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Capturing Rays of Light Tips for Photographing Sunrises and Sunsets

For outdoor photographers, there are certain endeavors each must accomplish as an indication of development -- much like Boy Scouts earn merit badges before advancing to the next rank. Flipping through the pages of a nature photography book will quickly reveal the most obvious of these undertakings: vistas, water (usually flowing), fall
foliage, wildlife and, of course, sunrises and sunsets.

During his 21 years as photographer for Parks and Tourism, Chuck Haralson has taken literally hundreds of sunrise and sunset shots, and his badge is surely merited.

Where to Shoot

Possibly the most important part of taking a good sunrise or sunset shot is being at the right spot, and according to Haralson, overlooks and vistas are a good place to start. "I would try to get as high as I could," adding that doing so allows the photographer to capture the surrounding landscape.
Lakes and rivers, too, Haralson said, make for good daybreak and dawn shots. "There is always a nice reflection, and it changes the color of the water, which is nice. Instead of blue or brown water, you might get oranges and vivid reds mixed in with silver from the reflection."
The location, though, should not solely focus on the distant background, Haralson said. "Try to make the shot more interesting than just the sunrise. Try to frame it with a tree or a cityscape if you can. Lots of things can work. Sometimes, especially during winter, I can find a lot geese lined up with the sun rising in the background. That's a nice shot."

And wintertime, according to Haralson, is one of the best times of year to shoot sunrises and sunsets. "I've found that a lot times in the winter there's not as much haze as there is in the summer. Skies are clearer and crisper, which makes for more vivid colors."

Adding to the equation of color are clouds, which can "make or break the shot," Haralson said. "Clouds can add a lot when the sun's rays are coming through them. Certain kinds of clouds, when the sun reflects from beneath them, can turn a rosy pink or just about any other color of the rainbow. Once the sun sets and reflects back on the clouds, it can be really spectacular ... or the clouds could move in at just the wrong moment and ruin your sunset."

In the Ozarks, Haralson said Sam's Throne, approximately 13 miles north of Lurton on Hwy. 123, is a wonderful sunset site. "It has nice mountains in the background that you could frame it in. The sun will set behind the mountains, and you're up high. It's just a great shot." In the Ouachitas, Haralson said Mount Magazine, Arkansas's highest peak at 2,753 feet, and Queen Wilhelmina State Park both provide picturesque sunsets as well.

"Also, there's Mt. Nebo," Haralson said. "It has a sunrise and sunset point, and both are really popular for visitors. But I would say the prettiest view would be the sunset. It has more mountains. The sunrise overlooks the Arkansas River Valley and is flatter. It's still a good shot, and that's where the hang gliders take off."

In Arkansas's Delta, Haralson prefers Lake Chicot. "You can frame either a sunrise or sunset with cypress trees, and the reflection on the water is nice, too," he said, adding that the lengthy docks extending over the lake make for the perfect set up.

Technical Advice

When shooting a sunrise or sunset, Haralson said a tripod is necessary. Film with a speed of 50 or 100 is what Haralson "always" uses, but he said film speed of up to 400 could be employed. Higher speeds, though, increase the likelihood of "grainy" prints, he said.

Measuring the light entering the camera with a meter is paramount, according to Haralson. "You have to find a balance between the sky and whatever's in the foreground. That's not easy to do. When the sun's coming up you would meter next to the sun -- not exactly on the sun. I try to read next to the sun, and I take an exposure off whatever's in the foreground and balance it out. You need to get a balance between the real bright and dark." A longer shutter speed with a longer F-stop will provide depth of field and a shaper image, Haralson added.

As far as general advice, Haralson suggested a photographer should get to the site early to avoid being rushed. "And think about what you want to do before you get there. Also, take a tripod and bracket. Say you're shooting at a 60th of a second, shoot some exposures at F/8, F/5.6, and F/11. Then you're covering all your bases and somewhere in there you're going to have the perfect exposure. Even as many years as I've been shooting pictures I still bracket. Everybody brackets."

Timing is Everything

Possibly the most difficult part of shooting a sunrise or sunset is the small window of time the photographer has. Haralson said some of the best shots are taken when the sun is just breaking the horizon "all the way up until when it's parallel to your lens. Then you start getting lens flares. You have a very narrow space there that you can shoot without having a lens flare. But during that time, there's that golden light that I like to shoot, and that's only about 15 to 30 minutes early in the morning and 15 to 30 minutes before the sun sets. That's the perfect time."

Haralson provides photography tips in each issue of, which is posted every other month. For more advice, check out the "Hot Spots" in the "Photo Arkansas" section of, and don't miss previous articles, which are listed in the archives available at the site.
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