Your camera has various white balance settings, including auto white balance (AWB). When set to AWB, the camera essentially makes its best guess about how the colors should look.
In many situations, this works out okay. But when photographing a sunrise or sunset, AWB does a poor job of rendering the colors because its job is to remove color casts. That means that AWB actually minimizes the colors of the sunrise or sunset – that’s not what you want!
Get around this by switching your camera to the daylight white balance preset.
The daylight white balance preset has a very subtle warming effect. Since sunrises and sunsets are usually dominated by warmer tones, this will enhance those tones ever so slightly.
If your camera doesn’t have a daylight preset, you can also use the shade or cloudy presets. Each has a more significant warming effect than the daylight setting and will accentuate the warm tones present in the sunrise or sunset.
See how these changes to white balance impact a landscape photo in the video above from Professional Photography Tips.
Overcoming Dynamic Range
The larger problem when shooting sunrise and sunset photos is that there is an incredible dynamic range – the range of light values in the image.
As noted earlier, the sky is quite bright at sunrise or sunset, but the landscape is very dark. Often the difference between these areas of brightness and shadow is too much for the camera to handle.
The result is usually an image that’s well-exposed for the sky, but with a dark landscape (as seen above), or an image that’s well-exposed for the landscape with a very overexposed sky.
There are a couple of ways to handle this situation:
- Get a meter reading off the brightest area of the foreground landscape and shoot in RAW. This results in a photo that’s close enough to a sky and foreground that’s well-exposed that you can recover any lost details when you process the image.
- Use a reverse neutral density filter to even out the dynamic range. These filters have very little filtering power on the bottom so that the landscape is brightened up. At the top is more filtering power to bring down the brightness of the sky. And in the middle is the strongest filtering power, because at sunrise and sunset, the brightest area of the photo is at the horizon.
There’s another way, though, that’s a bit more involved but produces excellent results.
Take two shots of the exact same scene, one that’s exposed for the sky and another that’s exposed for the foreground (a process called bracketing). In post-processing, blend the exposures for a final image that’s well-exposed throughout.
Any of the above methods will get you a much-improved final image, but I personally find that blending exposures is the best. See how to do that in the video above from First Man Photography.