Let’s say that there is a location that could be photographed at either sunrise or sunset. The quality of light really isn’t any different, it’s just the direction of the light. I often hear how a lot of people prefer to shoot sunsets because they want to avoid those early mornings. That is quite true, however, I have never found that to be an issue. When I’m on a shooting trip, I typically go to bed not long after dark, so it is quite natural to get up an hour or so before sunrise. I strongly prefer shooting sunrise over sunset for many other reasons as well.
Sure, it often means that you will need to hike into a location in the dark, but I enjoy the calm, cool morning air. It is nice to know that in an hours time, the sun will be up. Unlike the afternoon though, it is still quite cool in the morning, which makes the return hike to camp quite comfortable in desert regions.
About 15 to 20 minutes before sunrise when there is a reddish glow on the horizon, there is some very nice light. This is of course similar to that same time after sunset. However, at sunrise, the wind is usually calm. This is important for large format photography, as well as any format. If you have some wildflowers in the foreground, they will move in the wind. As the sun breaks over the horizon, there is usually a very gentle breeze, but that will often calm down again.
My favorite moment to shoot is in the minutes prior to sunrise when the reddish glow on the Eastern horizon illuminates the subject. At this time, the Earth’s shadow is still present in the sky, which means that there is a deep blue sky behind the subject. This leads to one of the perhaps most critical reason why I prefer sunrise shooting.
Let’s say that I have setup a shot, and the light is quite ideal. Taking into consideration reciprocity failure, bellows extension factor, a very small aperture (f/64 or so), and a slow film, I will usually have an exposure time of 15 minutes or longer. During this time of the morning, the amount of light will significantly increase during the course of the exposure. If I leave the shutter open for a full 15 minutes, I will overexpose the photo because the amount of light is not consistent during the exposure.
After I start the exposure, I constantly meter the scene to see what the current meter reading is. I average the initial exposure time with the current reading to determine how long to leave the shutter open. Let’s say that I start out at 10 minutes, and now the meter is reading 5 minutes. If at that point in time, the shutter has been open for 7.5 minutes, I know that my exposure is complete, even though it has not lasted the full 10 minutes.
This is a great way of shortening exposure times because the light levels are increasing. At sunset, we have the opposite. If I choose to start the exposure 10 or 15 minutes after sunset when there is a nice glow in the sky, my exposure may read 15 minutes. During the course of the exposure, the light levels will continue to drop, and I will be chasing the light. It will be difficult to get a proper exposure because the light is dissipating during the course of the exposure.
When all of these factors are combined, this is why I greatly prefer shooting at sunrise. There are many locations where sunrise is blocked, and the only option as sunset. However, I’ll shoot a sunrise over a sunset any day of the week so long as I have the choice.