Benefits of Sunrise and Sunset Photography

In my last article I went over the crucial things to consider and take on a sunrise and sunset photography expedition. This is part II. Now on to the photography itself.

Mt. Rainier Sunrise

If you are shooting sunset, you have already chosen the easier of the two things to photograph. The benefits of shooting sunset are many over choosing to photograph sunrise. Firstly, you can scout the location ahead of time and set up your composition accordingly. You also get the benefit of being able to watch the weather and decide to bail on the attempt should conditions turn to less than favorable. You can also adjust your location should the light look like it may do something different than you originally thought. For a sunset, you get to start out warmer and progressively bundle up as the sun goes down and the temperature drops.

The pitfalls of sunset photography are mostly related to what happens after the sun has gone down. It’s dark now, and you may be far from the car and have to hike back in the fading glow of twilight and the full dark of midnight. While this is a beautiful time of night to go for a hike, failing to bring a backup light source could be a problem, and as the darkness gets worse making sure to stay on the trail gets harder and harder, particularly if the trail has side trails or branches off at any point suddenly. It’s pretty frightening hiking along the trail only to come to a dead end and realize that somewhere along the line you missed a crucial junction.  The last pitfall is that you just hiked all day and night, and you are tired, and now you have to drive back in the dark. Getting tired and fighting your circadian rhythm are tough battles, and I often pull over for naps a few times on the way back if I am solo or no one else can take over the drive for me.

Photographing sunrise, therein lies a larger challenge. One might ask why, if it is easier to photograph sunset, you wouldn’t simply always shoot sunset. Some people, myself included, have simply found sunrise to be more beautiful. There is no scientific evidence that this is the case, and yet I’ve spoken to a few photographers and hikers who swear by sunrise. Some locations are also lit better in sunrise light than sunset. Mt. Baker from Artist Point is a prime example of this. For sunset the mountain is backlit from that location, but at sunrise the sun can hit the snow-capped peak in a blaze of red and orange light that is almost a shock to behold. Those are two of the benefits, the others being that you get to shed layers (hopefully) and enjoy the coming of the new day. The drive back is generally easier since it happens in daylight and hiking back to the car happens in light as well.

Colchuck Lake Twilight

The first pitfall of shooting sunrise is actually one of the reasons it can be so much fun to do: It’s a surprise! You have no idea beyond the weather forecast, what the weather conditions are going to be. If you drive out there in the middle of the night you may arrive to completely overcast skies, or clear star skies. You can’t pre-plan and look at the webcams or watch the day go by and look outside to decide “should I stay or should I go” since it’s all dark. I have had multiple trips where the forecast was for 80% cloud cover at  my location, but when I arrived at my Mt. Rainier location, I was completely above the 80% cloud cover, with the mountain laid out before me. Likewise I’ve arrived at a trailhead to full rain, and having driven two hours to get there (the first hour and a half of which were clear starry skies), and figured “may as well go on up and see what happens.”  Fortunately in that particular instance what happened was the sun came up from the east just below the clouds and lit them on fire as we scrambled like mad to take photos of the larch before the sun vanished into the clouds. Because of the unpredictable nature of sunrise, there is a higher “skunk factor” (the chance that you will come back with no successful photos) than there is for sunset.

Which brings me to the other pitfall… you can’t scout your sunrise location ahead of time unless you were there the day before. You could have also scouted the area on a previous trip, but often times scouting will only take you so far. The light may not do what you thought it would, that direction may not work out or your timing is off. Suddenly the sun is rising and you are scrambling to find a shot to take as it rises at breakneck speed. For example, you drive up, and you know that last year there was a great patch of wildflowers with Mt. Rainier behind it, so you head up there in the dark of night and get in position. It’s black as night so you can’t really see anything but are hopeful that there might be flowers in the area. The sun comes up, and suddenly you discover there are no flowers at all right now, even though you saw them last year. Shooting the previous sunset or scouting the day before would have allowed you to know exactly where you were going to get the shot you were hoping for.

For me, sunset is a much more laid back process in general, whereas sunrise is almost always a scramble to get set up and be as flexible as possible as the light changes and the sun comes up. Exposure times change rapidly at sunrise and sunset, lengthening considerably as the sun dips below the horizon and becomes twilight and finally total darkness. A full moon can be an amazing experience to hike under, as it is so bright that in alpine settings you can often hike the trail by moonlight alone. But the best star viewing happens with no moon, which means no ambient light to navigate your way off the trail.

Landmarks in the dark on a moonless night become challenging to locate and navigate for. The biggest piece of advice I can give for sunset and sunrise “dayhikes” is to know the trail well before you do it. Know the trail so well that you know when you’ve missed a turn, or how much farther you have until that creek crossing, it makes for a much better and safer trip as well as relieves the uncertainty of when you will return to the warm glow of the car.

Mt. Baker Sunset

Some final tips for the trip:

-When driving to the location for a sunrise, try to leave before midnight. Between 2am & 6am is the time when the human body’s circadian rhythm wants to put you to sleep, and is the time when you are mostly likely to be fighting the hardest to stay awake at the wheel. I will try to catch a nap during the day before a sunrise trip, but also have on hand energy boosters to keep me perked up for the return drive.

-Try to keep a map in your head of the route and turns of the trail, since landmarks can’t be trusted in the dark.

-Get and use a remote trigger release for your camera. This allows those with a DSLR to take advantage of “bulb” mode and do exposures longer than 30 seconds. 30 seconds is as long as you want if you want your stars to stay mostly in one spot in your shot, but oftentimes in the morning you may want longer exposures as twilight approaches and clouds and fog move around in the valley.

-Check hours for gates and other access points. Several of our parks’ gates close from sunset to sunrise, or they close parts of the year, parts of the way up a mountain. Get familiar with the roadblocks that might stop you. I’ve been caught at a gate until sunrise when the first ranger opens it.

-Don’t hold the weather forecast as gospel. I can’t stress this enough, weather forecasters are only making a guess as to what will happen, and a sunny day can easily turn to rain and a rainy day can easily be great conditions for photography. Most of my best photo trips have come out of conditions where the forecast was for 60-80% cloud cover and 30-40 percent chance of showers. Also, when it comes to weather forecasts, look around, don’t just use one website. I primarily use NOAA (weather.gov), local news (Komo news), and Mountain Forecast as my primary tools. Each of them have their strengths and weaknesses.

Most of all, try and try again. It takes a lot of trial to get the location, time of year, weather and light to coordinate with your camera. Don’t be discouraged by failures. Spending a night in the wilderness is always better than the alternative, whether you got great photos or not.

Mt. Baker Milky Way

 

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About the author

Orion Ahrensfeld - Orion has been a Northwest photographer for 7 years, attempting to capture images on trails and in the wilderness that convey the beauty of these unique places from a unique vantage point. In particular he has heavily explored the Northwest's stratovolcanos, through images to take others to some of the rarer or harder reach places, while showcasing some of the most interesting geologic features of the Cascade Mountain Range.

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