Sunrise photography is breathtaking. Many of us miss the best free show nature has to offer daily by not waking up in time for it! But as photographers, we have become accustomed to working crazy hours and on wild terrains.
Even if you are not normally an early riser, photographing sunrise makes you want to become one! There are some tips and tricks to help you capture the best sunrise photos. If you want to take your photography to the next level and make the most of the golden hour consider everything listed below!
Sunrise Photography Tips
Sunrise photography is one of the most rewarding genres of shooting. The early morning peace and a sky full of colors and clouds can make any photographer connect with nature and feel inspired. Here are our top tips to help your sunrise photographs shine.
It’s important you scout the locations you want to shoot before heading out. The best thing to do is to search “best sunrise locations” in Google and then the name of the location you are shooting around. Also, use Instagram to scout out the best location and examples to inspire your next scene. Also, consider admiring the work of these photographers who often shoot at sunrise.
When searching for locations for your next sunrise shot, remember to think about what types of landscapes you will be capturing. Are you looking to capture sunrise photographs over the ocean? Or maybe you want a sunrise shot with mountains and trees framing the scene.
Even more, you might live in a city full of skyscrapers which takes more planning to know exactly where the sun can peek through. Or maybe you have a friend who can offer a view of the sunrise from their apartment window. Consider all these ideas when deciding on your sunrise location.
It’s important to gather everything you need beforehand to capture the perfect golden hour sunrise. Make sure you pack your camera bag the night before when you are more focused and not sleepy-eyed. You will want to arrive at your location at least 1 hour before the sunrise so you can set up your tripod, gear, and take some practice shots.
Remember that the beautiful colors that typically come along with a sunrise can disappear within 30 minutes, so you don’t want to waste a second fiddling with your gear.
Weather plays a pivotal role in your sunrise photography, so you must check the weather before you make your journey to your favorite location. Clouds are a big problem, even worse rainy day can ruin a perfectly good sunrise session. Some of the best places to check are The Weather Channel and SkippySky. Both have apps for your phone.
Sunrise photography provides many different exposure levels. You may have bright sun in the background and dark plants or a beach in the foreground. The clouds may be dark but bursting with color around the sun. To perfectly capture all the different colors and exposure levels of light, it’s useful to shoot in HDR mode.
Best Time to Take Sunrise Photos
Time of day plays a key role in photographing the sunrise. Remember that arriving early will be an important part of your sunrise shoot. Just like with most photography situations you need time to prepare, plan, and anticipate what will happen.
As mentioned above, try to arrive one hour before sunrise time. The amount of light during sunrise is constantly changing, that is why it’s so important that you are already set up and ready to capture the sun.
Camera Settings for Photographing Sunrise
So now the tricky part, what settings are best for sunrise photography? Of course, your settings for sunrise photos will change by location, hour, and equipment. Also, depending on the direction the sun is facing you, your settings will vary. Always try to set your camera to manual mode to have the most control.
The shutter speed is what you will most likely be changing the most and depends heavily on the weather conditions and surroundings. Expect to use long shutter speeds when shooting a sunrise to photograph movement and more color variations. This is why it’s so important to bring a tripod with you or find a hard surface to lay your camera on.
If you are shooing an hour before sunrise, consider starting your shutter speed at 5 minutes or at least 30 seconds. If you have an advanced DSLR camera use a release cable and set your camera to Bulb mode. You will begin in a low light situation but as the sun rises, you will need to adjust to a faster shutter speed.
If you want to capture the movement of the passing clouds or the ocean in your sunrise images, consider settings that allow for a longer exposure time. As mentioned above, you will need a stable tripod and to set your shutter speed to around a minute or more to really photograph the movement of a scene with a sunrise or sunset.
When shooting, think about how you will want to post-process afterward. Usually, you will want to bring the highlights and shadows up in your images to bring out the details and colors of the sunrise. Remember to shoot in RAW so you can get the most out of your post-processing techniques afterward.
Normally you will want to set your aperture to a higher setting so that your entire scene is in focus. Aim to set the aperture between f/8 to f/11. But every camera has its own sweet spot for focus, so play around until you find yours.
Cameras vary greatly when it comes to the best ISO settings. If you max out your ISO sometimes your images will become too grainy or noisy. But if you have an advanced DSLR, normally you can push your ISO to higher levels while avoiding noise in your image.
Depending on if you are shooting moving subjects such as birds or waves, your ISO should jump up. But if you are just shooting a typical sunny scene, you may be able to keep it around ISO 100. Play around with each image until you see the quality you want. A good rule of thumb when shooting long exposures is to try to keep it as low as possible.
Since you will be working in a low-light situation, your camera may have difficulties focusing. If you want to focus on the sky or any other subject, try using a flashlight and pointing at a solid object. Use this light as a focal point for your camera and press the shutter button halfway down. Once you have your focused locked, change your focus to manual so that it will stay put until you are ready to shoot.
As we mentioned above, when shooting a sunrise the exposure is often not balanced. Due to the uneven dispersion of light. Because you cannot easily expose everything in the scene, photographers may have to choose between exposing for the shadows or the highlights.
But if you are using bracketing this can be avoided. Bracketing means capturing a combination of exposures; some brighter and some darker. Then in post-processing, you can overlay the exposures to have one completely exposed image, and not lose any details or colors.
Many photographers forget to change their white balance and often just leave it on automatic. But knowing how to change and adapt your white balance for sunrise or sunset photography can completely change your images.
Understand that some light has more blue or yellow or white in it. Your white balance will be measured in Kelvin degrees and the lower the value, the warmer the light.
The middle range for Kelvin would be around 5,000 and gives off the same color of light as the sun does at noon. To keep the warm tones in your sunrise photography, set your white balance to the lower part of the Kelvin scale or to the cloudy setting.
Your light conditions will always vary but this list of gear will help you to capture the best early morning shots no matter the light.
There is no set rule when it comes to choosing a landscape camera for your sunrise or sunset photography. But here are some things you should look for when choosing a camera.
Dynamic Range- Having a good dynamic range on your camera is key to capturing a variety of colors and highlights in your images. Most modern cameras come with a good enough dynamic range to photograph amazing sunrise colors.
Resolution- Megapixels are not that important. The only time they actually come into play is when you want to print very large images, we are talking wall-sized! Or if you are someone who often crops their images, then you will need a higher resolution camera to keep the details and sharpness when cropping.
Long Exposures- Your camera should at least be able to shoot a long exposure of 30 seconds. The only time you may have an issue with this is if you are shooting with a smartphone. But there are apps you can download to help you photograph longer exposures on smartphones as well.
This is one of the most important things you can bring with you on a sunrise photoshoot. Since you will be shooting at low shutter speeds, you will need something stable to hold your camera to avoid blurry photos.
For the most control to capture a grand scene, a wide-angle lens works best. A wide-angle lens can help you photograph the entire landscape without missing any pieces.
If you are shooting far from the horizon or wildlife, consider bringing a telephoto lens. These lenses are great for zooming into any composition and can help you focus and balance your photo. If you want to make a bird pop over the rest of the scene, a telephoto lens is key.
Nothing is worse than waking up early, viewing a spectacular sunrise, only to find your battery is about to die and you don’t have another. Don’t let this silly mistake happen to you. Always charge your batteries the night before and bring extras.
Filters are key to helping you shoot the sun correctly while not losing the sky and cloud elements. There are a variety of filters and polarizers you can choose from.
Each offers a different type of help to balance your exposure. If you want to shoot the sun and not lose the clouds and color around it, a filter will become your best friend.
Examples to Inspire You
Now that you know how to take the perfect sunrise photo, consider these examples to inspire you or provide new ideas on what subject and locations to shoot.
One of the more interesting composition ideas uses the starburst effect.
Capturing a big sun towering over your scene makes for a dramatic effect.
Every photographer has their favorite style, but when you think of sunrise photography, think color! By changing your direction or using filters you can create spectacular color effects across the sky.
Try adding a person into your sunrise photography. Shooting a silhouette or someone casually sitting in the scene can balance the interesting dynamics between humans in nature.
Since you are already in nature, look for birds or local wildlife to add to your shot. The possibilities are endless depending on your location.
Reflections make any genre of photography more interesting. But if you can find a way to reflect the sun’s rays into your image, your sunrise pictures will be even more beautiful.
Sun not in the Frame
Consider leaving the sun out of the shot. The colors coming off of the sun can fill the sky enough, that you may not even need to include the actual sun itself.
The Best Apps for Photographing Sunrise
These apps are often free or cheap to download and will help you better plan any sunrise photography session.
PhotoPills: This app helps you understand what’s going on in the sky including the movements of the sun, moon, and stars.
Accuweather: Enjoy hour-by-hour updates about what is going on locally with your weather.
GPS Kit: This app provides maps and directions even if your phone loses its signal. If you are photographing in wild natural landscapes, this can be very handy.
Whether you are an avid sunrise photographer or just wanting to learn how to get started we hope this article offered some new insights into your images. When capturing sunrise photography always consider your camera settings and locations for better control of your results. The most important thing is to go out and have fun. The second most important thing is to set an alarm clock!
Leave a comment below with any questions or images you would like to share.