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4 Steps To Perfect Sunrise And Sunset Photography With Adobe Lightroom Presets

A photographer’s guide for editing sunrise and sunset photos to enhance the color and make them look magical.

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The period just before sunrise or sunset is often named “golden hour”, because of the soft and warm golden tones to the sky. Many photographers like to capture this time of day especially in portrait photography as it blurs imperfections, softens the overall image and creates a dreamy look.

If left unedited, these RAW images can seem flat and dull compared to what is seen with the naked eye. Luckily, Lightroom provides the required tools to bring these images to life provided that the original image isn’t too under or over exposed.

Step 1: Adjust Tone, Presence and Sharpening

The below image is of Bryce Canyon taken at sunrise. This photo will be used to demonstrate the editing process. The same settings can be used for an image taken at sunset.

We are going to be using the “Develop” module in Lightroom. It can be found in the upper right hand corner, next to the “Library” module. 

The necessary adjustments will have to be made to the following settings:

  • Highlights (-100): Although this may seem extreme, this lowers the brightness of the snow in the bottom third of the image, putting emphasis on the mountains and sky.
  • Shadows (+32) and Blacks (+60): By adjusting the shadows and the amount of blacks in the image will put some brightness into the lower two thirds of the image.
  • Clarity (+20) and Sharpening (10): This will allow the mountains to appear almost as a 3D effect and intensify the sharpness of the scenery.
  • Dehaze: When dehaze is applied correctly, it can bring focus to certain items by decreasing the intensity of others. With golden hour images it works extremely well as emphasis will be put on the sky. It is important to make small adjustments as colors can easily look unnatural if too much dehaze is applied.
  • Vibrance and Saturation: At this stage, the mountains are looking a little dull. Slightly adjusting the vibrance and saturation will add back some color to them.
  • Temperature and Tint: When dealing with golden hour images, these settings can be left alone. The image already has enough warmth from the natural sunlight.

By making the above adjustments, it is clear that there is already an improvement from the original image.

Once the editing is completed in Step 1, the background (sky) and foreground (mountains and snow) will be edited separately to account for the different exposures.

Step 2: Edit the Sky (Background)

Although the image is already more enhanced, the blue tones in the sky are looking unnatural and too artificial. The settings can be adjusted as per the below to correct this.

  • Hue (+52) and Aqua to (-43): This creates a more natural and softer looking sky.

The other settings are left on default and no adjustments are made to them.

The below example is a comparison of the before and after images after the above adjustments were made.

Using the Adjustment Brush/Mask tool to select the sky, the following adjustments need to be made in order to enhance the clouds in the sky more.

  • Dehaze: Increase slightly in order to darken and define the selected area (sky).
  • Tint and Saturation: Re-adjust to restore the color balance that was affected by the dehaze tool. A rule of thumb is to make small adjustments to the saturation, vibrance and color settings each time after the dehaze tool is used.

In order to view the masked areas, the “Show Selected Mask Overlay” option must be selected. This will also enable you to erase any areas that were selected by mistake. Below is an example of erasing an area (the blue mark in the upper left corner) for the purpose of this guide.

As an alternative, the “Graduated Filter” or a gradient mask can be used. This will depend on the user preference, however, the brush mask gives more control and flexibility than the gradient mask.

Step 3: Adjust the Foreground (Mountains and Snow)

The Adjustment Brush/Mask tool can again be used to select the mountains as per the below example.

Make the below adjustments to enhance and brighten the area, for example:

  • Exposure (+0.39)
  • Contrast (+8)
  • Highlights (+51)
  • Shadows (+35)
  • Clarity (+16)

The adjustments will brighten and enhance the mountains so that the eye is drawn to both the sky and the rock formations. 

Step 4: Crop the Image

Cropping an image is used to improve the composition and framing so that the eye of the viewer is drawn to a specific area or to improve the overall aesthetic of the image.

The handle bars at the bottom right of the image is an unnecessary detail that detracts from the overall quality of the image. Once removed, the focus is automatically put onto the rest of the landscape without the distraction of the handle bars.

In order to adhere to the rule of thirds, a small portion of the sky was also cropped in order to keep the image balanced.

Once the image has been cropped to achieve the desired look, it can now be shared online or printed out as a hard copy.

It is clear from the before and after images that the editing has created more vibrance, clarity and definition, making the after image appear lifelike and almost three dimensional.

Final Words

Lightroom makes it possible for photographers to capture the majestic look of the golden hour by means of some powerful editing tools. 

When used correctly, a sunrise or sunset image can be enhanced in such a way that the viewer can have the experience of almost being at the physical location.

These settings and adjustments do not apply only to landscape images, but can be used on any image that has contrasting exposures. 

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