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Jim Zuckerman on Landscape Photography: Shooting at Sunrise and Sunset


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BY Jim Zuckerman December 01, 2014 · Published by PhotoVideoEDU

Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to take advantage of the many lighting options and special qualities that dawn and dusk present in the second article of his fifteen-part series on landscape photography.

Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.


Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.


If you want to immediately improve your landscape work, all you have to do is start shooting at sunrise and sunset. It's that simple. Low-angled sunlight is magical. It totally transforms the land by bathing it in golden light. Shadows are long and they add compelling graphic elements to the scene, and texture is pronounced because every rock, twig, and tuft of grass is lit from a severe angle.

When the sun is close to the horizon, you have several choices with respect to the way the light is illuminating your composition. For example, if you turn your back to the sun and photograph in the opposite direction, your subjects will be front lit. Turning 90 degrees to the sun so that it is to your right or left will enable you to capture side lighting. This is always a dramatic and compelling way to light elements in the scene. If you face the sun, the lighting is again different. Now you have backlighting, one of the most dramatic types of light in nature. You can capture silhouetted subjects, rim lighting, and transillumination (light coming through translucent subjects like leaves and flower petals).

Study the differences between the image at the top and figure 2.2. These are pictures of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, the largest waterfall in the world. The mid-day shot—taken at about 11 o’clock in the morning—is very nice particularly because of the rainbow. However, beyond that it doesn’t have the magic of the sunrise version. The high overhead sun creates flat light with little dimension. A few minutes after sunrise, the sun made the entire landscape glow with golden light that was truly magnificent. The scene took my breath away.

Figure 2.2

I could illustrate this idea with many images of terrible landscape shots taken at mid-day and then show you their beautiful counterparts at sunrise or sunset, but I’d rather make my point with good/better comparisons. Take for example figures 2.3 and 2.4. This is Monument Valley in Utah. Figure 2.3 was taken on a typical day in the Southwest, where the sky is blue. I had some clouds, but the sun was overhead. The sunset comparison, 2.4, is a very different animal.  I shot this 10 minutes after sunrise, and the way the sun illuminated the landscape with golden light gives the image magic.

Figure 2.3

Figure 2.4

There are no differences between sunrise and sunset in terms of color or cloud formations. You can see incredible skies at either time of day, and sometimes just filling the frame with the amazing colors and forms of clouds makes powerful images, as in figure 2.5. There are differences between shooting in the morning and in the late afternoon, however. At sunset you have time to find good compositions as the sun is getting lower to the horizon. You can see how shadows fall and what kinds of subjects will form photogenic silhouettes or partial silhouettes. Figures 2.6, of the Maine Coast, and 2.7, taken at Lake Powell, Utah, show the kinds of subjects that require time to position yourself with respect to where the sun will be setting. At sunset you can see how the sidelighting will exaggerate texture on tree trunks, rock surfaces, sand dunes, and fields of flowers. You can then get into position and wait for the magic.

Figure 2.5

Figure 2.6

Figure 2.7

At dawn, on the other hand, as you are waiting for that wonderful moment when the first rays of sunlight show themselves, you can’t see any of these things. There are no long shadows or pronounced textures. You aren’t sure how the landscape will look when the sun comes up, so it’s hard to know where to position the camera and tripod. Once the land is finally bathed in sunlight, you have to run around like crazy looking for the best compositions. Unlike at sunset, every minute that passes means the lighting is getting worse. The first 20 or 30 minutes are beautiful, but after that the magic begins to slip away.

Figure 2.8

One of the advantages of shooting at dawn, though, is that low-lying fog or mist is sometimes present. This adds an ethereal quality that can look spectacular as the sun partially penetrates the airborne moisture.  This usually doesn’t happen at sunset. Figure 2.8 was taken five minutes after sunrise, and the mist hovering above a pond made the picture special. 

Figure 2.9

When you include the sun in the picture and the sky is relatively bright compared to the land, the exposure is a problem. If you expose for the sky, the land goes dark. If you expose for the landscape or any earth-bound subjects, the sky will be overexposed. Digital sensors (and film) aren’t as sophisticated as our eye/brain combination. The solution is to use HDR, as I did in figure 2.9. HDR stands for high dynamic range, and it is a technique whereby you take several photographs of the scene from a tripod, and in each frame you expose correctly for a specific part of the photograph. In single-f-stop increments, you take several exposures that are lighter and darker than what the meter dictates.  You also include an exposure that is in keeping with what the meter indicates. The software you use later merges the images so that you have perfect exposure and detail throughout the image. It's a remarkable technique, and it can be used in all kinds of situations where contrast prevents the sensor from giving you detail everywhere you want it.

When you shoot pictures at sunrise, sunset, or even twilight, I strongly suggest that you shoot with a "daylight" white balance setting. Many photographers choose auto white balance instead, and I feel this is a mistake. AWB "corrects" the golden tones from the low-angled sunlight and makes them white. In other words, the yellowish cast that we expect (and love) from the sunrise or sunset is lost. You see the same rich texture, the long shadows, and the beautiful lighting—minus the warm color. Instead, I would encourage you to shoot on a daylight white balance or 5500K setting when photographing outdoors.

Read the full series:

  1. Equipment
  2. Shooting at Sunrise and Sunset
  3. Dominant Foregrounds
  4. Mid-Day Lighting
  5. Shooting into the Sun
  6. Silhouettes
  7. Black and White
  8. Macro
  9. Aerial Perspectives
  10. The Human Element
  11. Overcast Weather
  12. White Balance
  13. Depth of Field
  14. Shooting Snow
  15. Wildlife


Featured photographer: Jim Zuckerman

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