As the sun arcs across the sky in daytime, the light is harsh and creates hard, deep shadows, which is why landscape photographers tend not to shoot during the main part of the day. When the sun starts to approach the horizon however, that is a different matter.
The closer the sun is to the horizon, the more atmosphere it has to shine through. This has a softening effect on the quality of the light and reduces overall contrast in the scene. Shadows are long but softer and colours are enriched. The light of a sunrise has quite a cool bluish colour temperature, whilst the light of a sunset, particularly if there is a lot of dust in the atmosphere, can be very warm orange and reds.
We’ve mentioned it before, but we will say it again. Plan ahead. Research the location you will be visiting. A pre-shoot scouting expedition is always a good idea to get a feel for a place. Use apps that tell you what time sunset or sunrise is and how much golden hour light is available for the location and time of year.
When shooting the golden hour, lighting can be a little tricky and it is recommended that you use a tripod as a matter of course. The problem is that if you expose for the foreground the sky will be overexposed, if you expose for the bright sky, then your foreground will be too dark by comparison. You have the option to shoot with a graduated ND filter (a 2 or 3-stop grad will work well) positioned to reduce the brightness of the sky in order to balance the exposure with the foreground.
There are a lot of filter manufacturers out there, but only a few have a well-deserved reputation for quality. Do yourself a favour and try to get equipment from suppliers such as Lee, Hoya, Cokin and Tiffen.
Bracketing your shots
As an alternative, if you don’t have filters, take a bracketed sequence of 3 shots where you shoot one average exposure, then set the camera to overexpose the shot by 1 to 2 stops and a third one to underexpose the scene by the same amount. This way you can blend the best ones in Photoshop to arrive at a balanced final image.
Although in terms of composition, you don’t have to strictly adhere to the rule of thirds for your shots, it’s always a good place to start. Just placing your horizon one third of the way from the bottom or top of frame and a point of interest one third from the left or right of frame creates a dynamic balance that is hard to beat. Rules can be broken of course, so see this as a jumping off point for creative choices.
Starburst and lens flare
If the sun is in your shot, stopping your lens down to about f/16 will produce a very cool starburst effect. You could also consider putting the bright disc of the sun behind a tree or a rock in your composition to reduce the overall intensity of light and create a halo. It is also good for reducing the chances of lens flare.
If you’re shooting by water, it can be a great creative device for creating reflections. If the water is calm enough, you put the horizon dead centre in a horizontal 50/50 split and flip the image to have the reflection as the main element of the shot. Look for cloud formations, put your horizon low in the frame and make the sky the point of interest, if there is some interesting natural geological feature, don’t be afraid to zoom in on that and fill the frame with it.
As the sun rises away from the horizon, the light will become more intense and shooting directly into the sun will present all manner of exposure issues. That is a good time to do an about face and shoot in the opposite direction so your landscape is front lit. Be aware of the very long shadows. You may find you have to adapt your framing and position to make sure your own shadow remains out of the shot.
Once you have experienced the magic of landscapes in the golden hour, it becomes easy to see why, for many, this is the only time to shoot. The time you have to experience this atmospheric drama is quite fleeting each day; happily of course, there is always tomorrow.