Capturing a sunrise or sunset in a photograph is a rewarding experience. Getting photos that are properly exposed, sharp, and well composed can be a rewarding challenge.
Exposure is the first challenge. This is easiest to solve with a single-lens reflex (SLR) because their metering systems are the most precise, but any camera can be used. With a digital camera, the pictures can be reviewed on the LCD screen, and the shots that are poorly exposed can be eliminated.
The sky is the most important part of the scene, so this is where the exposure should be obtained. Meter away from the direct rays of the sun, but try to find a bright area of sky. Lock in the exposure, compose the shot as you'd like it, and quickly take the picture. If your camera has exposure compensation, bracket exposures by taking three shots - one at the metered exposure, a shot at +1 or +2, and another at -1 or -2. This will give you three pictures of varying densities, any or all of which might be what you want.
If your camera doesn't allow for exposure variation, get a meter reading as described above, lock in the exposure, recompose as you want the scene to look, and shoot. For a second shot, compose the picture as before, but use the backlight button to increase the exposure. For the third shot, point the camera at a bright spot in the sky away from the sun to get an exposure, without using the backlight button, and lock in the exposure.
For the sharpest images, use a tripod. If one isn't available, brace yourself or the camera against a tree, a building, or some other solid object.
If you have a camera with a built-in flash and the flash activates when you're ready to shoot a sunrise or sunset, you know that the shutter speed is too slow for hand-holding the camera. Use a tripod, or brace yourself or the camera for maximum steadiness. And turn the flash off. If you don't, the pictures might be underexposed.
Now the next challenge, composition. This is strictly a personal matter, but there are a few hints that can be helpful. If you have a zoom lens, with the camera up to your eye, vary the focal length of the lens through its entire range. Notice how the emphasis changes. When the lens is at its full telephoto range, the sun will be at its largest, and there will be less sky. At full wide angle, the size of the sun diminishes and the sky becomes more prominent. Now you can control the emphasis.
In sunrise and sunset shots, foreground objects can be used to enhance the mood or add to the feeling of serenity. You might include a tree, a person or couple, bushes, birds in the sky, or anything else that would be appropriate. Remember, though, that whatever is included will be silhouetted against the sky or water.
Digital photographers will be able to examine their images on the LCD monitor, and make any corrections on the spot.
For you film photographers, to get the most accurate rendition of a sunrise or sunset, use slide film. If you shoot print film, be aware that automatic printing machines will often print for average density in order to get detail in all density ranges of a scene. This could wash out the brilliant colors in the sky, totally ruining the effect. Most photo shops will print to please the customer, so if the returned pictures are not to your liking, show the dealer the prints and ask if the negatives can be reprinted to reveal the brilliance of the sky. Remember that enlargements can be made from slides as well as from print film.
When photographing a sunrise or sunset, be lavish in your shooting. Take many shots from beginning to end of the event. You'll experience a wide variety of color and mood changes. Accept the challenge. You'll be well pleased with the rewards.