How I Take Sunrise and Sunset Photos

 How I Take Sunrise and Sunset Photos

Blood Waters

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!

Out At the Break of Dawn

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. I shoot hand-held and use a Nikon D500. For sunrise/sunsets I attach a Tamron 18-400mm lens; shooting at 18mm and switch to Aperture Mode.

Since much of my photography is of moving animals, people or objects, I generally shoot in Aperture Mode and auto ISO which lets my camera choose a good shutter speed; but when it comes to sunrises or sunsets, I switch to 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.

TJ Waller Photography

My Settings

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 400. Why? Because with my D500, ISO 400 looks good and gives it a kind of "film effect." Ask someone else and they might tell you they go all the way down to ISO 100. Once you know your camera like the back of your hand, then you too will settle on the ISO that suits you.


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

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! I'll start with 1/800th 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. The D500 allows me to shoot at a top speed of 1/8000 of a second. Although my lens has great vibration control, I don't like to go slower than 1/100 if I don't have my tripod; which is most of the time. If you have your tripod with you then you can play around with some slower shutter speeds.

Prevailing Light

Tripod Or Hand-held

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 vest all day isn't that much of a burden.

I do use a tripod, of course, for moon shots, 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 and the vibration control is useless.

All Systems Go

That's pretty much it! I hope this was useful to you. If so, feel free to leave a comment. If you have a question or want to share some useful information about how you shoot sunrise and sunset photos, the comment section is open to you as well!!

Thanks for reading!


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