It’d be easy to think that shooting the sun is a straightforward task, but it requires some careful consideration to get the best images.
Hopefully you won’t be short of amazing places to shoot on your travels, so explore locations during the day and keep an eye out for areas that would look great later with low, dramatic golden light.
When you find a good location, you’ll need to figure out if it lends itself to a sunrise or a sunset. Apps such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris help you get an idea of where the light will fall. Because the light is close to the horizon at sunset and sunrise, you’ll get strong directional light and heavy shadows – these will become less apparent as the sun rises and more apparent as it sets. The Photographer’s Ephemeris costs £4 on Android’s Google Play and £6.99 on Apple's iTunes. That’s not too bad when you consider how much easier it makes working with sunlight.
Beat the crowd
Be sure to arrive at your location well before the sun is due to rise or set (depending on which you’re shooting). Many popular areas to watch the sun rise and set from get crowded fast, and once the hordes have descended you may not be able to get into the best position for the shots you want. The legendary Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia has to be one of the most crowded areas to view a sunrise from in all of South-East Asia. I had arranged for a Tuk Tuk (motorcycle taxi) to pick me up one morning to get to Angkor Wat two hours before sunrise to beat the crowd. Despite my best planning, the Tuk Tuk driver failed to show up and I was left running around Siem Reap in the early hours trying to get a lift.
By the time I managed to get there, I had just 15 minutes before the sun would come up. The site was now packed with photographers and tripods – I thought I’d blown it. The spot I’d eyed up the previous day had been taken, but with a strong charm offensive I managed to squeeze my way in, explaining that I’d had a nightmare morning – most people were sympathetic and I did manage to get the shot I was after. I guess my point is, prepare as best you can and always have a back-up plan. And if all else fails, put on your biggest smile and don’t be afraid to be cheeky – it worked for me!
A tripod will help you frame up, but isn’t essential. You may have to push your ISO up to 400 or 800 and open your aperture as wide as it will go to get good shots in the moments before the sun has risen as the light levels will still be quite low. Compose your shots using Live View rather than through the viewfinder on a DSLR to avoid looking directly at the sun and damaging your eyes. Focus on a landmark such as a temple or mountain, rather than focusing on the sun. Look for unique angles by changing the orientation from landscape to portrait, and try tighter compositions with a longer lens as well as wider ones with a wide-angle.
Take a test picture and check it on your rear LCD. If the exposure is too light or dark, dial in a little exposure compensation, then check the exposure again. If you shoot in RAW you’ll also have a bit of exposure flexibility in post-processing software.
Dan Mold is a professional travel and wildlife photographer and a regular contributor to Practical Photography and Digital Photo. He has recently returned from an epic adventure around Asia and Australia. See more of his work here.