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One of our favourite times of the day to be out in the bush is an hour or so before dawn when it is very quiet and very fresh. The so called ‘dawn chorus’ has yet to begin, there is just the faintest lightening on the eastern horizon and it is usually all ours, as few people are about at this time. At sunset it is different: hotter, more vibrant and superb light. Two great times to be out photographing, but like so much in photography there are a few little tricks that can help make the images that you bring back more pleasing.

The first (and most obvious) things to be shooting at these times are the actual sunrise and sunset. A word of warning here: be very careful about looking into the sun, either with the naked eye or through the camera and very definitely if it has a telephoto lens attached to it. A long lens will magnify the sun and the blast of light into your eye will harm the retina, very possibly causing permanent eye damage. The sun has to be very dull before you start pointing long lenses at it and this usually only occurs just prior to it setting or only a minute or two after it has rise. Even then it may very well be too bright. A very rough rule of thumb: If you can easily, and I emphasise easily, look at the sun with the naked eye then you can probably shoot it with a longish lens.

While it can get really spiritual and serene out there do be careful about photographing or looking directly into the sun - you don't want to damage your eyes.

While it can get really spiritual and serene out there do be careful about photographing or looking directly into the sun - you don't want to damage your eyes.

A telephoto lens does wonders for a sunset as it increases the size of the sun considerably, but sunsets by themselves are rarely all that attractive. They invariably need something else – clouds, an interesting landscape to put into silhouette, trees or perhaps an animal. And remember, when photographing into the light like this everything other than the bright areas will be in silhouette. Because of this, simple graphic shapes work well. And you need the whole of the subject matter to be sticking up above the horizon otherwise the bit that is not will simply disappear into the dark areas of your picture.

Quite a bit of post production was needed in this shot of Rhodes’ Baobab to bring out detail in the foreground, while still maintaining colour in the sky.

Quite a bit of post production was needed in this shot of Rhodes’ Baobab to bring out detail in the foreground, while still maintaining colour in the sky.

Getting the correct exposure is always a bit tricky with sunsets but getting it right really makes for a good pic. If you have to err, then underexpose a little but do keep an eye on your camera’s histogram. The problem is, if there is a lot of silhouette in the frame then the camera’s light meter will try to expose this for detail and you will get washed out colours in the sky. Alternatively, if you are including the sun in the frame, and particularly if it is close to the centre, it is very easy to underexpose the image because it is so bright relative to everything else. All you will get in this instance is a big red ball in a black background. The best is to try to take a light reading of the sky a little to the side of the sun so that it is not in frame, and excluding any subject matter that will eventually be silhouetted. Then recompose and fire away, but try to work quickly in these conditions because the light levels change rapidly. It is also a good time to try and bracket (expose over and under your metered exposure) a stop or two either way.

Shooting wildlife doing what you want it to do, while at the same time getting the setting sun in the right place can be really tricky - luck plays a big part of course.

Shooting wildlife doing what you want it to do, while at the same time getting the setting sun in the right place can be really tricky - luck plays a big part of course.

If you want to make sure that the sunset is really spectacular, change the White Balance setting on the camera from Auto or Daylight (the little sun icon) to Shade (the little house icon). This will add some additional warmth to the image, which invariably helps with the sunset colours. This is only when you are shooting the actual sunrise or sunset - if you are shooting anything else at the time, your pics will have a really strong warm colour cast which is undesirable. When you have finished photographing, do not forget to set the White Balance back to Auto or preferably Daylight.

It is all very well getting the sun setting on the horizon or rising from it, but some of the most spectacular light and cloud formations actually occur some time after sunset and before sunrise. Wait! Don’t be impatient! That bottle of Chateau le Plonk will still be there later and you can use it to celebrate the great picture you will get by simply waiting a few minutes. The same goes for sunrises. If you have to get up at 4:30 am to get the sunrise you may as well get up at 4:00 or 4:15 to make sure you get the picture.

You need a really powerful flash and one of those flash extenders to add the right amount of flash into a wildlife sunset shot. It is best used in manual mode and when this technique works you can get some wonderful pics.

You need a really powerful flash and one of those flash extenders to add the right amount of flash into a wildlife sunset shot. It is best used in manual mode and when this technique works you can get some wonderful pics.

Remember, at sunset, shutter speeds will drop quickly as it gets darker, and this is especially true if you are using a small aperture to get both the foreground and the sun in focus. A tripod in this situation is a must if you are going to get sharp images - nothing wrecks an image like unwanted camera movement.

The points above will in all probability get you glorious sunrises or sunsets with the whole of the foreground in silhouette. But why not try a little fill flash to put some detail into the foreground. It can be very effective, especially if your subject is moving. Because of the long shutter speeds the moving subject will blur and the very brief burst of light from your flashgun will ‘stop’ movement at some point resulting in some very interesting images. The so-called second curtain sync (where the flash fires just as the shutter is about to close) works superbly in these situations.

Be patient - the Blue Hour after sunset and before sunrise is the best time for shooting ‘night’ shots. And, with a little planning you can also get the moon in the pic, like in this instance at a Phinda Game Reserve sleep-out.

Be patient - the Blue Hour after sunset and before sunrise is the best time for shooting ‘night’ shots. And, with a little planning you can also get the moon in the pic, like in this instance at a Phinda Game Reserve sleep-out.

Do not limit yourself to just the actual sunrise or sunset. The light at this time is out of this world and ideal for photography, so go crazy! And that big, glowing sky just after sunset or just before sunrise is like one great big soft box that softens the light and is great for portraiture. Remember though that your shutter speeds will be very slow, so compensate.

And, if you wait a little longer the Blue Hour arrives - the most wonderful time for shooting the lights coming on in camps, tents etc as well as at braais with lanterns and camp lights. Shoot out of the light (with your back to the west) and wait for the light to ‘balance’. Shutter speeds will be long so remember your tripod.

Be sure to check out our other Photo Tips and tutorials.

As always, if you have any questions or suggestions for future articles, do drop me a mail. Also hook up with us on Instagram (@RogerdelaHarpe) and Facebook ( Roger and Pat de la Harpe Photography).

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