue. If there is a disparity between your creative vision and your final image, below you will find five methods you can apply to your golden hour workflow.
1. Balancing Exposure
One of the most dramatic ways to improve your golden hour portfolio is to obtain a more balanced exposure. This can be exceedingly difficult to do during this time as the sharp angle of the sun is now within your frame, which will flood your scene with direct light. This transformation of light from overhead to directional will cause a great disparity between highlights and shadows – the greater the difference, the more difficult it will be to capture the entire tonal range.
Balancing your exposure is more than simply for aesthetic reasons – when you have over or underexposed areas, you lose great detail in your image. Below is a page from my eBook The Golden Hours which illustrates this point (click to enlarge):
Since your camera can not capture two different exposures within one frame, we need to combine them ourselves in order to translate what we see with our eyes. There are two ways to go about this – either by using a GND filter to manipulate how the light passes through our lens, or by manually blending different exposures in post process. Both methods have their distinct advantages, and are two unique paths to take to an improved golden hour image.
The graduated neutral density (GND) filter is an innovative tool that acts like a pair of sunglasses to a specific part to your lens, allowing you to capture a more complete dynamic range. Since your goal here is to create a uniform exposure by reducing the disparity of available light between ground and sky, you can filter light in the sky from entering your lens at full force. This will allow you to expose for the ground while not having to worry about your sky being overexposed since the light is reduced.
A GND filter is tinted on the top portion and remains neutral on the bottom to allow for an unfiltered passing of light. Since you can adjust the filter on your holder, it can be aligned to where the horizon line is placed in your composition.
Photo by Kain Kalju
Exposure blending is the post process alternative to the GND filter. Rather than filter the light that enters your lens, you can take multiple exposures of the same scene – particularly, one image exposed for the sky, and another for the ground – and manually blend these brackets together in post process. The end result will be a composite image with the full tonal range of your golden hour scene.
There are several distinct advantages to either method, discussed in detail in The Golden Hours, but generally speaking there is no “better” process that will produce a higher quality image when executed properly. Rather, the method that you can execute more easily is the method that will benefit you the most.
In other words, if you enjoy working in the digital darkroom and post process, you’ll be able to blend exposures with great ease by bracketing and combining frames. However, if layers and masks are a foreign subject to you, or you would rather spend the least amount of time in post process as possible, than GND filters would better compliment your style. These are two very different roads that lead to the same result – a more uniform exposure with minimal loss of detail.
2. Before Sunrise and After Sunset
While the typical pursuit of the golden hours is to photograph the sun within your frame, the twilight moments can be equally as powerful. Clouds have the ability to reflect light, so the sky can remain illuminated after the sun has disappeared behind the horizon. It’s not quite the blue hours, but not a true golden hour – instead, a wonderful combination of the two where the harsh shadows and highlights have softened, and the sky becomes a wonderful mosaic of color.
3. Creativity with Depth of Field
Your aperture – particularly, your depth of field – is a powerful creative tool that you can use to manipulate your sunrise or sunset. By widening your aperture, you can pinpoint your focus and direct the flow of your frame, while lightening the weight of your sun – which can be a powerful focal point. This can redistribute the weight of your composition for a more balanced image.
For more ideas on how to create balance with your depth of field, read Creative Ways to Use Wide Apertures in Landscape Photography.
4. Focal Length and Distances
Your chosen focal length can have a strong impact on your golden hour image – particularly the sun. Shorter focal lengths will exaggerate the distance the sun is from your camera and dwarf the size. In contrast, longer focal lengths will compact the distance between your camera and the sun, while also enlarging its appearance.
At 85mm, the sun becomes a prominent subject within your frame, and the distances between each layer (foreground grass, middle ground lighthouse, and background sky) are compacted.
In contrast, the same scene photographed at 24mm presents an entirely different composition. The sun is a less powerful focal point, and the distance between each layer is now increased.
5. Adjust the Horizon
To enhance the flow of your sunrise or sunset image, make a conscious choice on where to place your horizon based on the overall interest within your frame. The sun is a powerful focal point which draws much attention from the viewer, but it can be counterbalanced depending on how you frame your composition.
If I find a sunset sky with little to no cloud interest, I would typically frame my image so that the sky only takes up the upper third of my composition, and will search for a prominent foreground subject to balance the power of the sun.
Alternatively, if there is a show of light and color in the sky, I will place my horizon line on the bottom third of my frame in order to include as much sky detail as possible.
And at times, I will completely ignore the above guidelines and accommodate them to my composition, as seen in the photo below. Typically I would compose my image to highlight the fantastic sky interest found here, but the foreground texture of the waves and rocks was too powerful to ignore – and thus made that my center of attention as opposed to the sunset.
If I framed my photo by following my own general advice, I would have made the sky the prominent focal point and lost most of the terrific wave and rock interest.
It’s important to note that there is no “rule” that must be followed when it comes to your composition, but rather a heightened awareness and conscious placement of your focal points. If you take consideration as to where you place your horizon when framing your golden hour scene, you’ll find a vast improvement in the balance and overall impact of your final image.
As I often say, the advice you encounter on photography should not direct your journey as an artist. If you rely on the words of others too heavily, they have the ability to build a wall around your creative potential which will limit your development. This is a very important concept to learn, and can be more difficult to adopt once you develop a habit for tempering your inner voice.
Photography “rules”, advice, and guidelines are certainly useful, especially during the early stages of your artistic journey. However, when you find yourself consistently adjusting your creative vision in order to accommodate for the knowledge you have learned, then your creative process becomes unbalanced – and this will be evident in your work. This would be the right time to simplify your workflow and get back to the basics.
Photography is a limitless medium to express your imagination as an artist. Realizing that knowledge should only compliment your vision – not dictate it – will allow your creativity to flow and flourish.
For more detailed information on photographing the golden hours, with a step-by-step guide to exposure blending, you can refer to my eBook The Golden Hours: A Guide to Photographing the Light of Sunrises and Sunsets.