How I Take Sunrise and Sunset Photos (Without A Tripod!)
How I Take Sunrise & Sunset Shots
(Without A Tripod!)
As a professional wildlife and action photographer I get all kinds of questions about how I take certain shots. From birds in flight to low-light shots like sunrises or sunsets. This is something I teach in my workshops and to individual clients but in this blog, I will share what equipment and settings I use to take my sunrise and sunset photographs.
Sunrise/Sunset Photography Secrets
It's no secret that photographers keep secrets! We have secret methods, secret settings, and secret places. I'm not as tight-lipped as some photogs I know; maybe it is because, when I was learning, I hoped someone would help me. They did and now I enjoy paying it forward.
The place where I shot the above sunrise photo is one of my secret places. It's only secret, I guess, because not very many people are willing to get to it. I'll take any client to any of my secret places if they have the will, courage and stamina to get there!
I frequently remind my clients & students, "To be willing to go where no one else wants to go, will produce the photos no one else can get." Anyone can stand on a beach with their phone and shoot the sunrise. But it will look like everyone else's photo. Photography that stands out sometimes requires that you get out to places that draw some hesitation in most people.
Control a la Mode
Let's start off with what camera and lens I'm using, then move on to the mode I shoot low-light scenes in without a tripod. For sunrise/sunset shots I use a Nikon D850 (a full-frame camera) and sometimes my Nikon D500 (a crop sensor camera).
With the D850 I attach a Tamron 28-300mm lens and shoot anywhere between 28 and 50mm. With the D500 I use my Tamron 18-400mm lens; shooting at 18-35mm.
When it comes to sunrises or sunsets, with either camera I stay in Manual Mode and turn off Auto ISO. This allows me to control every aspect of the shot. I can set my ISO where I want, open or close the aperture and set the shutter speed to suit the amount of light I want in the photograph.
Since I have photographed my share of sunrises and sunsets, I just naturally know what settings I basically need to start with.
So, I start out by dialing my ISO to the lowest native ISO of the camera. (The D850 is 64 and the D500 is 100.) Why? Because with both cameras, the lowest native ISO will give you a nice, clean shot. I will adjust the ISO according to how slow I have set my shutter speed. If my shutter speed needs to be lower than my vibration control will kick in, then I bump up the ISO until I can achieve a shutter speed that works with the vibration control. Once you know your camera like the back of your hand, then you too will settle on the ISO that suits your shutter speed and VC.
I begin with the aperture wide open. This will be the smallest number in your aperture settings. It lets in the most light your camera's lens can let in and gives you the flexibility to restrict the flow of light if you see that your pictures are too bright for your liking. You want those reds and oranges to really pop and if you are letting in too much light, then those colors will be faded.
Shutter speed is the main setting I use to control the light in my shot. With the ISO set where I want it and the aperture wide open, all I have to do now is play with the shutter speed! Depending on how dark it is outside, I'll start with 1/30th of a second, take a few shots, look at the photos on my camera's screen and speed up the shutter if the picture is still too bright; or slow it down if it is too dark. Then, as the sun starts breaching the horizon, I continue to make those shutter speed adjustments until I see something I like on my screen. Although my lenses have great vibration control, I don't like to go slower than 1/30. Any slower then my VC doesn't work as well and the photos are blurred. If I have to go lower than 1/30, then this is when I bump up my ISO to accommodate the slower shutter speeds. Again, play around with this on your camera until you know what is good for you.
When looking through my viewfinder I check my light meter on the screen.
I like to start my meter right where the blue arrow is. Usually, that allows for some beautiful colors. I like shooting a little on the darker side, so once again, you'll play around with your meter until you get a result that you like.
Tripod Or Hand-held?
Every photo in this post was shot without a tripod. To lug around a tripod - or not - solely depends on you. Yeah, that might sound like a "pat" answer but it's the truth.
Personally, I keep one in my Jeep but rarely take it way out into the field with me. I guess if I shot more video instead of stills I'd use it more; but, to me, it's a hinderance when shooting birds in flight. My D500 and my largest lens (Tamron 150-600mm G2) weighs in at only 6.5 pounds; so having it strapped to my camera harness all day isn't that much of a burden.
I do use a tripod, of course, for Milky Way shots and other times when I need to slow the shutter speed down to where the shutter is open for seconds at a time or when the vibration control is useless.
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