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It’s a compulsion that pretty much every photographer has, at some point, photographed the sunrise or sunset. Those seemingly magical colours in the sky are irresistible, yet we all know that it’s a photographic cliché. The chances of taking a shot that’s different to the millions of other sunrise or sunset images in the world is slim to none, but for some reason, we still do it! I’ll be exploring what compels us to take dawn and dusk photographs and what we can look out for to set our images apart from the rest.
Why Are We So Attracted to Sunrise and Sunset Photos?
The draw of sunrises and sunsets is undeniable, and it’s hard to deny the excitement of witnessing the amazing spectacle of light and rich colours fill the sky. Perhaps it’s the feeling of witnessing a unique event that draws us in, the constantly evolving nature of the light only reacting with the clouds and weather conditions may be an event that occurs each and every day of our lives, but one that will never quite be the same as any since or any to come.
It’s also one of the beautiful natural phenomena that, compared to stunning waterfalls, coastline scenery or rare weather events, is more prominent and accessible to the majority of people, and therefore photographed more frequently.
Historic Sunrise and Sunset Images
Our ancestors have obsessed over the sun for thousands of years, placing huge significance on it’s spiritual power and energy. The ancient Egyptians worshiped the Sun God Ra, from whom it was believed that all life had been created.
The ancient Greeks believed that Helios, the Titan God of the Sun, would travel on a chariot led by flaming-winged horses, from the eastern ends of the earth at dawn, bringing with him the sun, and then descending in the West as evening closed out the day. He is depicted in this sculpture crowned with the aureole of the sun.
Pythagoreans (followers of Pythagoras and his theories), based many of their cosmological and spiritual beliefs upon that of a "Central Fire," from which the Earth and Sun revolved. The image below is a painting by Russian artist Fyodor Bronnikov, depicting a group of Pythagoreans celebrating the sunrise, or maybe they thought is was a Central Fire-Rise.
Finding Inspiration in Other Artistic Expressions
So it’s not just photographers who are drawn to the sunrise and sunset, as well as our ancestors. Artists and musicians have been using it as a source of inspiration for many years. Songs by The Eagles, Norah Jones, and Elton John & George Michael reference sunrise or sunset, using it as a metaphor for the passing of time, a new start or a chance to find meaning before it’s too late.
However, my favorite portrayal of the sun within art history has to be Claude Monet’s ‘Impression Sunrise’ of Le Harve, France, from 1873. The painting appears quite muted, with the eye being instantly drawn to the sun and it’s reflection across the water.
However, research from Havard University has shown that when measured with a photometer, the sun actually has the same brightness or luminance as the sky. Due to the different ways in which the visual cortex in our brain perceives luminance and colour, it just appears brighter.
If you compare this to more modern sunset paintings and also photographs, you'll find that artists now use a wealth of colour or oversaturate images, which makes them feel immediately false and sometimes slightly sickening!
The modern understanding of sunset and sunrise depiction is often that "more is more," but Monet’s understanding of colour and light allowed him to create a timeless, artistic and realistic depiction of the scene before him.
Exploring Colour Theory
In visual and artistic terms, the concept of colour theory is based upon a structure of colour mixing and how colours combine and relate to one another. Based around the colour wheel, colours are ordered into primary (Red, Blue, Yellow) and secondary (Green, Magenta, Cyan), as displayed in the picture below. The color wheel is structured in a way to illustrate the combination of neighbouring colours to result in the tertiary shades (Orange, Rose, Violet, Azure, Spring Green and Chartreuse Green).
Is Color Theory Why We Are Attracted to Sunrises and Sunsets?
Alongside colour theory, comes the notion of colour harmony, known simply as an arrangement of colours which offer a visual experience that is balanced and pleasing to the viewer. Something that is not harmonious will either be perceived as too boring or too chaotic. It is also dictated by personal preferences, dependent upon a number of factors including age, gender, and cultural and social conditioning as well as the influence of the context in which the colours are being seen. This goes some way in suggesting that we learn that sunrises and sunsets are visually stimulating, however, colour theory also suggests a more instinctive natural response.
Colour harmony arises when three related colours are combined, and from the colour wheel, we can see that that three main colours found in either a sunrise or sunset, red, orange and yellow, fall side-by-side. Colour theory also suggests that "warmer" colours, of which these three are the most prominent, are more likely to arouse and stimulate the viewer as a result of the higher saturation of colour. It could be suggested that our response to a sunrise or sunset is simply a natural visual stimulation that ignites a cognitive emotional response.
Searching for Symbolic Meaning
The passing of any given day may not seem particularly significant, but for some, each motion of sunrise and sunset represents a mini lifecycle in action. The dawn sunrise brings light to the day, a new start, a fresh beginning. Some would go even further, consider the metaphor "seeing the light," where light represents knowledge and righteousness. The sunrise brings the earth out of darkness, a symbol of hope. In many cultures, this idea is tied to a time for prayer as well.
Close of Day
Sunset on the other hand brings about the close of the day, and in terms of the lifecycle, the diminishing light represents the end, retirement, a phasing out, or even death. This may be a stretch for many to comprehend, particularly when witnessing the glorious colours and light of a sunset, but maybe this is part of the reason why sunset images hold such a clichéd reputation?
Without any sense of meaning or symbolism, they are a simply colours and light captured in a frame. Perhaps it captures a precious moment in time, but withdrawn from any real significance. Is it necessary for all photos to have significance? Well that’s a question for another day.
Working With Nature to Set Your Photos Apart
There are many geographical elements that can aid your sunrise and sunset photography. For example, if you are close you to the equator, the twilight time after the sun has gone down is shorter. When the sun sets at higher latitudes, it sets at a more oblique angle and therefore remains closer to the horizon after it sets, this offers a crucial time of glorious colour during which the light and colours will fade and change.
It’s also worth taking into consideration the cloud formations as the sun is setting. Obviously complete cloud cover will block the sunset from being visible, but keep an eye out for interesting cloud formations, as the colours from the setting sun will reflect off the clouds to form interesting and engaging patterns and shapes, which can make for a far more interesting shot than shooting when the sky is clear.
It's also worth noting that occasionally the cloud cover will be localized over your area. Once the sun is low on the horizon, it may be visible. If this is case, you'll have a narrow band of clear sky, and then nicely illuminated clouds.
Working With Cosmology
One of the most exciting sun-based events surely has to be a solar eclipse, when the moon passes in front of the sun. The restricted light may not offer the breadth of colours as a normal sunrise or sunset, but it’s certainly a great opportunity to take an engaging landscape shot. There are solar eclipse diaries online, so take a look and find out when it will be visible from where you live.
You can also look to include visible stars and planets in your sunrise or sunset shots. This will again be dependent upon your geographical location, but you can easily research which planets will be on show. You’ll need to get out of the city and find somewhere free from light pollution, but will certainly add interest and depth to your images.
Techniques to Take ‘Different’ Sunrise and Sunset Photographs
Look behind you. It’s all too easy to get stuck staring at the sun, when perhaps the real drama is happening behind you. Be aware of what’s going on around you, think about where the sunlight is falling, it could make for an amazing landscape or portrait shot.
Try using an infrared filter. This is probably the most abstract technique, but using an infrared filter such as a Hoya R72 can transform the colours of natural light into brightly coloured visual wonders simply by allowing your camera to capture light waves that are beyond what our eyes can usually process.
Use a non-traditional white balance setting. If you’ve shot in RAW, once you get to the post processing phase, you can have some fun with altering the white balance of your images to alter the mood of your shots. The image below has been transformed from a more typical warm sunset shot, to a more dramatic image that employs cooler tones.
Take the Cliché Out of Your Images
It’s not a cliché to enjoy and be excited by sunrises and sunsets. There are historic, artistic, scientific, visual and emotional reasons why we find them so engaging, but it can certainly be a cliché to take photos of them. Think about your processes and techniques, so that next time you can take your eyes off the glorious colours in the sky, you can capture it in a unique and exciting way.