Photography Effects: Atmospheric Optics at Sunrise & Sunset

Besides the colors, there are a lot of neat things happening at sunrise and sunset. The atmosphere can create a lot of interesting effects in the photos when the sun is low in the sky including mirages, flashes of different colors, strange distortions and amazing colors. In this article I will discuss how to photograph these events.

 

Photography Effects: Atmospheric Optics at Sunrise & Sunset

 

Safety First:

Never look at the sun thru any optical instrument, including your camera & lens combination. Avoid looking directly at the sun and use live-view to focus and compose your shots. As soon as the sun rises above the horizon stop photographing it without special filters.

Equipment

A tripod is needed to be able to compose and focus via live-view. A long telephoto lens is recommended for photos where the sun is the main subject.  A remote release is useful for shooting from a tripod.

In sunsets and sunrises you will have a very high contrast scene, greater than the dynamic range of your camera, you need to use a filter or several exposures to achieve a balanced exposure. A reverse graduated ND filter is recommended as they are darker at the horizon and then fade to clear at the top.

Mirages

Mirages are produced by refraction of the light in a layer of warm air above the water. You need a clear horizon and a high point of view to see them. In practical terms the coastal area of any ocean works perfectly.

Photography Effects: Atmospheric Optics at Sunrise & Sunset

When a mirage is produced a second sun will appear below the real sun. The sunset/sunrise will take the shape of an Estruscan vase or Omega letter.

Photography Effects: Atmospheric Optics at Sunrise & Sunset

When a mirage happens the conditions are right for the mythical “green flash” a bright explosion of green light that comes from the sun just before sunrise or just after sunset. Hunting for green flashes is difficult so my recommendation is to use video if you have it in your camera to photograph the entire sunset / sunrise event and look for frames where the green flash is present. Once you get used to the exact moment of the flash you can try again in photo-mode.

Photography Effects: Atmospheric Optics at Sunrise & Sunset

 

If you see small spikes at the horizon then you have the right conditions for mirages and the green flash. Those spikes are not real! They are just produced by distortion of the atmosphere.

Photography Effects: Atmospheric Optics at Sunrise & Sunset

 

Sunspots

Large sunspots can be photographed at sunrise or sunset without a solar filter, you need to expose carefully as the sun is really bright even when it’s just above the horizon. Use the fastest shutter speed your camera have and try different apertures until you can see the surface of the sun yellow and not bright white.

Photography Effects: Atmospheric Optics at Sunrise & Sunset

 

Clouds

If you have a cloudy morning/evening don’t get back home! Clouds can create several interesting effects and distortions including refractions, shadows, pillars and other interesting and beautiful effects.

Photography Effects: Atmospheric Optics at Sunrise & Sunset

 

Focus Carefully

Before you start trying your sunrise/sunset adventures here’s a tip: Focus each shot carefully, the atmosphere produces all sorts of distortions and the focus that was good for one shot may not be good for the next one.

Photography Effects: Atmospheric Optics at Sunrise & Sunset

Sunsets and sunrises are full of unexpected surprises and each event is unique be there and capture what nature has to offer.

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  1. Dave Richards

    Fabulous shots. Something that I am really into.

  2. Keith

    fantastic article, thank you!

  3. Gary Herman

    Thanks for the great tips…..quick question re: focus. Won’t all shots end up focused at infinity? If so, please explain your comment about careful focus….thanks.

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