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Sunrise, Sunset

You can create stunning images when shooting early and late during the golden hours. But as the world turns, is sunset the same thing as sunrise, but in reverse?

As dawn breaks, the lighting and color temperature go from pitch black through various shades of lavender, orange and finally into the daylight that prevails through much of the day. Then again, as the sun dips toward the horizon at sunset, things progress through warm, golden tones into the cooler shades of twilight. Eventually, the land is blanketed again in darkness. Or at least until the cycle begins anew with the dawning of another day on earth. Yet most days, we're only vaguely aware of the details as we're often too busy when the show is happening. To see it, you have to be outside watching as the sun works its magic. But the daily ritual of waking up and getting ready for bed, eating breakfast and dinner, and doing other matters often happens on a schedule that conflicts with mother nature. I often have people ask if the colors in my images are natural. I assure them they are, but you have to be there to see them that way.

Some of us are early risers, while others stay up late and therefore wake up late. To each his own, as the saying goes. But few of us operate on a schedule that affords the luxury of admiring both sunrise and sunset. For years, I only ever shot sunsets. Waking up at oh-dark-thirty so I could be on site for first light was just too difficult. I'm not too fond of alarm clocks. Most beginning photographers (and many with more experience) tend to photograph whichever golden hour period best fits their schedule, skipping the other as a repeat showing. After all, isn't the one you missed pretty much the same as the one you witnessed, only in reverse? It would seem that all you have to do is turn around and look in the opposite direction and wait.

Well, sort of.

One difference I've already alluded to is that it's dark before sunrise. It's a lot easier to find your way to your shooting location for sunset when it's still light out. In the pre-dawn darkness, you'd better have a good flashlight. And it helps to be familiar with your route and destination beforehand. You can leisurely get set up for twilight, then relax while you wait for the show to start. Of course, that flashlight will come in handy when it comes time to pack up and leave, so don't forget it. But there's no denying the advantage of adequate illumination to help find the optimal spot. Sunrise makes it tricky. More than once, I've realized only later on that there was a better spot not fifty feet down the trail. Scouting a location and getting the lay of the land is complicated with just a flashlight.

I make it a point to take an afternoon hike the day before to where I plan to be the following morning. The light then isn't conducive for much shooting, but the exercise does me good, anyway. But at least I know then where the wildflowers are blooming best and where the best vantage points are. All I need to do the next morning is find those spots again with my flashlight.

I've noticed that sunset shooting is often more crowded than morning. Because of the added complications of sunrise, sunset is frequently more popular. Some locations are downright crowded at sunset. If you want to avoid the competition with other photographers, give the morning golden hour a try. And the crowds seem to get worse each year.

Once you gain experience with both golden hour times, you'll probably notice that atmospheric conditions differ. In the morning, you may encounter fog lying on the land or rising off the water. There may even be frost. In the later afternoon, you may find that water vapor binding to smog and air pollution, lessening visibility. I've had occasions when my intended grand vista was hidden nearly entirely in the afternoon haze. Oh, sure, I could see the mountain, but it wasn't all that photogenic. But if the air is clear, the rising thermals might bless you with billowing clouds that probably won't be there the following sunrise. So perhaps it depends.

But a lot depends on the compass. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. In this regard, the two are not interchangeable. While it is possible to take pictures in either direction at either time, the results will not be the same. If you want to shoot the sun itself, you'd better be facing east in the morning and west in the evening. Carefully consider your plans. Look on a map and plot out the details. Or use one of the many applications such as PhotoPills or Sun Ephemeris to help work things out. If a shot seems best for sunrise, wake up early and give it a shot. If it looks more like a sunset shot, sleep in, but make plans to stay up late.

The show isn't over till it gets dark. Exposure times may lengthen, but the color lasts long after the time the sun dips below the horizon. I often see photographers pack it up once the sun has set, but don't make the mistake of leaving early. The first act may end when the sun goes down, but there are still amazing images to be made long after that. Make sure your flashlight works so you can find your way once it gets dark, and enjoy the second half of the show.

And don't forget to look behind you now and then. One horizon may be glorious shades of fiery orange, but the other just might show subtle pastels of pink and purple. But you have to be there to see it.

Date posted: July 11, 2021


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