9 tips for taking better photos of sunsets and sunrises on your smartphone on holiday

You know what it’s like, you’re enjoying a beautiful sunset that looks perfectly picturesque so you take a quick snap on your smartphone. Only a photograph never seems to do justice to the scene in front of you.

Photographing sunsets and sunrises is notoriously difficult to get right, and Instagram is full of blurry orange skies that are a bit lacklustre.

You might think you need to invest in an expensive camera to really capture all the colours and drama of a good sunset, but artist and photographer Jo Bradford doesn’t believe so. She takes incredible images with her smartphone, posting them on Instagram for her 43,000 followers, and now she’s released a book – Smart Phone Smart Photography –  all about simple techniques for taking better pictures with iPhones and Androids.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Nope you don’t need a pricey camera to get shots like this (Jo Bradford/PA)</figcaption>
Nope you don’t need a pricey camera to get shots like this (Jo Bradford/PA)

Here are some of her pro tips to make your holiday shots the envy of your own Instagram followers.

1. Give yourself enough time to set the perfect picture up

The first rays of sun peeking over the horizon are a joyful herald of a new day. You will need to be up with the lark to get set up in time for the show to begin, so bring a flask of something warming and make an occasion of it. You can nail the timings of the sun’s movements across your location with apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris, which is available for iPhone and Android.

2. Buy a tripod

I have found myself enjoying a sunset casting its beautiful light through a woodland, or its effect on an evening seascape, but have got home to find most of the photos I took were too soft or downright blurry and dark to use. The moral of the story? This type of shooting requires a steadier hand than mine, preferably a tripod, to minimize the blur.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Grey days can still mean striking photos (Jo Bradford/PA)</figcaption>
Grey days can still mean striking photos (Jo Bradford/PA)

3. Don’t give up if the conditions don’t seem ideal

Remember, even on the most overcast of days, you may get lucky with a well-timed cloud break, so if the weather turns, don’t pack up and leave until the show is over – clouds can really add drama. Sunrise scenes are often improved by the presence of swirling mist in valleys. They don’t have to be all about warm orange colours either; there’s a moody photo lurking in there on even the greyest of days.

4. Experiment with silhouettes

Try shooting some photos of the low sun with a strong silhouette in the foreground to give a different dynamic to some of your photos. Create the silhouette by simply exposing for the brightest part of the sky; this should throw your foreground detail into dark relief. If the silhouette is still not dark enough, use your exposure slider to bring the exposure down by another one or two stops (i.e. reduce the exposure so that the image is twice as dark or four times as dark). Android users can use the Pro Mode in the camera settings. To do this with an iPhone, you will need to use an app like ProCamera.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Silhouettes can give sunset photos a different dynamic (Jo Bradford/PA)</figcaption>
Silhouettes can give sunset photos a different dynamic (Jo Bradford/PA)

5. Capture the ‘golden hour’

The golden hour, much beloved by landscape photographers, occurs twice daily for a very short time just after the sun rises and again for a short time before the sun sets below the horizon. The long, deep shadows cast by the low sun as it bathes the landscape in its warm golden glow makes for wonderful photographs.

Technically speaking, in the morning the golden hour light phenomenon lasts from the moment of sunrise, for about 25 minutes, until the sun reaches a height of roughly 5º above the horizon. In the evening the golden hour happens when the sun is roughly 5º above the horizon line. It will intensify for the next 25 minutes or so.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>The warm colours of ‘golden hour’ (Jo Bradford/PA)</figcaption>
The warm colours of ‘golden hour’ (Jo Bradford/PA)

6. Create a point to your photograph other than just the sun

I love the way the golden light catches every blade of grass and dewdrop, and makes them glow, so look for places to capture this. Consider shooting in portrait format rather than landscape format, so that you can make more of a feature of the drama in the skies. If you can get to a pond or any body of water that catches the sun’s rays, you’ll be rewarded with the double bonus of a reflected sky in your landscape.

7. Don’t ignore twilight as a photography opportunity

You might think the setting sun heralds the end of the day for photographing outside, but twilight brings its own magic. The golden glow of the sun has gone and the dying embers of the fiery sunset are fading fast from the sky, but the landscape is still lit by the shadowy light of the soft blues and violets we associate with twilight.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>City lights during twilight or ‘blue hour’ (Jo Bradford/PA)</figcaption>
City lights during twilight or ‘blue hour’ (Jo Bradford/PA)

You’ll want to leave the shutter open for longer, particularly if you are in an urban environment where the combination of city lights coming on and car headlights will create amazing light trails. Try keeping your ISO at 400 and under to keep the noise down as much as possible, now dial your shutter speed up and down until you find the sweet spot where the tonal range is balanced from highlights to shadows. If you have an Android, this can be done using the ISO and shutter speed sliders in Pro Mode in the camera settings. iPhone users can open up apps like Slow Shutter Cam or NightCap Camera Pro to take this sort of photo.

8. For low-light and night shooting, use an app

Those with an iPhone will need to work with an app to override the native camera and draw some more functionality out of it. Try Slow Shutter Cam or NightCap Camera Pro to help your iPhone camera gather more light. Click on the gear wheel in Slow Shutter Cam to access the Capture Mode options, where you can select from motion blur, light trail, or low light. Then make a range of adjustments to fine-tune your image. My advice is to keep ISO at minimum and noise reduction at maximum.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Low light using NightCap Pro app (Jo Bradford/PA)</figcaption>
Low light using NightCap Pro app (Jo Bradford/PA)

9. Be patient

Patience is something every great photographer will have in spades. Learning to stay in the moment after you have taken that great shot, to be patient enough to keep looking for something more, will mean you are in the right place and in the right frame of mind when an unexpected magic moment happens.

Smart Phone Smart Photography by Jo Bradford is published by CICO Books. Text and photography, Jo Bradford 2018. Available from April 10.

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