What is it that we humans find so captivating about sunrises and sunsets? Is it the stillness of a waking sun on a clear morning? Or the gentle warmth and brilliant colours that signal the end to another day?
When I’m on vacation, I seem to stop whatever I’m doing for just a little longer so I can soak in the peacefulness and brilliance of colourful and beautiful sunrise and sunset pictures. For me, its a peacefulness that seeps into my soul. It’s no wonder I want to take a piece of that home with me in a photograph.
Perhaps you feel the same and want to know how to get that perfect sunset and sunrise photos on vacation.
Well, you’ll be happy to know that whether you have a smartphone or more sophisticated camera equipment, your photos can be almost as spectacular as the sunset/sunrise itself.
Read on for some great advice on tips and techniques that can help you take epic sunset and sunrise photos on vacation.
Why is it so hard to take sunset and sunrise photos on vacation?
Taking a good sunset or sunrise photo can be tricky for new photographers.
The light is constantly changing, and it’s hard to capture the beauty of those fleeting moments on camera. Sunsets and sunrises are also notoriously unpredictable—the weather can change in an instant and clouds may obscure the sky just when you’re trying to get that perfect shot. It takes skill, patience, and some luck to get a great sunset or sunrise photo.
Sunrise vs Sunsets: which is best?
When looking through my photo library for this post, I was struck by the fact that most of my sun images are in the morning! Apparently I favour sunrise over sunsets — at least when I’m photographing them. Others may not feel the same — after all, there ARE drawbacks to dragging yourself out of bed early for a sunrise.
But both offer stunning views and each has its own unique qualities that make them special to photograph. The general wisdom says:
- tend to be softer and more pastel in color.
- can have an ethereal feel due to their soft light.
- the world is quiet and still; water often tends to have a mirror-like stillness.
- not many people get up that early so it’s great for photographers who like the solitude for creativity
- often more vibrant with richer hues.00
- provide beautiful silhouettes against the sky.
- easier to assess whether it will be a good sunset or not as you have the light to see weather and sky conditions.
In practical terms, however, some of these statements are not often true. For example, with just a bit of planning, you can take silhouettes against the morning OR evening sky.
It’s all about the light
It doesn’t matter how sophisticated and expensive your camera equipment might be — if you don’t pay attention to the quality of the light, you’ll end up with a flat emotion-less photo.
Light isn’t the same throughout the day and, as a rule of thumb, sunrises tend to have a more bluish tone whereas sunsets tend to have a yellower tone. But in addition, each also has their own Golden Hour and the Blue Hour.
The Golden Hour
You may have noticed that when sunset approaches, the light on objects and on people changes to the warm side of the spectrum and will cast a golden hue on your subject.
Waiting for that golden hour can add tremendously to the appeal of your photo. It occurs at dawn and at dusk when the sun is near the horizon, providing beautiful light with golden tones.
You can use that golden light to photograph subjects and take advantage of that warm hue to give the photograph rich tones. Most wedding or engagement photographers will wait till this time of the day to photograph their couples’ portraits exactly for that reason.
The Blue Hour
The Blue Hour occurs just after sunset, when the sky is still light but the sun has already set, or just before sunrise, when the sun has not yet risen but the sky is beginning to brighten.
During this magical time, the world is lit with a soft, even light that adds an extra level of depth and drama to sunset or sunrise photos. The Blue Hour is a special opportunity for photographers to capture unique and beautiful images of a sunset or sunrise.
So wait for the right time of day, but be ready — because good light changes fast and when you see the quality of light you want you’d better move quickly. If you wait or doddle for more than a few minutes, that perfect scene you just saw will be gone
What are the best techniques for sunset/sunrise photography?
Even before you assess the best technical settings of your camera, there are things you can do that improve the quality of your photo taken with ANY camera whether it be a smartphone, a single-lens reflex camera, or video camera.
Basically, composition how you the arrange the elements of your picture and good composition will help your photo no matter what kind of camera you are using.
With good composition, you are trying to emphasize the key subject in your photo and lead the viewer’s eyes to it. Whole books have been written on composition in art and photography, but there are a couple of basic concepts that can help.
Look for interesting foreground elements to frame the sunset or sunrise. These elements can be trees, mountains, buildings, or any other natural or human-made structure that intersects with the horizon line.
Leading lines are human-made or natural lines in the image that lead the viewer’s eyes through the photograph to the subject or the heart of the image. This compositional tool helps photographers direct the focus of the photo, create balance, and tell a story with the image.
The rule of thirds says that you should imagine a tic-tac-toe or hashtag set of lines (like this: #) drawn across your viewfinder and that the important elements in your photo should be placed along these lines or at their intersections to create more tension, energy, and interest in the composition than if you simply centered the subject. More on this by the good folks at PhotoFocus.com
Also use the rule of thirds to avoid having your horizon line planted in the boring centre of your photo. Move the horizon line up to the top third, or down to the lower third line and decide which one by emphasizing the more interesting texture — is the sky more interesting or is the ground/water more interesting?
If you have clouds in the sky that amplify and magnify the colour of the sunlight, show more of those in the upper two-thirds of the picture. If you have a more interesting foreground, let your viewers see more of that in the the bottom two-thirds of the image. It’ll make for a more dynamic, engaging shot.
How can you tell if it’s going to be a good sunrise?
Forecasting a good sunrise for photography is the more difficult task as it’s hard to tell what the sky is like when it’s dark before the sunrise. But you can generally tell, for example, if there’s fog, which you can use to can create an other-worldly effect that can add an extra layer of drama to sunset or sunrise photos.
Sunsets are a little easier. While clear skies give you a predictable gradient of pastel colors that moves up from the horizon into the sky. My preference is for broken clouds either high or low in the sky, that will reflect the vibrant colours during a sunset or sunrise and make much more dramatic stabs of colour. I’ve heard people say “Ignore the sun — it’s the clouds you want”. While I wouldn’t completely ignore the sun, there’s some truth in that…
Heavy clouds, even if there’s no rain, won’t allow you to take pictures of the sun… obviously. But don’t count clouds out. If they are heavy with lots of angry patterns, you could still get some dramatic images, albeit without the sun… Just look for cloud pictures on Instagram if you don’t believe me!
Where will the sun come up? How to know the sun position at sunrise or sunset
At the least you need to know the exact time of the sunrise or sunset so you can be there to meet it. You can find times easily on Google, but note it will default to the times near where you are. If you’re travelling, wait till you get to your destination before searching for the time.
There are also a number of apps for your phone to help. Alpenglow: Sunset Forecast is free on the App Store with in-app purchases and I’ve heard Photopills (around $10) is also good with some additional functions that let you know precisely where the sun will be, and even estimates settings for your camera.
What equipment do I need for a good sunrise or sunset photo?
OK, this is what most of us want to talk about — which camera gear do I need to use for a great photo?
Is my smartphone as good as a sophisticated DSLR or mirrorless camera?
Like so many questions these days, the answer is that it depends on what you want from your sunrise and sunset photography. A smartphone nowadays will:
- Allow you to shoot and edit immediately right on the phone. No fussing with memory cards.
- Share your photos instantaneously with your friends all around the world via social media
- Produce images that you can print at 6×4, 5×7, or even 8×10 inches.
- Be easier to transport than heavier gear on your vacation.
More sophisticated gear will:
- Give you an image with higher resolution and better color range for larger prints or wall art.
- Allow more control over camera settings (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) for low-light shooting, particularly during the Blue Hour.
- More lenses to choose from.
- Batteries that last a long time and can be immediately replaced when they run flat.
I’ve heard it said that the best camera is the one you have with you. And if that’s true, then 90 percent of the time, most of us would default to the smartphone — it’s great for spontaneous moments. But when you can plan for a shot like a sunrise or sunset, and faithful color is important, you may want to consider a more sophisticated setup.
The gear in your bag
For those of us who insist on taking sophisticated camera gear for spectacular sunset and sunrise photos on vacation, having the right equipment is essential. With a few key pieces of photography gear, tourists can capture stunning sunset and sunrise images that will last a lifetime. From tripods to filters, here are some tips for what equipment you need to get the most out of your sunset or sunrise photo journey!
Tripods: A tripod is essential if you want to do long exposures of the sunrise or sunset. These can be especially effective if, for example, you want to blur the wave action if there’s a seashore in the foreground or the movement of the clouds in the sky. Larger heavier tripods are often more stable in windy conditions and can allow you to use heavier cameras or lenses without compromising stability or quality.
But, keep in mind that you’ll have to transport this on your vacation. If you’re flying, count on packing it into your checked luggage because of the weight and size — also because some airport security operations take a dim view of taking bulky tripods or monopods on board.
Filters: Filters are great for sunset and sunrise photos as they help to reduce the amount of overwhelming light hitting your camera’s sensor if you’re shooting into the sun. Neutral density (ND) filters are a popular choice, as they allow you to use slower shutter speeds that capture both small and large movement in the landscape. Graduated ND filters can also be used to help balance the exposure between the sky and the land, adding another layer of creativity to sunset and sunrise photos on vacation.
Lenses: I typically have zooms with me: 24-70, which gives me the wide-angle option to capture more of the landscape context around the sunrise or sunset, and a 70-200, which allows me to focus in on the sun or on specific elements of the landscape being lit by the sun.
If you’re just starting out, a kit zoom lens (such as an 18-55mm model) will get the job done, but if you have a prime lens (that is, lenses that don’t zoom) in the 12mm to 24mm range, you’ll have a better chance of capturing a sharper wide image.
Transporting your gear
Since we’re talking about taking sunset and sunrise photos on vacation, that means you have to consider transporting the equipment you want to use.
The smartphone will be easy to transport: you just need your phone, maybe a small phone tripod, no memory cards to worry about. Easy-peasy.
But for a more sophisticated set up, there’s more to consider.
If you’re just driving to your vacation destination, then no worries here either — just load all your gear in your car and drive on. As long as you keep your car secure, and hide your gear from prying eyes, you’re good to go.
Flying with your camera gear can get complicated. You need to consider packing it, how much it weighs, how it might be handled in transit, as well as taking it through customs and airport security. Unless you’re a professional (which would bring on a whole different set of considerations), you may want to consider travelling light and minimizing the gear you bring.
I always want to bring my camera bag with me on board the plane. I have an over-the-shoulder bag that will carry one camera body, two lenses, and a flash, and all the extras I need like memory cards, lens paper, battery chargers, etc. To be honest, I’m usually constrained by how much weight my shoulder will comfortably endure. Taking it on the plane with me gives me some comfort that my camera’s safety is in my hands. Besides, then I can shoot interesting things out the window!
As mentioned above, keep in mind that you’ll likely need to pack your tripod or monopod in your checked luggage because of the weight and size — and also because some airport security operations take a dim view of taking bulky tripods or monopods on board the plane.
How do I take sunrise/ sunset pictures with my smartphone?
Taking sunset and sunrise photos on vacation with your smartphone is a great way to capture an amazing moment. Many newer smartphones, both Apple and Android, allow long exposures — previously only available with bigger cameras. Use a small smartphone tripod (easy to pack) and the timer on the phone to reduce camera shake. Place the smartphone and tripod on a rock, a wall, or any other structure to keep it steady while you shoot.
Each phone does long exposures slightly differently, so check the instructions or google the instructions for your specific smartphone model.
You can also use the grid lines or a grid app to help you line up your sunset or sunrise shots properly.
Additionally, you can use a mobile photo editor to enhance your sunset and sunrise photos with filters and color adjustments. Then with a simple upload to your favourite social media site or website, you’re published. It’s hard to do THAT with a big camera!
One last thing: it’s usually not a good idea to overuse the zoom feature on your smartphone. Unlike bigger cameras with interchangeable lenses, the zoom feature of the smartphone simply decreases the area of the sensor being used, and expands that part of the image to fill the phone’s screen. So it’s really not optically zooming in — it’s digitally zooming in, which increases the pixelation of your image and reduces the clarity.
Instead, you can change the composition of your photo. If the sun is too small in the standard smartphone image, don’t make the sun the main subject of your photo. What else is around that you can use in the foreground to complement the sun and the color?
There are some attachments you can buy for a smartphone that simulate zoom lenses, but they’re still not as good.
Settings on a more sophisticated camera
As mentioned before, use a tripod if your shutter speed is slower than the reciprocal number of your lens length. For example, if you’re using a 200mm lens, then your shutter speed should be no slower than 1/200 second. This will make sure your image is sharp and should be your practice whether you operate the camera in manual or auto mode.
For sunrise and sunset shots, I’d advice learning how to operate your camera in manual mode. With the camera firmly on the tripod, long exposure times will capture different levels of light and color and smooth out moving water with a calming smooth texture.
Use the lowest ISO setting possible to reduce noise and increase the resolution of your final image.
The aperture setting will be largely dictated by the other two (ISO and shutter speed). You need only worry about it if you’re trying to zoom in on your main subject and separate it from the background through a narrow depth of field. In that case the aperture should be as wide open as possible (lowest number you can get).
Insofar as white balance for sunrise photography, I typically leave it on auto and fine tune the color in post-processing, which I’ll talk about below.
With practice and experimentation, sunset and sunrise photos on vacation can be captured in a way that showcases the unique beauty of an exotic location.
What else can I do with sunrises and sunsets?
- Turn around — while you’re watching the sunset, there’s other things happening around you. Keep an eye out for potential images lit by the rising or setting sun.
- Play around with dramatic silhouettes and perspective
- Capture the sky’s brilliant colors in a watery reflection – a lake or sound with mirror-smooth water in the morning makes for brilliant reflections.
- Take advantage of your city’s street grid
- Focus in on wildlife nearby
Post processing… bring out true colors and emphasize detail
What does post-processing mean? It means that after you move the picture file out of your camera, you load it into your favourite photo editing program to make it look more like what you saw with your naked eye. So post-shooting, you’re processing it in a photo editor — ergo, post-processing.
Post processing sounds scary to new photographers, but it’s easier than it looks and today’s modern programs are making it easier all the time.
So why do you need to do it and — is it complicated?
The images coming straight out of your camera don’t always reflect the color and contrast that your eye sees and can often make the photograph disappointing. If you ever wondered why your photos don’t look as colourful as you through they should, a little bit of digital photo background might help.
Digital cameras produce different image file types, most typically JPG (pronounced jay-peg) and RAW.
JPG files have lifelike color and contrast but are compressed so the file is not too large to be stored or easily uploaded to your favourite social media platform. However, when it’s being compressed, it loses a lot of the data that the camera sensor originally captured.
A RAW file, on the other hand, is the full monty — all the data the sensor saw is in there. But visually it looks rather flat: the colors are muted and the contrast is low. — it records lots of data including what you might not be able to see with the naked eye, which gives you lots of information to work with when using a photo editing program.
Examples of such programs are Adobe Lightroom, Picassa, or Photos (on a Mac). There’s many others, but these are the three I’m familiar with.
The goal is to make the picture look more like what you saw with your naked eye, but unless your a pro or a hardened enthusiast, keep it simple:
- Setting the blackest point on your photo to true black, which should correct the contrast.
- Set the whitest point on your image to true white (although sometimes too much white can spoil it – so adjust to taste).
- Give the color just a bit of vibrance and even less saturation (too much of these makes it look like someone put too much make up on!)
- You might also adjust the shadows to bring out some detail on those areas that look completely black — because if the file is a RAW file, the detail is there to bring out!
And that’s all you really need to do. Remember, the key is keep it simple and don’t overdo it. These small adjustments will help make the image more dramatic, impressive, memorable.
FAQ – Nailing your sunset and sunrise photos on vacation
Is it OK to look directly at a sunset?
NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN!
Yes, I know I’m yelling by using caps, but this is very important and this is why this question is at the at the top of the FAQ pile. It’s never OK to look directly at the sun because it’s rays can cause blindness and other life-changing side effects.
If you are composing the picture using the LCD screen at the back of the camera, then you are looking at a picture of the sun and you are OK. However, looking through the viewfinder directly at the sun is still looking directly at the sun, and can be quite dangerous to your eyes.
A UV filter on the lens can help, but if you have any doubt whatsoever ask your optometrist.
Final thoughts on the best ways to take epic sunset and sunrise photos on vacation
Taking sunset and sunrise photos on vacation is a great way to capture the unique beauty of a destination. With the right equipment and preparation, sunset or sunrise photos can be taken that showcase the stunning colors and moods available during this special time of day.
Taking advantage of natural elements in the landscape, experimenting with composition, and making use of filters will help to create sunset or sunrise photos that are just as majestic and memorable as the view itself. With a few tips and tricks, sunset or sunrise photos can easily become one of the most stunning keepsakes from any trip.
So get out there and start shooting before and after sunset. Practice the above tips and see some immediate and dramatic improvements in your photos. Experiment with ideas of your own and please let us know how they turn out.