Sunset/Sunrise Workshop Exercise

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In fine art photography light can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Your eye has 2,000 times greater latitude than film and your brain has taught your vision system to compensate for the ever-changing light source. Red, green, and blue look the same to your eyes whether what you are looking at is in the shade or bright sunlight, and whether it’s early morning, noon, or late afternoon. You still see the colors as red, green and blue until the light is so dim that you see them only as black and white. (The rods and cones function in your eyeball)

The experienced photographer’s eye, however, knowing what to expect from the different color temperatures of the light, and slide film’s response to it, knows what to look for. Early morning light has a lot of magenta in it, then turns to red, orange, and on to yellow. Noon light (for which the film is balanced) is blue and contrasty, and you need fill flash to avoid dark eye sockets. Afternoon light goes from golden to orange, red, and then magenta. In each instance, microscopic airborne particles in the atmosphere block the shorter wavelength blue rays while allowing the longer red ones to get through during the time the sun is below the horizon and shining up through the earth’s thin layer of atmosphere. The latitude of Kodak E100VS slide film is about five “f” stops and rated accurately at ISO100 , The latitude of Fuji Velvia slide film is about three and a half “f” stops, rated at ISO 50 but usually shot at ISO40. The range of light of a sunrise or sunset is about six to eight “f” stops from the foreground to the sky. So, It takes up to a three-stop Split Neutral Density Filter to hold back the sky in order to get a normal exposure of the foreground. It usually takes supplementary off camera flash to brighten the foreground sufficiently to see the colors and details during early sunrise or late sunset exposures, which yield the most picturesque photos.


Normal Equipment Required:

  • Sturdy tripod with a good head.
  • SLR Camera with Auto Exposure mode and Matrix metering. (Make sure you know how to use it)
  • Auto exposure bracketing capability very desirable. (Make sure you know how to use it)
  • 1 roll each of Fuji Velvia and Kodak E100VS slide film
  • Medium wide angle lens. (21 to 35 mm) Special Equipment Required:
  • Cokin “P” filter holder (Approx. $14.95)
  • Cokin “P” filter holder adapter ring for your lens. (from 52mm to 77mm) (Approx. $4.95)
  • Galen Rowell or Singh Ray “3hard” Split Neutral Density Filter. (Approx. $99.00) Desirable but not required:
  • One flash unit with an extension chord for off camera flash.A second flash unit with a remote activation device.

You can determine the range of light with any SLR camera that has Shutter Priority capability, but for the first time you try this follow these guidelines. You will ordinarily have to use a 20 to 24 mm wide angle lens, mount the camera on a tripod, and accept a very slow shutter speed in order to set the “f” stop to f-8 or f-11 to get the depth of field sharp from foreground to infinity. You’ll only be using Aperture Priority for this series.

Find a location prior to the shoot, and bring a small flashlight. You’ll be setting up in the dark for a sunrise shoot, and packing up in the dark for a sunset shoot.

  1. First thing to do is to set your camera to Aperture Priority, (A) and set the aperture to f-8,
  2. Make sure the meter is in Matrix mode.
  3. Put the split ND Filter on with the dark end up. Compose your picture, and adjust the filter so that the dark part from the graduation up covers the horizon and the sky.
  4. Bracket your exposure with about five shots, covering the range of minus point 5, normal, plus point 5, plus 1, and plus 2.
  5. Repeat for as long as you can see the colors in the sky.


You have about fifteen minutes of peak “magic light” and will be exposing and recomposing very rapidly to take advantage of it. Learn how to set your camera and exposure compensation features before arriving for the shoot.

With slide film you add light (plus compensation) to make the picture lighter. You’re trying to get the best combination for good color in the sky and good colors in the foreground. The light changes rapidly and you will probably want to change your composition, just make sure the graduation is readjusted to cover the split between the land and the sky, and bracket several times each time you shoot a new composition. With the camera on Aperture, the meter on Matrix, and the Grad ND filter over the top half of the lens the exposure meter will give you an average exposure for the scene. When you adjust the exposure compensation the Shutter speed will change to make the adjustment. Don’t try to do it without the tripod!

You can do this exercise without any clouds in the sky but it’s much better if there are some in view. There are several different situations. High thin clouds give you a landscape dominated by the sky and the horizon is best positioned at the lower third of the picture. With clouds just on and over the horizon, and none overhead, the foreground should occupy the bottom two thirds of the frame. Tack sharp from the first blade of grass to the last wisp in the sky is extremely important. Learn how to set the hyperfocul distance on your lens to achieve this result. Avoid a bullseye shot with the horizon and the subject in the middle of the picture, unless you are shooting a reflection picture.

If you’re trying for a sunrise shot get there at least 30 minutes before official sunrise time. Sometimes the best shots at sunrise are to the West, such as when the orange light hits the top of the mountains behind you. The event is pretty much over when the sun is above the horizon. If you’re trying for a sunset shot start shooting about ten minutes before official sundown and for as long as you can after the sun is below the horizon. Again, look behind to see what’s happening to the land features to the East.

Bring only one camera. That’s all you can handle, and Digital camera sunset and sunrise techniques are significantly different. They’re for another time.




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