Vibrant orange sunset reflected on lake by Willis T. Bird.
© Willis T. Bird. All rights reserved.



Unfortunately, no one told me about Rule #1 when I began my photography, and I wasn’t able to perceive the danger quickly enough. As a result of using telephoto lenses and taking numerous photos of the sun during sunsets and sunrises, I damaged my eyes. I now have a little black spot inside the eye I used to look through the viewfinder.

Everyone who has a camera does it, and I imagine you will eventually, if you haven’t already. But I will share techniques that have worked for me in sunset and sunrise photography, plus several tips on how you can protect yourself.

First things first – wear your sunglasses as much as possible and especially as you are setting up your photo compositions.

Lasers and the sun are the two brightest lights that your eyes will probably ever have to confront. Therefore, it would make sense that anything that makes them even more intense would be dangerous–right? Using equipment, such as a telephoto lens, that increases the size of the rays will make then even more intense. You wouldn’t think of placing a magnifying glass between your eyes and a very bright light before looking into it, would you? Likewise, if you look directly at the sun through a telephoto lens on your camera, you’re essentially magnifying the effect of the light. So, use your digital camera’s LCD screen or, using a tripod, try to frame the composition with the sun just out of the image frame and reposition when you’re ready to take the photo, all the time, avoiding looking directly at the sun for any length of time. Keep in mind that I can only make suggestions and guide you. You’ll need to monitor your actions while taking photos of the sun – be sensible, responsible, and take care of your eyes.

Red and orange sunset with silhouette of landscape by Willis T. Bird.
© Willis T. Bird. All rights reserved.

Your eyes aren’t the only problem in sunlight photography. It’s possible for the CCD sensor in the digital camera to be damaged by intense exposure to the sun when in telephoto mode. The zoom lens will accumulate the brightness of the sun’s rays, which in turn heats the inside of the camera. This can result in burn marks. In older 35mm cameras, there was a similar problem of burning cloth shutter shades. (When metal was used, burning wasn’t a problem.) Only long exposures did real damage. So when at all possible, it’s best to set up your composition before the sun appears in the image frame.

Vibrant orange and yellow sunrise reflected on lake by Willis T. Bird.
© Willis T. Bird. All rights reserved.

Now, you don’t have to use a telephoto lens to capture a dramatic sunrise or sunset image. Your wide-angle lenses is very effective for photographing a landscape scene. You don’t even have to include the sun in the photo itself. If you’re presented with beautiful cloud formations, spectacular reflected color can be found before the sun rises or when the sun is already below the horizon.

Once the sun starts coming up or going down, it does so faster than you imagine. Be prepared by scouting out an area in advance and predicting where you believe you should be located. Look for good foreground and background subjects to add interest to the photo. Then, plan to arrive at your chosen site at least a half hour early to get your equipment set up. You’ll want to be ready for the show of color.

I personally prefer the colors of the sunrises to sunsets, although both can be stunning. In addition, early morning can provide fog and haze that can be easier on your eyes. They also add interest and drama to your photograph.

However, don’t count on haze or fog as protection. Direct sun can still be dangerous. In most cases, I like to set the sun off to the side of the image frame, so it won’t be shining directly into the lens–or my eyes. When I do center the sun, give it only a quick glance with eyes and camera. I don’t stare into the lens. (The more of this type of picture you take, the better you’ll become at this.)

Often, you can preset the focus so your DOF (depth of field) is already set up for you. I strongly suggest that you use a tripod, and check your horizon in advance of making the photograph to be sure the horizon is as level as possible.


If you direct your lens towards the sun and then set your exposure, you’ll find that nearly everything in the photo, except for the sun, will be in silhouette. If you don’t want the scene to be in silhouette and your camera allows it, you should point your lens off to the side, press down part way to set the exposure, and then swing the lens back toward the sun when the sun is coming up or going down and then complete the snap to take the photo. You’ll have created a lightened image in which the sun won’t seem as intense–nor will the colors. You’ll be able to see the other objects in the photograph.

Getting the exposure you want is the most difficult aspect of sunrise / sunset photography. I’ve found that bracketing shots is a good way to get the best exposure. Bracketing means taking a photo with the exposure exactly as the meter says it should be, then taking one that is slightly overexposed and one that is slightly underexposed. Usually one of those results will give you the look you want. You’ll eventually realize which you like best and can then photograph to get that result without having to resort to bracketing.

Orange and yellow sunrise reflected on lake with ducks flying in the sky by Willis T. Bird.
© Willis T. Bird. All rights reserved.

In Summary: Reminders and Tips

Follow Rule #1: Protect your eyes and camera!

Clouds can make a sunrise or sunset photograph. 

Having something interesting in the foreground and background is a plus.

Underexposure makes for richer, darker colors.

Some sunsets, even those at the beach, are best after the sun has disappeared from view, so don’t be in a rush to leave after the sun drops beneath the horizon.

Using a wide-angle lens will give you a very small sun, but a telephoto will exaggerate the size of it.

If you situate yourself in a high position and shoot down on the sunrise or sunset, the sun will have a richer, more reddish color.

Filters can help intensify the colors. I like using a graduated neutral density filter. Any neutral density filter will have the effect of adding more stops to the camera, allowing a longer exposure. Sometimes, a polarizer will have a similar effect. Try out other filters too and see how they can enhance the effects of a sunset.

The best times for sun photos are in the autumn and after a rain. Unless the weather is bad or you live in some extreme region of the earth, you get one sunrise and one sunset every day, so make the most of them. Scout in advance in order to know exactly where the sun will come up or go down. Remember, the sun’s position will change from summer to winter, so you have to keep on scouting.

If you plan to photograph sunrises or sunsets, you need to know the times that the sun rises or sets in your area so that you can be ready. Here are two URL’s you may use to find the sunrise/sunset time for the present and the future. If you post the state and town where you live or plan to visit, the sites will give you the longitude and latitude for that area as well as sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times for a day or for a year, depending on which site you use.

If you know the exact day you’re interested in, use this site:

This site provides a comprehensive chart. If you want a reference chart to take with you over a period of time, print out the chart or save the URL to your cell phone (A worldwide option is offered, as well.):

by Willis T. Bird

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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