Golden perfection

“Sunrise looks spectacular in nature. Sunrise looks spectacular in photos. Sunrise looks spectacular in our dreams. Sunrise looks spectacular in paintings, because it really is spectacular!” – Mehmet-Murat Ildan, Turkish playwright.

People travel from all over the world to experience an African sunrise or sunset. Songs and poems are written about the yellow, red and amber hues flushing over the vast bush and savanna horizons, but more often than not, photographers struggle to capture the magic. In this article I want to look at the science behind capturing this perfect moment in nature.

The light we see from the sun is white, but made up of different colours at different wavelengths. At sunrise or sunset, when the sun is at the horizon, the distance the light travels through the air to your eyes is significantly further than when the sun is overhead. Red, orange, and yellow are long light waves and green, blue, indigo and violet are short light waves. When light waves enter the atmosphere, they bounce off all the tiny particles in the air. The short blue light waves scatter more than the rest of the colours, and that’s why we see a blue sky when the sun is overhead.

During sunrise and sunset, when the light travels through more air particles, the short light waves scatter more and are no longer visible. The long light waves are less affected and reach us where we are. That’s why we see a beautiful mixture of red, orange, and yellow tones filling the sky.

During winter the sky is filled with dust and smog, and will appear more red and the sun will have a halo around it. During the summer months, when the skies are clear, the sun will have a perfect outline. This is usually the case for inland sunrises and sunsets. Coastal sunrises and sunsets look a bit different, with a beautiful soft glow that lingers longer due to moisture always being present in the air. The beautiful colours also last longer the farther you are away from the equator, where it is more abrupt – another reason why southern Africa, with its vast open spaces, is a prime sunrise/sunset photography destination.


The most beautiful sunrise or sunset images include additional elements that elevate the mood and drama, add a sense of space and place, and keep the viewer’s interest. Animals, a dead tree or tree line, tall grass, a shoreline, reflections, or a road can all add that ‘’wow’’ factor to your next sunrise or sunset masterpiece. Frame your image wide and, if possible, include a leading line from the foreground to the horizon. Use the ‘’rule of thirds’’ as a guideline to place your horizon.

Settings for beginners

First things first: clean your lens, or you will have large yellow/green dust spots on your image. These will invariably be where it will be distracting and is very difficult to fix in post-processing. Use the widest lens in your kit to capture the whole scene. A focal length range between 14mm and 24mm is a good starting point. Put your camera on a tripod to get the shot perfectly sharp. Set your camera on Aperture Priority mode (A for Nikon or Av for Canon) and set a wide aperture between F/8 to F11. Keep your ISO as low as possible – between 400 and 600 should do the trick – to reduce noise (grain). The camera calculates the shutter speed, and it will be fairly slow – hence the need for stabilisation. Shoot a few images and view them. If you want more or less light in your image, adjust the exposure compensation by 1 or 2 stops to the left for a more saturated sky or by 1 or 2 stops to the right for more light in your image. Experiment until you capture what you envisioned.

Advanced settings in Manual mode

Your aperture setting will depend on the amount of detail you want in focus in your foreground. When you have a long, beautiful, crystalclear reflection on water, you want it just as sharp and in focus as your horizon. A wide depth of field will give you focus all the way through your scene but will let in little light and you will need to compensate with a very slow shutter speed, which means you will need to support your camera.

Keep the ISO as low as possible to keep the noise (grain) to a minimum. Auto ISO will not work here, as the camera reads the light on the metering received and it will possibly result in ISO settings of 10 000 and higher, making the sensor more sensitive to the light available. When you choose a shallow depth of field for a scene where you only want the horizon in focus, the large lens opening will let in more light and you will have to compensate with a faster shutter speed to keep the sky saturated with colour. Again, keep the ISO as low as possible so as not to have the dark areas filled with grain.

Filters and Processing

A graduated neutral density filter can help with the exposure, allowing for a darker more saturated sky and a detailed wellexposed foreground. The same can be achieved in postprocessing by stacking several images shot at different exposures. Never overdo it with saturation levels as it can very quickly distort your image into something artificial. Rather spend the time in the moment while shooting to get the settings just right to capture the magic.

Lens flare

During sunrise and sunset you can play with lens flare, creating ‘sun stars’ as I like to call them. Set your aperture to between F/18 and F/22, causing the glass in your lens to diffract the light from the sun into a star. With an extreme narrow lens opening at F/22 you sacrifice most of the light. A slow shutter speed will compensate a bit, but overall it will be a darker image. In postprocessing you can lift the shadows a bit to reveal some detail. To set your composition up for a ‘’sun star’’, try to see it with your eye first, by positioning the sun behind a tree or other objects, using the ‘’rule of thirds’’ to place the sun. Then frame, take a few shots and review your images critically to see if it is what you envisioned.

Generally, you use the widest lens you have to capture a ‘’sun star’’, and the amount of lens flare you achieve in your image depends on the quality and amount of glass in your lens. It is totally possible to capture lens flare with a telephoto lens at a narrow depth of field, but you will have to adjust the settings to what works best for the zoom length.

High-contrast images

How to create a dramatic monotone image that doesn’t include the sun? Look for the sun late afternoon when it is near the horizon, just after the “golden hour”, and place your subject right against the light.

Set a wide depth of field that will blur the background and foreground, but will also let in a lot of light. Compensate by reducing the light with a faster shutter speed – which will also freeze a moving subject. Keep the light sensitivity (ISO) low to reduce noise (auto ISO will not work here). Here you can shoot wide or zoom in, depending on how you imagined the shot.

English philosopher, Sir Bernard Arthur Owen Williams once said that it is almost impossible to watch a sunset or sunrise and not dream. I cannot agree more. It is a magical time of day when we can slow down and prepare for the day ahead or reflect on the day that has passed. With camera in hand, you can now also capture it perfectly.

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