How to Handle Exposure in Sunrise & Sunset Photos

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There’s nothing better for a photographer than a beautiful sunrise or sunset, the colors of the sky combined with the landscape or cityscape create an unique combination, something that can’t be repeated. In this short article I will review a few important tips for exposure at those magical moments.

 

sunset

 
In most sunrises and sunsets red is the predominant color, the clouds get lit by the sun below the horizon and the atmosphere absorbs most of the white light wavelengths turning the light red. To handle exposure in such a situation it is critical to monitor the red channel in your histogram. To do that make sure you can review the RGB histogram for the shot. It will be something like this:

 

histogram

 
As you can see the red channel is overexposed and the blue & green channels are underexposed. This is a typical situation for sunset/sunrise shots. If you want the foreground silhouetted and detail in the sky you need to avoid overexposing the red channel, check the RGB histogram and change exposure time avoiding overexposure of the reds. If the reds are overexposed you lose detail in those beautiful sunset clouds.

 

sunset

 
If you want color detail in your landscape as well as in the sky you need to take more than one shot, one for the red channel and one for the blue&green channels and then combine both shots in post-processing. It can get difficult!

Another common problem for Sunrise/Sunset shots is that the sky will be brighter near the horizon as it is closer to the Sun, then it can be useful to use a reverse graduated ND filter, where the “reverse” means the filter is darker at the horizon and then fades to clear glass. That’s the most useful filter for sunrise/sunset shots.

 

sunrise and sunset exposure

 

The filter allows a longer exposure time while keeping the bright band near the horizon withing the dynamic range of the camera. Without the filter you’d get a brighter horizon and very little or no detail at all in the rest of the sky.

filter

So the next time you plan to do a sunset/sunrise photo session make sure you check the red channel of your histogram and if you need it use a reverse grad ND filter. If you don’t have such a filter take two shots and then combine them digitally in post-processing, the results will be the same.

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  1. Linus

    Thanks for the tutorial. Can you please explain how can we control exposure for a particular (e.g. red) channel.

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  2. Leslie Macchiarella

    Thanks, Luis! I’m a newbie photographer (but I’m learning). I appreciate the sunset camera tips.

    • Reply

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