Sometimes, when the alarm buzz wakes you up in the middle of the night, you question yourself – is it worth it? But then you remember the joy of adventure and how rewarding sunrise photography is and sleep quickly fades away.
You get dressed, grab your backpack and venture towards the beauty of nature at sunrise.
Sunrise vs. Sunset
A lot of people ask me – why sunrise, can’t I just do a sunset instead? Of course, you can, but there is one massive difference between the two. And it’s an unbeatable argument in favour of sunrise for me.
When you photograph in the evening, there are lots of people around. They talk, walk; their thoughts float in the air, they keep walking into the frame and distract you in so many ways.
During the sunrise, you have a better chance for a tête-à-tête with nature. You can focus on your thoughts and feelings and express yourself better.
Getting Ready For Sunrise Photography
So, you have decided to do sunrise, and it’s time to prepare. I recommend getting ready the night before. This way, you’ll get an extra 10 minutes of sleep and you will also significantly reduce the chance of forgetting something important.
What To Take With You
- Camera with a memory card and a charged battery
- Tripod (make sure to check the tripod plate)
- Snack (it’s early morning, remember?)
- Headlamp. You’ll wander in the darkness!
- Your best lenses
Everything else is either optional or depends on the scenery and weather.
Best Camera For Sunrise Photography
As the saying goes, the best camera is the one you already own. This fact is true to some extent. So, if you already have a decent DSLR camera, invest in lenses. If you are a new buyer, here are a few things to consider:
- Dynamic range. Most modern cameras are good enough with high dynamic range and excellent colours. If you need the details, check DxOMark for sensor tests and comparisons.
- Long exposures. Your camera must be capable of capturing long exposures of at least 30 seconds. As far as I know, all DSLRs have this ability, so this rule applies mostly to phone cameras. It’s better to have a Bulb mode for even longer exposures too.
- Use what you have. If you have some older camera, stick to it and invest into travels/study/lenses.
- Resolution. Regardless of what people think, the megapixels are not that important. If you are not going to print very large, you don’t need that at all. My older Nikon D80 had 12 Mpx, and I still have some photos I took with it in my portfolio (now I shoot full-frame).
- User experience. I recommend getting a camera with as many controls on its body as the budget allows. Lack of these commands is the most significant show-stopper for the cheaper cameras. You don’t want to miss the moment digging through numerous menus.
Which Tripod To Select
The tripod needs to be sturdy and well-balanced. It should be able to hold your camera against the wind. If you go hiking, then the only option to reduce weight is to get a carbon fiber tripod, but it comes at a cost. I prefer Manfrotto and Slick tripods, they have always been great with zero issues.
However, there is one issue. I’m shooting seascapes most of the time, and I like to go into the water. Sea salt is very aggressive, and it doesn’t care whether or not you have an expensive tripod. It will ruin it in a couple of months. There are two solutions here:
- Spend a lot of time cleaning your tripod after each sunrise.
- Get a cheaper yet good tripod once every half a year.
I prefer the second option, and I use Weifeng tripods all the time. They are cheap and provide excellent quality.
Pro tip: use the tripod with clamps, not with the screws. The screw-type legs fell apart in 1 month for one of my tripods.
Lenses For Sunrise Photography
There are no strict rules about lenses, and you can get away with any focal length. Typically, photographers prefer wide or ultra-wide angles as the primary lens. I recommend having the whole range covered. Wide angle + mid-range zoom + telephoto is an optimal choice.
If you are just starting out, you could get away with some general purpose lens, like 18-200. This way you will learn how to use different focal ranges and will know better what works for your style.
Here are a few recommendations that I know for sure are good:
- Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 AT-X Pro DX II
- Nikon AF-S 12-24mm f4 G DX IF-ED
- Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM
- AF-S DX NIKKOR 10-24mm F3.5-4.5G ED
- Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD (I use it!)
- Nikon AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
- Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art
- Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR
- Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
- Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM
Sunrise photography is all about light, which depends on the weather to a great extent. You need to learn how to plan to get the best sunrise landscape shots. Typically, I prefer a partly cloudy sky. I wouldn’t bother with less than 30% cloud cover for a general sunrise landscape.
There are, of course, different scenarios. For instance, for a waterfall or a forest, I would prefer a clear sky to increase the chance of getting sun rays beaming through the trees.
To figure out how early I have to get up, I use several sites: AccuWeather and SkippySky. The former has an hourly cloud coverage, and the latter shows the type and thickness of the clouds.
SkippySky can look a little overwhelming, but you’ll figure it out fairly quickly. It also helps to predict if there is an opening between the clouds and the horizon. To get the bright colours, you need high clouds. Low and heavy clouds rarely produce something spectacular.
All in all, you can never be 100% sure about weather conditions and have to try it out to see if it works.
The wind can also affect certain types of landscapes. For instance, don’t go to the cliff’s edge if there’s a strong wind. Also, you can take advantage of fog to photograph areas with trees.
How To Pick a Location
Some locations work for sunrise photography, and some don’t. First, you need to get some candidates. I usually do it by looking at Google maps; I use this query Area name sunrise or something similar.
Once I find some East-facing area (NE and SE also work), I look for photos in Google Images, 500px, and other sites, which include a location. This search gives me a general idea of what to expect from the area.
Don’t forget to actually read the meta (title and tags) because any search may get confused and show either a different location or a sunset, for instance. Also, have a look at local photographers’ portfolios for exact spots.
The SunCalc website is handy to browse Sun and Moon positions on a certain day quickly.
Sunrise Photography Tips
The tips below will help you to get started and photograph the sunrise in the best possible way.
Scout The Area In Daylight
The best way to prepare for the new area is to scout it before the sunrise. In the darkness, it could be hard to find a path, to measure distance, to see potential best spots.
So, if you get a chance, walk around the day before, take notice of the best places. Use some Virtual Reality app like Photopills or “PlanIt! For Photographers” to see the Sun/Moon/Milky Way positions for your future shots.
Arrive One Hour Before Sunrise
Typically, you need to arrive well before the actual sunrise for several reasons. First, you’ll have the ability to shoot the long exposure. Second, you’ll have some time to find best spots.
The first light appears around 30-40 minutes before sunrise, but you can start creating long exposure photos even earlier than that. I’ve seen clouds painted red 60 minutes before the dawn. Bear in mind; all faint colours will turn vivid and juicy on the final shot.
Focus Using Your Headlamp
There are a few ways to focus your camera in the middle of the night, but the easiest way is to use your headlamp or a torch. Just pick some object around the hyperfocal distance, then lock the focus and shoot. This is what you need to do:
- Point your flashlight at some solid object
- Focus the camera using that bright spot pressing the shutter speed half-way down
- When the camera beeps, it means it has focused, so release the button
- Change the focusing mode to manual so that when you press the shutter button next time, the camera doesn’t change the focus
Be sure to change back to the Autofocus mode once you zoom in or out because of the so-called focus breathing effect.
Shoot Long Exposures
Pre-dawn period works best for long exposures, and that’s the main reason to come early. The longer the exposure time, the more movement you can catch.
Typically, in the total darkness, 60+ minutes before sunrise, you could get a shutter speed anywhere from a couple of minutes for f/8 to ten minutes or more for f/16.
Use your judgment and the sense of beauty to figure out how long you need to expose the photo for. The most common subjects for long exposure sunrise photography are clouds and water.
For the sky, you can expose as long as you like and the clouds will just turn into trails. For water, it is not as simple. Relatively calm water (river, lake) just smooths out with time and becomes perfectly flat at 30+ seconds.
Restless water, like the sea or the ocean, can turn into a foggy substance. Personally, I’m not a foggy water photographer and prefer cliff-top outlooks for this period. As the light grows stronger, I descend from the high rise spot and include water structure and patterns into the frame.
Shoot Short Exposures
It may seem obvious, but listen, I’ve seen so many great photographers obsessed with long exposures that it’s hard to believe. They keep creating these 30+ second shots forgetting about everything else in the world. They buy ND (Neutral Density) filters to block daylight and continue doing these photos.
It’s like taking one leg off, limiting yourself with just one technique, with only one type of photography. My best advice here is to keep experimenting, keep trying different approaches and styles. Shutter speed is one of the three essential parameters in photography. Do not block it in one of the extreme values.
Work With Light
Light plays the principal violin in this orchestra called photography. We do it all because of light. We wake up in the middle of the night to see some spectacular light show. We must understand light, appreciate it and work together with it trying to take all the best out of it.
For instance, you have envisioned a photo, and the light is entirely different. Don’t be stubborn! Be flexible instead, adjust to the lighting conditions and act following the current state of nature. Learn to quickly change the whole course of the morning and adapt to the environment.
It’s best to photograph with the light source on the side or in front of you. The sun behind the photographer is the worst case as it fills in and hides all the details and textures.
Create a Starburst
You’ve probably seen those starburst rays coming from the Sun. It’s hard to believe how easy you can achieve just the same effect. Without going deep into the theory and the structure of aperture blades, below are a few steps to create a starburst effect.
- Clean the lens
- Hide the sun behind something dark and solid leaving just a fraction of it out
- Set aperture f/16 (f/11 is the minimum)
- Focus on something other than the Sun because bright light can confuse auto-focus
- Photograph, verify, repeat
Make sure you clean your lens properly or you’ll get ugly flares, which are very hard to deal with in editing.
Make Use Of Golden Hour
Golden hour is a period of the best light. It starts right after sunrise and lasts for about an hour. Usually, it’s warm and bright and casts long shadows featuring all the textures. Sometimes, right after the bright and colourful daybreak, this light may seem dull and boring (in comparison).
But this perception is an illusion. Just wait for 5 minutes and let your eyes adjust to the new conditions. It’s best to photograph with the light source on your left or right so that the shadows are the longest and the land features are most prominent.
Use Filters or Bracketing
For sunrise photography, you need a solution that fixes the difference between the land and the sky exposure. The sky is typically much brighter, and it results in either an overexposed sky or an underexposed land. To alleviate this issue, you have two options:
- Use gradual filters. This filter is a partially dark piece of glass. The darker part is positioned to darken a particular area of the photo.
- Do bracketing. Shoot several photos with different exposures and combine later during editing.
Personally, I prefer the latter because filters have some disadvantages. First, they may have a colour cast. Second, you need to carry a whole bag of filters. Third, it takes time to change the filter, and you may lose the moment.
And fourth, they ruin the photos with the uneven horizon line, like the cliffs. So I would just create several shots and blend them later.
Sunrise Photography Settings
As with any other type of landscape photography, you typically shoot in either Manual mode or Aperture Priority mode. For landscape, you need a depth of field covering as much area as possible. That’s why you set the aperture to at least f/8, but I recommend to go with f/11 – f/16.
Don’t go higher than that because you will start losing sharpness instead due to lens diffraction. In fact, some lenses start to get diffraction even at f/16. You’ll need to test and compare.
The shutter speed is a variable here, and it depends on the surrounding conditions. When you just start shooting 60 minutes before sunrise, the shutter speed at f/8 could reach 5-8 minutes easily.
3 minutes exposure
Pro tip: To get shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds you would need either a release cable or remote control for your camera. Set the camera to bulb mode, then fire the button and then press it again once the time lapses. The other way is to use the Wi-Fi module that appears in some modern cameras.
As the ambient light becomes stronger, the exposure time decreases gradually. You need to learn what shutter speed you need for specific objects to make them look great and then adjust your settings accordingly.
Every camera handles ISO differently, so it requires an experiment to determine the max ISO you can get away with. Please note, the darker photos with high ISO will produce much more noise than adequately exposed pictures with the same high ISO.
In fact, you only need to manipulate ISO for the sunrise when there are some moving objects, like waves or birds. In all other cases, you can keep it at 100. I also recommend to keep it as low as possible for the long exposures because otherwise, it would produce a lot of extra noise.
Sunrise, in my opinion, is the most magical time of day, when we can reconnect with nature in full. I’m always keen for a new exciting sunrise photography adventure even if I have to wake up at 3.30 am. Set your next alarm clock early and try it out!
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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