Photographers refer to the first (dawn) and last (dusk) hours of the day as the "golden hours" when the light is at its best for photography.
At both these times the sun is lower in the horizon, which means it is usually behind or to the side of the photographer, and is much less harsh than it is from 9am to 4pm. It creates long and interesting shadows for objects on the ground and clouds in the sky.
The position of the sun’s rays at these times are also what gives the light a glowy/orange “magic” quality. This is because the rays travel through more atmosphere and dust in the early morning and late afternoon than they do at other times during the day. A sunset can include warmer yellow, orange and pink tones, as well as cooler blue and purple tones, depending on the position and number of clouds in the sky.
Sunrise is a good time to shoot landscapes and horizons because there are fewer people around, but it isn’t as convenient as shooting at sunset. The advantages to shooting in the evening rather than in the morning are:
Being able to include city lights and reflections, if you’re shooting a cityscape or beach horizon
Seeing the moon become visible in the horizon.
Here are 5 things you need to know to prepare to photograph a sunset:
1) When you are shooting a sunset, you are basically making the sun your subject or focal point. There’s no point in using any of the camera’s automatic modes, because the light meter will be thrown off by the strong amount of light hitting the sensor. You’ll get better results playing with different combinations of the aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings on manual mode.
Additionally, using exposure compensation to slightly underexpose for the sky, usually works well for a bright sunset because the colours will be intensified. Overexposure will wash out colour.
Image taken by Theophilos Papadopoulos
2) Remember the rules from the horizon tutorial. Use a tripod to keep the horizon straight and decide whether you want to place the horizon high up or low down in the frame. Remember that the sun moves down the horizon as it sets, so you may need to change your composition and the focal length of your lens as it moves.
3) Decide whether you want the sun to be visible in the frame or diffused by clouds. If you do want the sun in the frame, decide how big it should be. If you want the sun to look very large in the horizon, it’s best to use a zoom lens, such as a telephoto lens. If you want the sun to look small in the scene amongst other features, use a wide angle lens, so it appears further away.
4) The aperture number you use will affect the depth of field. By using a smaller aperture number such as f/16 or above, everything in a wide scene will be completely in focus. Because the sun will be sharp, the rays will be more pronounced, giving a starburst effect, like in the photo below.
Image taken by Robert S. Donovan
If you use a wider aperture number the sun will seem softer and hazier. Using a wide aperture number can work well if you have an object in the foreground that you want to be sharper than the sun and horizon beyond it, like in the photo below.
5) If you find that the highlights and shadows aren’t both being exposed properly using regular settings, a graduated ND (neutral density) filter can be attached to a lens to block light in the top half of the scene. This will balance the exposure between the sky and the darker areas within the frame. Don’t use polarisers and UV filters because they will reduce the overall contrast and you’ll lose the strong colour and light you’re purposely trying to capture! Professional landscape photographers sometimes use colour filters as well to maximise the amount of colour in a sunset.
Alternatively if you don’t own a ND filter, you can use the bracketing feature to create three images (underexposed, overexposed and one that exposes for the midtones) every time you press the shutter. Later, you can blend all of the bracketed images into a single HDR image, using editing software. Most professional landscape photographers use HDR techniques to ensure even exposure across every area.