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Taking Sunrise and Sunset Photos: Photography Tips

Sunrise paddling

Reading Time: 6 minutes read

Light is the element by which we see the world, and every photograph we find humorous, inspiring, or meditative comes courtesy of this element. So it’s no wonder we find sunrise and sunset photos pleasing. These are the moments of the day that allow us to stop and just admire light’s unique influence on our world.

While it’s easy to enjoy a breathtaking sunrise or sunset photo, capturing one is another matter. The small window of opportunity, the conditions, adjusting camera settings, finding the right angle, there’s a lot to take in for first-time heliophiles. But we’ve got five tips that will help anyone improve their chances.

1. Take advantage of the golden and blue hours

Golden hour

The sun is like a finicky super model: you must wait for it to be ready for its close-up or you’ll get nothing to work with. If you want the most breathtaking sunrise or sunset photos, take your photos during the golden and blue hours.

The golden hour occurs roughly an hour after sunrise and before sunset—though, that hour is figurative as some last longer, others shorter. Basically, it’s the time of day when the sun hangs low over the horizon.

Because of the sun’s position relative to Earth, its light must travel through more atmosphere than during midday. This causes the blue in the light’s spectrum to scatter into the atmosphere, painting the sky in those magnificent molten gold colors.

Conversely, the blue hour denotes the time when the sun is just below the horizon. It occurs roughly a half hour before sunrise or after sunset.

The name comes from the impressive deep blues and purples that suffuse the sky at this time, which again is produced by how the sun’s angle causes its light to scatter through the atmosphere. If you want, the blue hour is also a terrific time to try your hand at moon photography.

One more piece of advice: The early morning sky tends to be cooler—that is, colors like blue and purple will be predominant—while the evening sun tends toward the warmer side with reds and oranges. And its mood can change dramatically depending on the season and where you live.

2. Utilize HDR

HDR stands for “high dynamic range.” This mode takes three pictures with each press of the shutter button but only churns out one image. That may sound incredibly unintuitive, but it makes sense once you understand what is going on inside your camera or phone.

Those three pictures are all taken at different exposures. These capture the distinctions between the scene’s lights and darks (what photographers call the “dynamic range”). The software then combines the three images together to create a single photo that displays vivid details, bright whites, and sharp shadows.

When it comes to sunset photos, it can be difficult to capture this dynamic range without HDR, especially if you’re using your iPhone. One image may have brilliant whites, but no details in shadows. The next will fill in those dark areas, but wash out the whites. With HDR, you get the best of both, and your software does the work for you.

HDR does have one bugbear, though: movement. Because the shutter is snapping three photos quickly, any movement could mean one image being misaligned with the other two. When the software combines them, the resulting photo may be askew. A tripod or very steady hand is recommended.

3. Watch out for lens flare

Lens flare happens when non-image light sneaks through the lens. It typically sneaks in at the corners as a series of conjoined circles, a glaring blind spot, or low-res polygons that look ripped from a ‘90s video game. It’s a distracting effect that may take center frame when you’re shooting sunsets or sunrises.

Since lens flare results from stray light hitting your lens, there’s only one solution: Get it out of there! You can use your hand to block the light. Adjust your angle. Change your position. Zoom in or out. And don’t forget to clean your lens to prevent dust or smudges from catching that unwanted light.

Can’t beat it? Join it! Incorporate lens flare with some artistic, well, flare. Or capture the shot anyway, and see if you can edit it out later. (More on those options below.)

4. Include other elements

Autumn forest

The human eye is naturally captivated by the sun during the blue and golden hours, so your shutterbug senses will be drawn to that dazzling horizon. Take too many of these photos, however, and you may find your gallery is a little…samey.

To mix it up, turn your focus to foreground elements. Adding other components gives your photos a sense of scale, personality, and movement. There’s the long, knife-edge shadows of family members watching the sunset. The silhouettes of children playing in the park. Or beach rocks being pummeled by purple waves. When considering how to incorporate these elements, a good option is the rule of thirds.

Then experiment with angles to see if you can add starbursts to your photos. A starburst is when the light diffracts through the lens in a way that wreathes the sun in “pointy” starlight. Hence the name.

When incorporated intentionally, this type of lens flare can add dynamism to your foreground subject. Imagine a fall oak burning in the sunset. It’s nice, but now imagine that same image with a starburst peeking through the canopy. It adds a distinct, dreamy aura to the photo, changing how we view the relationship between the sun and the autumnal world.

5. Edit your images


You encountered a dynamic sunset, shot several pictures, and loved every moment of it. But then you got home, reviewed your images, and felt they were kind of drab. What happened?

Truth is, those amazing sunset photos you see online have another thing in common with our speculative super model: They’ve both been touched up in editing.

If you want breathtaking sunrise or sunset photos, you’ll need to find an editing software you’re comfortable so you can touch them up. Typically, you’ll want to up the saturation to reestablish those intense, vibrant colors. You’ll also want to play with the exposure to ensure your whites and blacks are properly balanced.

After that, it really depends on the photo and your style. Maybe you caught a winter blue hour, and want to incorporate that chilly feeling by upping the deep blues. But that sunset gold hour may be better served with a little golden warmth. Just be sure to make a copy of the original, so you can always go back and try something new.

A beaming gift

Of course, a lovely photo is only worth so much sitting on your hard drive. One of the best ways to share these photos is with a custom card.

The universal appeal of a beautiful sunrise or sunset photo makes it perfect for any occasion card. You can use a winter sunrise for a holiday card. A glorious sunset to invite everyone to a family summer bbq. Either one pairs well with graduation announcements, thank-you cards, and the unexpected but always welcome “just thinking of you.” With Motif, your sunrise and sunset photos will brighten anyone’s day.