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Sunrise/Sunset; Study The Light Bookmark and Share

If you want to immediately improve your landscape work, start shooting at sunrise and sunset. It’s that simple. Low angled sunlight is magical. It totally transforms the land by bathing it in golden light. Shadows are long and they add compelling graphic elements to the scene, and texture is pronounced because every rock, twig, and tuft of grass is lit from a severe angle.

When the sun is close to the horizon, you have several choices with respect to the way the light is illuminating your composition. For example, if you turn your back to the sun and photograph in the opposite direction, your subjects will be front lit. Turning 90? to the sun so it is to your right or left will enable you to capture side lighting. This is always a dramatic and compelling way to light elements in the scene. If you face the sun, the lighting is again different. Now you have backlighting, one of the most dramatic types of light in nature. You can capture silhouetted subjects, rim lighting, and transillumination (light coming through translucent subjects like leaves and flower petals).

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All Photos © 2009, Jim Zuckerman, All Rights Reserved

Midday And Sunrise
Study the differences between these shots (#1 and #2). These are pictures of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, the largest waterfall in the world. The midday shot—taken at about 11 o’clock in the morning—is very nice, particularly because of the rainbow. However, beyond that it doesn’t have the magic of the sunrise version. The high overhead sun creates flat light with little dimension. A few minutes after sunrise, the sun made the entire landscape glow with golden light that is truly magnificent. The scene took my breath away.

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Edges And Graphic Design
These photos were made in the Canyonlands in Utah. Figure (#3) was taken on a cloudy day with soft and diffused lighting. This is actually the second best type of light in nature, and I think this picture is quite nice. However, the sunset comparison (#4), was shot ten minutes before sunset, and the way the sun illuminates the edges of the mesas with golden light gives the image an artistry that sets it apart. Each ridge is defined in light, and that helps underscore the wonderful graphic design that we see from this vantage point.

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Sunrise Or Sunset?
There are no differences between sunrise and sunset in terms of color or cloud formations. You can see incredible skies at either time of day and sometimes just filling the frame with the amazing colors and forms of clouds makes powerful images (#5).

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There are differences between shooting in the morning and in the late afternoon, however. At sunset you have time to find good compositions as the sun is getting lower to the horizon. You can see how shadows fall and what kind of subjects will form photogenic silhouettes or partial silhouettes (#6). These shots made on the Oregon Coast and (#7) Anza Borrego State Park in California show the kind of subjects that require time to position yourself with respect to where the sun will be setting. At sunset you can see how the side lighting will exaggerate texture on tree trunks, rock surfaces, sand dunes, and fields of flowers. You can then get into position and wait for the magic. This is what I did when photographing the famous orange dunes in Namibia (#8). The lighting gets better with every passing minute.

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