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Sunrise versus Sunset

Most outdoor photographers know about the golden light of sunrise and sunset. Some people describe themselves as early risers while others stay up late but prefer to sleep in the next day. Very few people do both. If you had to choose, do you prefer sunrise or sunset?

I remember after my first few years of trying to shoot seriously I sat down and went through a bunch of my images and realized I had way more shots taken at sunset than at sunrise. I guess that would make me naturally more of a late riser. What about you?

It can be easy to conclude that there's really no reason to try to be up and out on location at both ends of the day. After all, sunset is more or less the same thing as sunrise except in reverse, right? It starts out dark and gradually gets light, or it starts out light and slowly turns dark. What's the difference? If I show you a photograph obviously shot in gloriously golden light, could you tell me whether it was taken at sunrise or sunset?

First light on Mt. TipsooWith little to go on other than the image itself, perhaps not, but if you were familiar with where it was shot, you could probably tell. No doubt you've noticed that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. And this leads me to a significant difference between the two. Depending on the shot you are trying to take, some locations are definitely sunrise locations while others are sunset places. One of my favorite Mt. Rainier locations is Tipsoo Lake near the eastern border of the park. If there's no wind, you can easily get a reflection of the mountain on the surface of the water. If you're there at sunrise, it can be gorgeous with the sun rising over your shoulder lighting up the snow covered peak. But if you try to compose the same image at sunset, the sun will be shining in your eyes as it sets behind the mountain. It won't look the same at all.

So you see, sunrise and sunset aren't really the same as each other at all, at least not for some potential images. If you happen to be shooting north or south you have of a choice of whether you prefer the sun coming from left or right, but the further east or west you are hoping to shoot, sunrise and sunset will be increasingly dissimilar.

Sometimes it's not so much where the sun itself is at any given time but rather other effects of its passage in the sky. Shadows slide across the landscape lighting up one side of a valley first and later shining on the other. Even trees and smaller objects look different when front lit versus backlit. Remember too that when the sun is rising or setting on one side of you the color of the sky on the opposite horizon can be equally photogenic. There are spots in the North Cascades where I can look one direction to see Mt. Baker and the other to see Mt. Shuksan. At the right time of day, the sky can be quite beautiful but different near each.

Another difference between shooting at one end of the day versus the other is air clarity. Even miles from civilization, the air isn't always completely clear. Throughout the day, water vapor evaporates off of surface water and vegetation, trapping any smoke or smog. On a warm summer day, the atmosphere can be far hazier at sunset than it is at sunrise before much evaporation has occurred. This won't always be the case, but when it is it can spoil otherwise great sunset vistas.

There are a few other practical aspects that differ between sunrise and sunset. Most notable among these has to do with getting to and from your shooting destination. If there's any hiking involved, you'll either be walking to your destination in the dark before sunrise, or back from it after sunset in the dark. Both options can easily be accommodated through the use of a flashlight, but what if that light fails for some reason? I've found that modern LED flashlights are far more reliable than previous generations that used incandescent bulbs, but notably when you run out of battery power with an LED light it will often simply shut off or refused to light up in the first place. If this were to happen to you while hiking somewhere before sunrise, you'll probably miss the shot you were hoping for, but at least you can wait where you are until the sun comes up. If you're trapped somewhere with a dead flashlight after sunset though, you'll have a much longer wait before things get light on their own again. For this reason, I always hike with more than one flashlight for either sunrise or sunset locations, but most definitely for sunset.

Here in the Northwest United States, days are short this during winter. Sunrise this morning wasn't till close to 8:00 a.m. and the sun will set again by about 4:30 p.m. Summer though is quite the opposite. Sunrise then comes very early and sunset quite late, and the day is at least six or seven hours longer between the two. Rearranging my schedule to shoot both sunrise and sunset can get tricky as the seasons shift. Still, the rewards are worth it.

To the extent I can do so, I plan my day around where I should optimally be for both sunrise and sunset. Sometimes that can mean eating breakfast and dinner when I can, and sometimes it can lead to the need for a nap somewhere in between the two. But every golden hour period can be an opportunity not to be missed.

For me then, it's not sunrise versus sunset, but rather sunrise and sunset.

Date posted: January 5, 2014


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Get Up Early, Stay Up Late
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Waiting for the Shot

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