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The Sweet Light

As a nature photographer, sunrise and sunset are my primary times to shoot. If you’re a regular reader of my weekly Tips, you know I love the “sweet light” these two times of day provide. The color and quality of sweet light is unrivaled. The warm glow, the sidelighting, and the vibrant and saturated colors they impart can’t be had at any other time of day nor can they be faked in Photoshop. Every sunrise and sunset is different and the more you get out to shoot at these times, the more you’ll understand what I’m saying.


© Russ Burden

There are many ways to exploit the sun’s effect at sunrise and sunset. First, when clouds accompany a sunrise on the eastern horizon or a sunset on the western, vibrant color may enhance your subject. Second, take advantage of the sweet light falling upon the landscape bathing it in golden tones of yellow, red and orange. Finally, and the focus of this article, is photographing the sun when it’s on the horizon. As a subject unto itself, unless the color in the sky is electric, you’ll find it’s better to include an additional element to add intrigue to the photograph.


© Russ Burden

In that the sun is a very bright source of illumination, unless it’s dramatically diffused, backlit subjects that are included in the composition will reveal little or no shadow detail.  With this in mind, finding an interesting silhouette will greatly enhance the impact of the photograph. The more graphic it is, the better. For instance, an outline of a rectangular building will be rendered as a large black blob whereas an old leafless cottonwood will be much more pleasing. Equally as important as the choice of silhouette is where you place the sun and the main subject. Avoid compositions where both appear in the center. Try to use the rule of thirds as often as possible for both the sun and silhouette.
sun on horizon 2 russ burden photography tips techniques sunrise sunset


© Russ Burden

There are concerns that need to be addressed if you plan to add this technique into your repertoire. First and foremost, avoid looking directly at the sun through your viewfinder, especially if you’re shooting with a telephoto. You need to squint and look at other parts of the frame when you create the composition. If there are no clouds to soften its intensity, this becomes even more critical. In situations like this, wait until the sun is almost touching the horizon. To get the proper exposure, take a meter reading without the sun in the frame and use this as your base point. After taking a photo with this reading, check your histogram to make sure you don’t clip either the highlights or shadows. If so, compensate accordingly. You may find that the exposure will rapidly change so check your histogram often to make sure you don’t lose detail in important areas.
sun on horizon 3 russ burden photography tips techniques sunrise sunset


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