Many photographers do not like waking up very early to take pictures at sunrise, preferring to sleep in and spend the energy to shoot during the day and at sunset instead. While photographing at sunset can yield stunning photographs, there are specific advantages to photographing at sunrise that are worth discussing. Let’s take a look at the topic of sunrise vs sunset in photography in more detail and see why you might be better off shooting early in the morning.
Yellowstone Lake Sunrise
“I am not a morning person”. “I am not an early bird, I am a night owl”. You have heard these one many times and for a good reason – most people do not like waking up very early, especially while it is still dark outside. Many of us end up working late, eating late and waking up late, which has become the norm for the bulk of our society. Mix in all the late night shows, movies and other entertainment and it get even tougher to be an early bird. Because of this, most people avoid waking up early for a sunrise.
Why not take advantage of this as a photographer? Instead of being around all the night owls at sunset, if you wake up early, you will not have to battle for a spot or deal with cloning out people in your photos. At sunrise, you might see photographers like you in the area, who are generally going to be more respectful towards other photographers, while those with their cell phone cameras are probably not going to care or even notice that they might be in your frame.
Badwater Basin at Sunrise
Did you notice that even during stormy periods of the year, nights tend to be calmer? Winds and storms generally die down at night. People drive less cars and other human activities also die down, causing less smog, smoke and pollution getting thrown up into the atmosphere. Our planet Earth, just like our body and brain, goes through the time of self-flushing, revitalizing, cleaning and healing during the night. Particles in the atmosphere settle down, and cooler nights clean up the air, reducing the amount of haze we might see in images. As you may already know, haze occurs because light bounces off different particles in the atmosphere, so if the number of such particles is reduced, there will be less visible haze in resulting images.
Because haze can be very difficult and sometimes even impossible to deal with in post-processing, it is always desirable to shoot with less of it in the atmosphere, which makes sunrises a lot more desirable than sunsets. While one can use a polarizing filter to reduce atmospheric haze during the day and at sunsets, if the amount of haze is excessive, it will still be clearly visible in images. At sunrise, you have the least amount of haze to deal with and a polarizing filter might help in potentially eliminating haze in your images.
Sunrise at Joshua Tree National Park
Sunrises are Better for Your Health
Breathing fresh morning air is not just refreshing, but it is also better for your lungs, your brain and your body. We know that exercising in the morning can boost your energy level for the whole day. Why not combine exercise with photography by forcing yourself to do a little walking / hiking in the morning with your camera? Once you are done taking pictures, you can move around more and look for better spots and opportunities. Your camera will force you to move around and stay healthy, rather than bind you to your bed or your work desk. And lastly, less people equals less stress, don’t you agree?
Dead Horse Point Sunrise
Sunrise Light is Cooler
Literally and photographically. At sunrise, the color temperature of the light is always going to be cooler with more bluish tones, because light bounces off less particles in the air, as explained above. Short wavelength blue and violet tones easily reach our eyes and our cameras, allowing us to see and photograph a clearer sky with more defined colors. Once clouds start reflecting red and orange colors, we can capture them more vividly, since nothing is scattered in the atmosphere.
In contrast, the atmosphere tends to be thicker at sunset time, bouncing light all over the place and potentially causing sunsets to appear more washed out and sometimes even duller in comparison. Because sunlight passes through more particles, the blue and violet wavelengths often can’t make it through, while longer wavelengths of visible light continue their journey, causing warmer colors to appear at sunset. Cool tones change into warmer tones, creating different, more yellowish light. However, this does not mean that sunsets are always going to look worse. Sunsets can produce more colors than sunrises, which is why you do not want to skip on those either. And in some cases, a particular spot is only good for a sunset due to the position of the sun.
Mt. Cook at Sunrise
Low Fog is More Common at Sunrise
Due to cooler temperatures at night, you have a much higher chance of encountering low fog at dawn and sunrise. Take a look at the below image that I captured at sunrise in San Juan Mountains of Colorado, right before the start of my Colorado Fall Colors Workshops (a couple of workshop participants joined me that morning):
Mt. Sneffels at Sunrise
The low fog passing through the bottom of Mt Sneffels is extremely rare – something I have not seen for years. When the sun came up on the horizon, its light rays painted the top of the cloud hanging over the mountain and as soon as I saw the peak, I took a picture. The moment only lasted for a couple of seconds until the cloud fully covered the peak and we did not see it again. If we had not woken up early that morning, we would have completely missed out on this unique opportunity! The sun obviously burned through the fog rather quickly that morning and none of it was left for the sunset hours that day, leaving a bland, blue sky at sunset.
Shooting at Sunrise Doubles Your Chances for Better Photos
If you wake up to take pictures at sunrise, you will have another opportunity to shoot in great light at sunset. This doubles your chances of getting great photographs, since you are there for the two best parts of the day. While it can be difficult to shoot both sunrise and sunset in the long summer days (especially in the northern parts of the world), the potential for the double reward is too big to ignore. In such cases, it might be best to divide your sleep and rest for a few hours during the day as well.
Shooting sunrises and sunsets is especially important for me when traveling overseas. Although it is tempting to get some sleep when I am exhausted from travel, I always try to motivate myself by thinking that I can get more sleep on rainy days or when I get back home…
And lastly, I would like to leave you a quote from Jack Dykinga’s amazing book, “A Photographer’s Life“:
John White, another Pulitzer Prize winning photographer at the Sun-Times once told me he photographed every sunrise. In disbelief, I inquired why? He simply said he didn’t want to miss the really great one.
While many of us, including myself, don’t have the motivation of photography legends like Jack Dykinga and John White, you certainly don’t want to regret missing out on a beautiful sunrise when photographing. So if you don’t have the energy to do it every morning, at least commit to doing it when you are out photographing or traveling.
Are you a night owl or an early bird? Please share in the comments section below!
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