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Sunrise, Sunset: Achieving Dramatic Contrasts in Street Photography

There are many reasons why photographers love shooting at sunrise and sunset. The beauty of the rising/setting sun is one of them; the beautiful lighting you get is another. Here are some planning and decision-making tips from two photographers that helped them to achieve the dramatic contrasts in their shots. (Reported by Kazuyuki Okajima, Takashi Karaki, Kazuo Nakahara, Digital Camera Magazine)

Steep bridge at sunrise, shadows at sunset


Scene 1: Evening shadows on the sidewalk

Shadows on street in evening

EOS R/ RF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 40mm/ Program AE (f/7.1, 1/400 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Cloudy
Photos and text: Kazuyuki Okajima

Looking down onto the sidewalk, I was enchanted by the long, beautiful shadows cast by the passers-by and decided to take a shot. When viewed through the EVF, the scene somehow looked slightly less flavourful, so I tweaked some settings and waited until the elements in the frame formed a dramatic picture.


1. Shoot when the shadows are simple

If the elements in your composition don’t come well together, no amount of increasing the contrast in your Picture Style settings can save the shot. Here, I waited until I got a combination of light conditions and timing that made the shadows stand out in an impressive way. Light intensity depends on the weather, and the length of shadows depends on the time on the day. The location of your shoot is important as well. 

Too many shadows: Messy image

Messy shadows

Weak, uneven lighting: Weak shadows

weak, blurred shadows


2. Use your EVF to help you adjust colour and contrast

For this shot, I looked for the settings that helped me replicate what I saw with the naked eye.  For this shot,

- Picture Style (Fine Detail): Helped to portray the shapes of the shadow and the texture of the pavement in vivid detail.
- White balance (Cloudy): Brought out the warmth in the lighting more than the AWB (Ambience priority) and White Balance (Daylight) settings.

The what-you-see-is-what-you-get preview on the EVF makes it easy to adjust colour tones.

Picture Style (Fine Detail)

Picture Style (Fine Detail)

White Balance (Cloudy)

White Balance (Cloudy)

Tip: The effects of some Picture Style parameters (such as ‘Contrast’) are visible in the EVF/Live View preview, but others, such as ‘Sharpness’, are harder to see. It helps to familiarise yourself with what each parameter does to your image.

You may be interested in:
Picture Style Techniques to Level Up Your Landscape Photography


Scene 2: A dramatically steep slope against the flaming sun

Eshima Bridge against rising sun

EOS-1D X/ EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM + Extender EF2xIII/ FL: 800mm/ Manual exposure (f/11, 1/320 sec, EV±0)/ WB: Auto
Photo and text: Takashi Karaki

This is Eshima Bridge, which is also known as “betabumi-zaka” (full-throttle slope) or “roller coaster bridge” because of its extreme steepness. It became very famous after being featured in a television commercial for cars. To further emphasise its incredible steepness, I decided to make use of the perspective compression effect of a super telephoto lens. Getting the shot right required quite a bit of planning.


1. Use an app to check the best shooting location. Then do a site recce.

One important key to getting the shot was to know when the sun would be above the bridge when viewed from my selected shooting spot.  

I use the Sun Surveyor app, which not only tells you the time of sunrise, but also the location of the sun at a specific place and time.

Surveying the location before the actual shoot was also very important. It helped ensure that I was in the right spot with the right equipment to frame the image the way I wanted. I originally wanted to shoot from the shoulder of the bridge, but  realised that the opposite shore was a better spot. 


2. Estimate where the sun will be and catch it at the right timing

Aesthetically, the most crucial aspect of this shoot was to ensure that the highest part of the bridge was nicely aligned with the sun. Although an app can tell you where the sun will be at a given timing, in reality, the sun moves a little to the right as it rises. During the shoot, I slowly moved towards the right to keep the framing.

Tip: It helps to have a tripod with a movable head that allows you to easily shift your composition vertically or horizontally.

Sun behind bridge

This was shot immediately after the sun rose above the horizon. The sun is blocked by the bridge.


3. Equipment: EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM+ Extender EF2xIII

As I wanted to fill the frame with the bridge, I used the EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM with a 2x extender, allowing me to shoot at up to 800mm. This achieves a strong perspective compression effect that adds impact to the shot.


EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM+ Extender EF2xIII

I like this lens for its excellent resolution: Even faraway subjects are depicted very clearly.


4. Beware of blown highlights!

For this shot, I paid careful attention to the exposure so that the sun would not be blown out. 


Know this: How to read a histogram

In high contrast scenes such as when you are shooting shadows or against the sun, it is important to make sure that you don’t lose too much detail in the dark or light areas. Your histogram shows the distribution of black, midtone and white pixels in your image, and can help you identify if you need to shift your exposure. Here are some basics on how to read one.

Tip: If you are shooting with an EVF or in Live View, you can display the histogram as an overlay as you shoot.  

Blown highlights

Histogram showing blown highlights

The many bright areas result in the histogram being quite biased towards the right. There are pixels in the extreme right (pure white), which suggests that there might be lost detail in the highlight areas.

Correct exposure

Histogram showing correct exposure

Here, most of the pixels are in the middle. The peak on the left side reflects the shadow areas in the leaves, but there are no pixels in the extreme right or left. This shows that there are no crushed blacks or blown highlights in the image.

Crushed shadows

Histogram showing clipped blacks

This image is dark overall, which is why the histogram is biased to the left. There are pixels in the extreme left (pure black), which suggests that there might be lost detail in the shadow areas.


Know this: It’s normal for some scenes to have a lot of blacks or whites

If you are shooting snow or moody portraits in low light against a black background, for example, you can expect to see the high levels of white or black reflected in the histogram. But if your scene is not meant to show such extremes, you might want to adjust your exposure accordingly.


Learn more about photographing light and shadow in:
Taking Dramatic Food Photos in Chiaroscuro Style

For more about shooting at sunrise/sunset, check out:
Photos reminiscent of evenings – Conveying the evening through lights and shadows
Capture the Fiery, Vibrant Colours of Sunrise
How I Nailed the Shot: Golden Hour On the Road


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Kazuo Nakahara

Kazuo Nakahara

Born in Hokkaido in 1982, Nakahara turned to photography after working at a chemical manufacturing company. He majored in photography at the Vantan Design Institute and is a lecturer for photography workshops and seminars, in addition to working in commercial photography. He is also a representative of the photography information website studio9.


Kazuyuki Okajima

Kazuyuki Okajima

Born in Fukuoka City in 1967, Kazuyuki Okajima graduated from the Tokyo School of Photography (current name: Tokyo Visual Arts). After working as a studio assistant and photographer’s assistant, he became a freelance photographer. In addition to working as an advertising and magazine photographer, he travels the world shooting images imbued with a strong poetic sentiment. His many publications include the photo collection Dingle. Exhibitions of his work include “The Light and Wind of Dingle,” “Shio-sai” (Tidal Tints), and “Let’s Go to School.”

Takashi Karaki

Takashi Karaki

After some experience as a sports instructor followed by 10 years in magazine production and editing, Karaki moved to Yonago City in Tottori Prefecture, where he became known for his landscapes of the San’in region of Japan. His works have been published in Amazing Village, a booklet of beautiful Japanese villages produced through a CANON × Discover Japan collaboration in 2017, and his shot of the sea of clouds at Akechi Pass in Tottori Prefecture was among 12 images selected by the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) to represent Japan.

Instagram: @karakky0918