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.


If the contrast range is greater than about four stops, you’ll need HDR to bring out all the detail in the scene. However, before we get into the technique, here’s an important thing to remember: HDR can ruin the mood of a scene.

I could have used HDR to open up the shadows and tone down the highlights in this photograph, which I took in Mount Rainier, Washington. However, that would have destroyed the mood of the scene. The strong shadows and the reflection in the lake "made" the picture for me. So use HDR wisely, and remember that the most important thing about a picture is the mood or feeling it conveys.


Here’s an HDR image of the St. John’s Pier in St. Augustine, Florida. I added the drop shadow and type in Photoshop CS5
just for fun and to offer an idea for perhaps an e-card that you can send to family and friends.


I shot HDR to ensure that the upside-down heart shape in the scene was captured. Yes, I could have taken a wider range of exposures to see more into the shadows, which would have shown more detail in the shadow areas, but I didn’t want the viewer to miss the heart. Plus, I liked the shadows. Remember, shadows can be your friend. Shadows add a sense of depth and dimension to a picture, and shadows are the soul of a photograph.


I’ve written several articles on HDR for Digital Photo magazine; you can check them out at For now, here’s some basic HDR info:

  • Use a tripod.
  • Don’t change the aperture.Use a self-timer or cable release so you don’t shake the camera during exposures.
  • Make sure you take enough exposures to capture the highlights and shadows in the scene.
  • Process your images using HDR software like HDRsoft’s Photomatix or Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro.


I’ll leave you with one of my favorite sunset photographs, which I took in Rajasthan, India, and a reminder: Always try to get the best possible in-camera exposure. Expose for the highlights. It will save you lots of time processing your images in the digital darkroom.

Rick Sammon, leads workshops and gives seminars around the world. He has been nominated for the Photoshop Hall of Fame. Visit Rick at

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