As a landscape photographer, I love good fiery sunrises and sunsets. A cloud filled sky that bursts into flame as the sun begins or ends its journey across the sky each day is something I hope for every time I head out to make photographs.
However, I don’t just show up a few minutes before sunrise and plop my tripod down, nor do I pack it all in as soon as the sun sinks below the horizon.
The reason I’m willing to get up as early as 1:30 a.m. for sunrise, or stay on location long after the sun goes down, quite often hiking several miles in total darkness, the trail ahead lit only by a small headlamp, is what happens long before sunrise and long after sunset.
Embrace the blue.
Twilight, often called the “Blue Hour,” offers some of the most appealing light of the day. Though not as dramatic as the brilliant reds, pinks, and oranges more often associated with sunrise or sunset photos, the subtle blue tones often give your photographs a more serene, peaceful, even moody feel that is equally worth capturing.
This time of day, with the beautiful, subdued light, is far too often overlooked, especially by beginning landscape photographers. Those arriving minutes before sunrise, or packing up and leaving the second the sun sets, have no idea what they are missing.
Capture The Fire.
Not only are the blue hours at each end of the day a wonderful time on their own to photograph, it’s during this time that I finalize my compositions for when the real show, the fire, begins.
Also, it has been my experience that actual sunrise or sunset often provides the least dramatic light of the mornings or evenings shoot. The best color, even the fiery glow so often associated with sunrise and sunset photographs, may very well occur 15-20 minutes before or after the sun rises or sets.
Often in the past, before I decided I’m willing to forgo sleep in pursuit of a good photograph, I’ve missed out on the best color simply because I wasn’t ready, not there early enough, or called it a day too soon.
All it took was a time or two watching the best light of the day occurring while I’m still getting ready, or worse, still in my car. Or after I’ve put away my camera to head back down the trail, then having the sky ignite with no possibility of capturing it, to get me to decide I needed to get there earlier and stay out later.
This next series of images will hopefully illustrate my point and motivate you to get out there a little earlier, or stay a little later. These were all taken the morning of August 18th of this year. Sunrise was at 5:53 a.m.
In this first image, taken 41 minutes before sunrise, at 5:12 a.m., I could see hints of color, and great looking clouds. Even this early I knew that this was going to be one heck of a sunrise!
This second image, shot at 5:41 a.m., still 12 minutes before actual sunrise, was the highlight of my morning and made leaving my house at 2 a.m. more than worth it. You want to talk about a reason to get up early? If a sunrise like this doesn’t push you to get out early, nothing will. I don’t think I’ve ever photographed a more brilliant, dramatic, awe-inspiring, sunrise since I picked up a camera. It’s going to take a lot to top that sky.
And now in this last image, with a capture time of 5:46 a.m., notice how much less dramatic and vibrant the color is. Not only was this only 5 minutes later, showing just how fast the light can change, it was still 7 minutes before actual sunrise.
Compared to the above photograph, let’s just say this one is “lacking.” Of course on any other day, if this were the only photograph I made I’d have been pretty happy, it’s still a darn good sunrise sky. Not all sunrises or sunsets are going to look like the one in that second photo. But on this particular day, this one is clearly second class. And from this point on the quality of light quickly went down hill.
Here are a few other tips for your next blue hour adventure.
– The more popular the location is with photographers, the earlier you should try to be there. There is nothing worse that having to join a chorus line of photographers all vying for the best spot to set your tripod.
– These are likely going to be long exposures, I hope it goes without saying, but a tripod is a must.
– Graduated neutral density filters, hard edge for well-defined horizons, like a seascape, and soft edge for when the horizon is interrupted by mountains, trees, etc. will help balance the usually darker foreground with the brighter sky, enabling you to capture the scene in one exposure(of course blending exposures and HDR are also options).
I strongly recommend the rectangular type that slips into a holder on the front of your lens. That way you can vary the position depending on where you want the horizon in your photo, as well as the angle. Stay away from the circular type that thread directly on your lens. Unless of course you plan to place the horizon dead center through the frame in every shot.
– Last, and maybe most importantly, don’t forget to enjoy the show. No matter your skill as a photographer, there is something about watching a beautiful sunrise or sunset unfold before your eyes that even the best photograph can’t capture.