Weekend assignment: Sunrise/Sunset

It’s a truism that the most beautiful light happens at the most inconvenient times. In this case, when you’d rather be sleeping or having dinner. But we’re photographers. Light is what we live for. And sunrise and sunset provide some of the most beautiful light around. Cliché? Who cares?

For this assignment, shoot a sunset or sunrise (or both). These scenes are an exercise in metering for highlights. The goal is to capture the majesty of the sun and sky. To do this properly, a little care must be taken not to completely blow out too much of the sky or underexpose everything in scene.

Sunset Silhouettes. 1/10s @ f/5
Sunset Silhouettes. 1/10s @ f/5

Here are some tips:

  • Do not stare at the sun through your viewfinder! But it is okay to look at the sun on an LCD screen.
  • Sunrises and sunsets are very similar but you’ll find the lighting in the morning is cooler, bluer, while sunset light is warmer. Sunrises also provide good opportunities for shooting morning mist and fog.
  • If you meter the sun directly you’ll underexpose most of your shot. Meter for an area to the side of the sun. This will render the disc of the sun as a blown highlight while the surrounding sky is saturated with beautiful, deep reds and oranges.
  • You can spot meter the sky just off the sun or use center-weighted/matrix metering by locking exposure on a scene with the sun just out of the frame (or near the edge) and then recomposing.
  • Set your focus for maximum depth of field or just use a small aperture (big f-number) and focus on the sky or horizon.
  • Include some of the horizon and surrounding landscape. The silhouette of a nearby treeline or cityscape adds a lot of interest.
  • The light will change very quickly. Use a tripod if you’ve got one. As it gets darker the light levels will become too low for hand holding.
  • Often the peak beauty and color of a sunset will happen just after the sun goes below the horizon. Wait for it.
  • Not all sunsets are created equal. Sometimes, it just gets darker. Try, try again!


By John Watson

John Watson is the original founder of Photodoto. If you're interested in what John has been up to, you can browse his personal blog.

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