Sunrise is for suckers

If you’re an outdoor photographer like me, you use the sun as your primary light source. And the quality of that light can make or break your photo. Traditionally the two best times to photograph outdoors is sunrise and sunset; otherwise know as The Golden Hour. I’m here to tell you that photographing at Sunrise is for suckers. Sunset is where to go for the best light.

Why the golden hour?

Before I dive into my reasons why I think sunrise is for suckers lets review why photographing at either end of the day will help you create better photos.

By shooting when the sun is low in the sky you will avoid harsh shadows on your subject. When the sun is low in the sky it passes through more of the atmosphere, which acts as a natural diffuser.

In the middle of the day the sun is at its zenith and your dynamic range will be well beyond what your camera can capture. When you photograph at either sunrise or sunset, the highlights are not as bright and you can capture details in the entire scene.

Sunrise and Sunset are usually when you see the sky at its most dramatic. The orange of the sun combines with a dark blue sky and if you’re lucky clouds that are picking up on these colors will automatically make your photo more vibrant. Why not use nature’s palette to bring the most out of your outdoor photography?

Sunrise is for suckers

If you have to choose between sunrise and sunset, I prefer sunset. Why?

  • You have to get up in the dark for sunrise
  • You have to set up your toys in the dark. If you drop an accessory, you’re out of luck
  • No need to carry a flashlight to see where you’re going or to help you with set up.
  • Its difficult to tell when you have the best light when you go from pitch black to day.
  • When do you know when to end your photo session?
  • The light feels pale and weak to me.

I’m sure there are early birds out there that swear by sunrise. But the thought of crawling out of my warm bed to fumble around in the dark to set-up camera gear and toys is a deal breaker for me.

If I want to take a photo high in the mountains, I would need to be in place the night before. Who wants to hike an hour or two – in the dark! – to grab a photo. Or to crawl around on cold wet sand – in the dark! – setting up toys and waiting for the sun to rise.

No, sunrise is for suckers.

Photographing alpine flowers high in the Colorado Rockies.

Sunset is superior

For those of you who are coast-ally challenged (specifically those facing east) I can appreciate why you would prefer sunrise. But I’m here to tell you what you’re missing; because sunset is superior!

  • You have plenty of time to get in position and set up – in the light!
  • The caffeine has time to kick in
  • Less chance of being mortally injured in the dark because you tripped on a log or fell off a cliff
  • As the sun sets you have time to get into a creative flow. By the time you reach maximum sunset, you’re working at the top of your game.
  • You always know when sunset is over because its too dark to photograph anymore
  • The light only gets better and better…until it’s not their anymore.
  • The light is often more dramatic because you have the days pollution intensifying the colors.

Here are a handful of examples of images I’ve taken over the years that show how amazing the light is at sunset. You can achieve a variety of looks and color tones depending where you are in the golden hour window.

Don’t get me wrong…

Don’t get me wrong, sunrise is ok; I’ve photographed in both. But I find the light at sunrise feels pale in comparison to the intensity of the colors at sunset. I also have a very hard time getting in position and set up in time for the sunrise. The pressure of being ready to go for that prime moment is too much for me. Besides who can function that early in the morning well before the caffein kicks in?

When I’m photographing at sunset I find myself easing into the light. I have time to get my toys set up and ready for maximum golden hour light. I’m ready to take photos in the fast changing light knowing I wont miss a single photo due to messing around with the toys.

For me there is a calmness to the sunset. I patiently wait to say goodbye to the day and honor it with a few nicely lit photos. When I photograph at sunrise I always feel rushed to get the photo before the light gets too bright. I’m always wondering: did I miss the best light? Is it going to get any better? Is this it? Trust me, sunrise is for suckers. Sunset is superior.

What do you think?

I’ve given you my opinion and lets face it, its pretty subjective. I’m sure there are folks out there that feel otherwise (the previously mentioned coast-ally challenged folks for example). If this is you, feel free to set me straight in the comments. In the mean time, come photograph with me in Utah and show me why you think sunrise isn’t for suckers and I will show you why sunset is superior.

~ Shelly

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25 Comments

  1. It was very interesting to read about the Golden Hour, thank you for your post Shelly! I liked your description of all the advantages of the sunset photography and the atmosphere that you caught in your beautiful gallery. I haven’t made the sunrise shots (so my comparison isn’t possible ;)) , but I love the rich palette of the sunset too. 👍

  2. Actually, I kind of admire people who get up for sunrise. I certainly wouldn’t call them suckers. But maybe I’m just not understanding the expression right in english. Maybe people who only go for sunsets are lazy shits? Why did you start name calling? I go for sunsets, because I’m lazy to get up for sunrise (except in winter if I’m north enough, then the sunrise is late enough :D). The light is absolutely amazing at sunrise if the weather is right. Also it can suck big time during sunset. I don’t think it depends on the sun going up or down, I think it depends on the weather. Even though I prefer sunset (because I’m lazy, that’s really the only reason, there’s no sea anywhere near and I can still go for sunset and sunrise somewhere nice), somehow I feel offended by this post. Maybe if you said that sunrise sucks, it would sound better. But this is just insulting people who go for sunrise, while people going for sunset are what? You didn’t say, but I guess they are superior? Where is this positive community I keep hearing about? I’m also a bit confused about why I’m so offended by this, but I am.

    Also now I feel like every comment I make is negative, I’m sorry for that. I should learn how to say something positive AND constructive. Saying something like “good post” seems not enough…

    • Sabé, there is a type of talk that we have here in the US (its probably else where too) called trash talking. It is usually reserved for sporting events and the aim is to get the rival worked up. This post was written in jest – it is meant to be funny. I couldn’t even imagine anyone taking it seriously. Obviously I was wrong. But the reaction does point how incredibly serious people take this hobby. We photography toys for fun! Where has the humor gone?

      Honestly I rarely photograph in sunset or sunrise, I prefer a dappled forest scene myself. And after writing about toy photography and the creative process for over five years, my regular readers know that Im a supportive person, both with my knowledge and with my words.

      When it comes to light your comments about weather are very accurate. A dramatic sky is far more interesting then a simple blue one. But then again, a plain blue sky has its use depending on the story the artists wants to tell.

      Please don’t apologize for your comments. This one is important because it reminds me that we have readers from such diverse backgrounds that my humor may not cross the cultural barriers. As far as the other comment you mention Im putting in place a structure so we don’t have the problem you mentioned again. I take full responsibility for the lack of quality and Im working hard to make sure we meet the expectations of our readers.

      So please keep commenting and please accept my apology for my poor post and my even worse sense of humor.

  3. Reiterlied

    Photographing mostly at sunset and sunrise, there’s so much I have to say about this topic…

    I’ve always been more into sunsets than sunrises, for some of the reasons you mentioned. Still, I have to disagree with you. It’s partly because I live close to the arctic circle, but even considering “normal” latitudes, I believe you oversimplify things and forget many other factors.

    Since I moved to Finland, I’ve thought a lot about the differences between sunrise and sunset. In particular whether or not there is indeed a difference of light between both. My conclusions after two years are that it’s not simple. The light is influenced by more factors than whether the sun is going up or down. Time and place are essential.

    I find that the difference between sunrise and sunset can be insignificant compared to the difference between summer and winter. For example, the presence of snow completely changes the colors in the sky. I’d rather photograph a winter sunrise than a summer sunset. As soon as the snow melt, I need to force myself to take pictures because the light becomes suddenly so “ugly”, even at sunset.

    Like you, I’ve always liked sunset because it’s nice having the light becoming better instead of worse, and because I’m not an early person. But I’ve done many sunrises this winter (I force myself to wake up before sunrise anyway in winter to enjoy as much as possible the very short days), and I’ve learned to appreciate them more than sunsets. One reason is that sunsets and sunrises aren’t all about the golden hour. The twilight/blue hour can give some of the most beautiful colors. Particularly when there is snow. And somehow I find it easier to photograph those colors at sunrise.

    I’ve had a few bad experiences with sunsets too. A few times, I thought I had indeed still enough time to take photos. I was setting up, and then suddenly a cloud came near the horizon, getting in the way of the sun… And I lost the light because of that. Sunrise can have the advantage that you get to set up while the sun is still down, and then you can take the photo as soon as the sun peaks above the horizon or clouds. After that, you usually know it won’t get better. But of course, I’m spoiled and don’t have to set up in the dark because there’s generally at least one hour of twilight before sunrise. (And Oulu is so flat that there’s no mountain, fjell or even small hill to hike.)

    Then, I think the choice between sunrise and sunset often has nothing to do with the light itself. Land features are important. I tend to prefer sunset because when there isn’t enough ice to walk on the two lakes where I go for photos, I just don’t have any good photo spot for sunrise. But this could be completely different in another location. For example, when I go to Norway, some locations aren’t sunset locations. Or they can be only at a specific time of the year. And I can easily imagine this being even truer anywhere in the world where the land is not completely flat. Either because of natural landscape, or human constructions.

    The weather is also so important. A sunrise or sunset without a clear sky is nothing like one with clouds. (I’m not talking about fully overcast days but partially cloudy.) When there are clouds, you can get the best colors (usually during twilight, not golden hour though). This winter, it happened that I went for sunrise not because it’s better, but simply because weather forecast for sunset sucks and gives no chance for interesting light. (And my plan is to try to get up tomorrow morning for sunrise for that particular reason.)

    Last spring, I woke up at 4am for sunrise. It had nothing to do with the light but with the weather. The ice and the lakes had almost completely melted, but because it was still freezing during the night I could enjoy at sunrise a thin layer of pure ice… Which would have melted by the end of the day. It was pretty hardcore but totally worth it.

    One other thing that I strongly disagree with, is when you say the light at sunrise is weak and pale, and the light at sunset is more dramatic because of pollution. To me, this depends again more about weather, time of the year and location. But it depends even more what result you aim for. One of the reasons I love winter sunrise/sunset is because the light is so soft, cold and gentle. Whether I judge the light epic or not is a matter of what result I aim for. For some photos, sunrise might be better, while sunset might be better for some others. But usually, the most important factors are weather and location.

    This is getting way too long, but my point is that it feels so wrong to say sunrise is for suckers. Sunrises are surely more difficult because they require to get up before the sun. (I’ve struggled in the past week because days are getting longer, and even if I wake up early enough, I can’t get out of bed.) But they’re definitely not for suckers because they require so much more determination than sunset. If there are suckers, it’s us, people who can’t get out of bed early 😉 When it comes to photographic result, two sunrises or two sunsets aren’t the same. The question usually has nothing to do with sunrise or sunset. Weather, time of the year and location are often the important factors for me. (And what result I want to achieve…) In some cases, it means it’s better to find strength to go for sunrise. In some cases that it would be useless.

    Maybe if you come someday to the far North to experience what a real sunrise is, you might change your mind. A “night” spent in late April or early May in Arctic Norway is one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced and a dream for any golden or blue hour outdoor photographer… If there’s one thing that sucks, it’s leaving far from the Arctic Circle 😉

    Oh, and how is sunset at the top of a mountain less dangerous than sunrise? If you need to hike in darkness before sunrise, you will need to hike in darkness after sunset… Which to me sounds even more dangerous. If darkness is a problem, you need to camp on the top no matter whether it’s sunrise or sunset you aim for. (And I guess it would mean being able to enjoy both.)

    • Maëlick you bring up many good points. Maybe we should have had you write the rebuttal post! You make very good points throughout your post; none of which I disagree with. It doesn’t really matter if you prefer sunrise, sunset, mid day, studio, dappled forest, cloudy and overcast, storms, night or anything else when you photograph. The important thing is you’re aware of the light and you know the story you’re trying to tell.

      And you’re right about the mountain. Climbing down a mountain at night needs a good head lamp. Or better year stay put and wait for the sunrise.

      I’ll take you up on your offer to photography in a real sunrise in Oulu. I know it would be an experience I would never forget. Thanks for commenting and joining the fun!!

  4. Tony Tulloch

    I believe that photography is about getting the most from the light you have available. Although I have no argument with the beauty of shots at sunset, and the fact that both ends of the day give the photographer lovely light. Other forms of light that can be kind to the photographer are on the edges of shadows, and the light from a window. However, I feel that we, as photographers, should attempt to get the most from all types light presented to us and use their different qualities to help support the messages within our setups. Sunrises and sunsets (and the hours around them) are great in most parts of the world and in the Mediterranean (in July) I found there was little difference between the two. If we limit ourselves to those two hours, or just sunset, then we are doing ourselves and our audience a disservice.

    • Reiterlied

      Good points Tony. Your comment also reminds me that Shelly actually wrote two years about breaking the rule, one of them being “don’t shoot during daytime because the light is too harsh” 😀

      That said I think there’s also nothing wrong chasing only a specific kind of light. For me, golden or blue hour sunlight is a composition choice, like using a 16:9 or 2.39:1 crop or a short DoF. There are no good or bad choices, only choices driven by a goal 🙂

    • Tony you’re absolutely right and I couldn’t agree more. It took some time to find these golden hour photos since most of my work is done in forests in the summer. We each have a responsibility as photographers to understand light, its qualities and how best to harness them to create the images that we want.

      So yeah, please consider this a joke that fell flat 😀

  5. brett_wilson

    “What’s got two thumbs, prefers sunrises and is a sucker?”
    “This guy!”
    I’ll save my counterargument for a follow up post. I will admit you make some valid points, points I must debunk!
    A wonderfully entertaining, thought provoking, tongue-in-cheek post Shelly!

  6. Hilarious post (notwithstanding our friends from other lands who may find our sense of humor lacking). I loved your passion, clarity, and jokes. I also found your gallery here stunning. That Malificent is magnificent. You are an amazing toy photographer!!!

  7. Thanks for this post Shelly.

    I’m a coast-ally [especially ally! ;)] and oriented east and You reminded me I have to wake up early more often to ride a bike to the beach and take some… or learn to take some sunrise shots! I have an opportunity and I don’t use it! I’ll consider it as the little challenge.

    I also love when the Sun is bit higher than on susnrise, but before the noon. It gives fantastic light while I shoot indoors.

    Altough, for many reasons You mentioned, I prefer the Golden Hour too. The only problem is the light that is running away and I have to find a good spot. Living in the city narrows the space.
    But hey, it’s also a challenge, You have to be quick and firm, because the conditions are changing quickly too.

    Your shots are very inspiring, I have to try shooting at sunset more often too.

    Either way, I won’t be sleeping well 😀

    P. S.
    As for the humour or its lack or cultural barriers or other things, I don’t think it’s the matter of that.
    I think it depends on the sensitivity.
    I can say I’m Sabé’s neighbour, we even share the same mountains, we’re from similar culture, but I don’t feel offended at all. Maybe it’s because I know You better or maybe it’s because we have similar sense of humour.
    Or we’re both lacking of it 😉

    • Thanks for joining this fast moving conversation Tamasz! You are so right, the light outdoors changes so fast. It doesn’t matter where or how you’re set up, you have to take advantage of the situation before it changes.

      +Frankly I love winter because sunrise comes at an hour I can mange. Plus the view on my deck is right into the sun. Some of my favorite photos are in this situation. Its just getting up at 4am to catch the summer light I object too. I like my sleep!! 😀

      Thank for clarifying the cultural barrier. I would hate to illuminate all humor ion fear of offending people. We are toy photographers for heavens sake! We need to have fun and loosen up a bit! I fear the whole community has gotten far to serious. Maybe this is a reflection of our times, but it would be nice to break away, at least for a little while. xx

  8. Awesome post, and beautiful examples. I’m on the Sunset team, so I totally relate to you. (“The caffeine has time to kick in!”)

    Fascinating response. I’m sad that the humor was lost on some folks. I think it is a bit of “we have to know you”, as well as “we have to know your loving relationship with Brett” too, as I totally saw this as a playful jest to his well-known love of, and methods for, getting golden hour shots at sunrise. Looking forward to Brett’s rebuttal!

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