Serious amateur and professional photographers know that the best light of the day is during the periods of sunrise and sunset. The light is softer and more diffused because the rays of the sun hit the Earth at sharp angles and must pass through more of the air. The particles in the air are distributed unevenly, so when they intercept the sun’s rays they become “visible” as brighter or darker areas, causing a pleasant contrast. Your eyes may “see” the rays, but to capture them with your camera requires a few careful steps and further development of your photographer’s eye.
- Typically, you only have a one-hour window when you are more likely to make the rays of the sun elements of your compositions. That period is ½ hour before sunrise and sunset and the half-hour following these daily events. Schedule your shoot precisely, so you and your equipment are ready to maximize this relatively short time. A critical component of developing your photographer’s eye is not to concentrate all your attention on the sunrise and sunset in front of you. The exact shot you may have envisioned could be occurring behind you, so occasionally check 180 degrees in the other direction.
- The right combination of natural factors (most of which you don’t control) must be in place to see and record the rays of the sun in your photos. If one or more early-morning sessions haven’t produced the images you’d like, then adding particles to the air artificially will help emphasize the rays. A bit of smoke in the right place will create a denser area of the atmosphere; or if there is a dusty patch of ground within the scene you’ve framed, then kick the dust a few times. Some particles will rise into the air and create the different densities that will reveal the rays.
- Compose your image with a bit of a barrier between you and the sun: a tree, a person, the top of a building, etc. If possible, then move the sun outside the frame entirely. Some of the rays will be blocked, which will make it easier to “see” the rays on either side of the barrier and emphasize them in your photos. Avoid lens flare, as it could overpower the subtle beauty of the sunbeams and cause a general distraction that could degrade the quality and creativity of your images.
- During that magic hour during sunrise and sunset, the sun’s rays should be the brightest area of your image, even though the light is weak relative to midday. An easy method to emphasize the rays of the sun is to frame your photo with a darker background or environment. A classic example of this technique is photographing the light streaming through a window into a dark room or space.
- Determine your camera settings with a light meter reading. Be prepared to experiment, however, since the meter may be challenged by the high contrast that is created with the bright sun’s rays and the general low light level of your scene or shooting environment. Your first option is to try exposure settings lower than what your light meter is telling you. Whatever exposure formula you select, try to use as narrow an aperture as possible to give your photos more depth of field. You’ll find that a longer shutter speed is also required because of the low level of light.