Monday, February 13, 2012

Sunrise & Sunset

By Rick Sammon Published in Quick Fix
Sunrise & Sunset
We all enjoy experiencing beautiful sunrises and sunsets. We also enjoy "making" sunrise and sunset pictures, rather than just taking pictures. Getting a good image when we're shooting directly into the sun, however, requires three things:

  1. Envisioning the end result and thinking ahead about the enhancements that are possible in the digital darkroom.
  2. Getting the best possible in-camera exposure—or exposures if you're shooting HDR.
  3. A few digital imaging-processing skills.
Before we get going, here's an important tip: Remove all optical filters from your lens before shooting into the sun. If you don't, you'll get a ghost image of the sun in your photograph because the direct light from the sun will bounce off the front element of your lens and onto the filter.

Let's start with getting the best in-camera exposure. That's what I did when I took the opening image for this column, which was shot in Bosque del Apache, New Mexico. If you're taking only one shot (that is, not an HDR sequence), here's what to do to get the best possible exposure:

  • Try to frame your shot so there's not a lot of contrast in the scene, as is the case when the sun is behind clouds or just below or peeking over the horizon. Once the sun is up, you need HDR to capture the contrast range. We'll get to HDR later in this column.
  • Compose your picture with the sun behind an object—a tree, some clouds or even a person. This technique reduces the contrast range in the scene.
  • Expose for the brightest part of the scene, which is usually the sun, but it may be a reflection on a cloud. Check your camera's histogram to make sure you don't have a spike on the right. If you do, the highlights in the scene will be washed out. Also check your camera's highlight alert, if available, which also tells you if the highlights will be overexposed.


Once you get a good image, you can use basic adjustments to enhance it. Here's my original, correctly exposed image. To create the opening image, I made the following adjustments: cropped the image; used Shadows/Highlights to open up the shadows; increased the contrast and saturation; and to add some more color to the full image, I used the Graduated User Defined filter in Nik Color Efex Pro.


The Shadows/Highlights control in Photoshop and Lightroom is an extremely valuable tool for sunrise and sunset shots. By toning down the highlights and opening up the shadows, you're compressing the brightness range of a scene with a lot of contrast.

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