On a trip to Railay Bay in the beautiful Thailand last week I was posed with the dilemma, do I shoot into the sun or in the opposite direction at sunrise and sunset? Railay Bay is a landlocked peninsula with two beaches facing West, and a dense mangrove bay facing East. For the most part we are stuck with only one option, especially in Australia. In my local area (Northern Beaches, Sydney) the points of interest are largely on the coast. So regardless of what or when I’m shooting I will point East. So with options to make an educated choice we need to look at what makes a good sunrise/sunset and what doesn’t.
First and foremost, clouds make for a good sunrise or sunset. Without clouds your photos are likely to be bland and lack all the beautiful colours of sunrise/sunset. Of course this is not always true but for the most part a spectacular sunset or sunrise is present when the last rays of light hit the clouds. With that in mind, first check where the clouds are siting and point your camera towards them (whilst keeping interesting foreground). This could be in any direction not necessarily East or West.
Pointing into the sun makes for a harder shot especially if you want to retain dynamic range. Multiple exposures (one for the sky, one for the foreground) or sufficient strength ND grads are generally required to keep detail in both the sky and foreground. Silhouettes are easier to shoot as you only need to expose for the sky (see photo below). If you want those cool sun stars wait until only a sliver of the sun is showing and shoot with a high aperture (as show in photo to the right). The higher the aperture (F16, F22 etc.) the bigger the star burst.
Pointing away from the sun or shooting before sunrise / after sunset is far easier and will still give you great results. Try to previsualise the shot you want to achieve or just work with what you have.
Lots of clouds sitting on the horizon blocking the sun is a dead set sunrise or sunset killer. It means that the sun won’t light up the clouds in the opposite direction or any low lying clouds above it. Which brings me to…
Low lying clouds are ace! They will always give you the best results, shoot them where you can. If the are moving fast then all the better, with long exposures you can get some nice motion blur.
Use The Photographer’s Ephemeris to figure out the angles of sunrise/sunset/moonrise/moonset relative to your shooting location. Think of where the sun will hit as it becomes lower or higher in the sky and where you need to be to capture it. Do you want the sun in the shot? Where is the subject relative to the sun? Can I point away or to the side of the sunrise? Where will my shadow cast (and do I really want it in my shots)?
Well as you may have figured out, there is no clear cut magical answer. Best to get out there and work with what you have. Hopefully some of the tips may help and save you from running around like a maniac!
Photographed pointing away from the sun shortly before sunset – Railay Beach, Thailand
Photographed 7 minutes later pointing into the sun as it dips behind some clouds – Phra Nang Beach, Railay Bay, Thailand (Princess Cave silhouetted)