8 Tips for Photographing Spectacular Sunrises

Good Morning, Idaho Falls!

I’ve been photographing sunsets for years. Sunsets are gorgeous because the light is more diffuse and pleasing, and a bonus point is that they generally occur at an hour when most people are still awake. It wasn’t until the past year that I got into photographing sunrises. I actually think sunrises are much better than sunsets for a couple of reasons. First off, there are far fewer people around, so you can enjoy the scenery much better. Another added benefit is the gorgeous fog you tend to see at sunrise. A huge drawback to photographing sunrises is that they occur so early in the morning. That being said, photographing sunrises shows your audience that you’re serious about your photography and willing to go the extra mile to get a nice shot. Here are some tips for making your sunrise photo session a success:

1. Do Your Research
Some locations are better suited for sunrise photos than others. Hopefully this is pretty obvious, but the sun rises in the east. We’ve all learned this in school, but we may not stop to think about that when we’re preparing for a sunrise. Is the view facing east pretty? If the view is much prettier facing west, you may want to go for a sunset instead. If you’ve never been to a location before, search for some images of it at sunrise to see if it looks photogenic to you. If you’re in a popular tourist destination such as a National Park, read some forums to find out how early you need to arrive. Some popular spots fill up very early with photographers and you’ll miss out on a good spot if you arrive just before sunrise. Also keep in mind that if the forecast says overcast or rainy, you may not be able to capture the sunrise. If you want to plan out every last detail, apps like PhotoPills allow you to plan out to the minute what time the sun will be at what angle in the location of your choice.

Safety in numbers

2. Bring a Buddy
If you’re in a sparsely populated place, it is always a really good idea to have at least one other person with you at all times, and this is especially true at dark. If you’re photographing nature, keep in mind that wildlife tends to be much more active at night, so it’s not just people who pose a threat. No photo is worth risking your own personal safety.  Another benefit of bringing a buddy is that if you shoot with the same system, you can share lenses.

The Beautiful Morning Light at the Oklahoma Track

3. Come Prepared 
A lot of people use wide or mid-range lenses to photograph a sunrise, to capture the light falling on a landscape or cityscape. As I mentioned above, remember that if you’re in a natural setting, you’re much more likely to spot wildlife at this hour than you are during the day. There’s no harm in throwing a telephoto lens in your bag too, just in case! Conversely, I like to go to the Oklahoma Training Track in my hometown of Saratoga Springs, NY, during the summer to photograph horses warming up. This is done mostly with a telephoto lens, but I always bring at least one wide lens to capture some alternate angles and some landscape shots of the trees and the viewing stand. If you like to travel light, an all-around zoom may be your best bet for sunrise. Back up batteries aren’t a bad idea either, since at any time of the year, it’s always considerably cooler early in the morning, and particularly cold temperatures drain batteries significantly faster. Also decide if you want to bring a tripod. If you’re going to be in one spot for most of the time, it’s a good idea, but it may not be worth it if you’ll be moving around a lot. Finally, remember to dress appropriately! In summer, we tend to forget that in most locations it can be quite chilly in the morning. No matter what time of year it is, remember that it will be much cooler when you first arrive at your destination than you’re used to during daylight hours at that time of year. I always carry hand warmers in my camera bag during winter months.

4. Go Early 
Not only is going early a good idea if you’re in a tourist destination, as I mentioned above, but you also may get some interesting shots just before the sun rises. You also want to give yourself ample time to find the perfect spot and set yourself up BEFORE those first rays of light come over the horizon. Keep in mind also that it will be dark as you’re leaving for your destination, so if you’re driving, you may need to go slower. You weren’t planning on getting a good night’s sleep anyways, were you?

Morning Light on Saratoga Spa State Park

5. Stay Late
Just as going early is important, so is staying late. Many photographers would agree that the most gorgeous light occurs just as the sun is first rising and everything is golden. That being said, I personally think the the light is still very diffuse and pretty for a good hour after sunrise. By going early and staying late, you will come back with a much greater variety of shots to add to your portfolio.

Sunrise at the Saratoga Battlefield  

6. Look for Trees to Create Rays of Light 
There’s nothing quite like capturing the sun shining through a tree at sunrise. The rays created by the branches cutting up the light are just breathtaking. This something I try really hard to find every time I’m out photographing a sunrise.


7. Look for (and Expose for) Silhouettes 
It’s no secret that silhouettes and backlit photos are a favorite of many photographers. Any backlit subject can become a silhouette by exposing for the sky. I usually do this by shooting in Aperture Priority mode (Av on Canon cameras or just A on most other cameras) and underexposing by about 2 stops (dialing the EV down to -2). You may need some trial and error to determine the best exposure.
A Morning Workout Under the Fall Foliage
A location I visited many times during the summer and returned to during the fall

8. Go Again 
This may be a rather obvious point, but it’s important to keep in mind that sunrises vary greatly from day to day in terms of their esthetic. The weather is a huge factor in this. If you live near the location you’re looking to photograph, it may take a few tries before you capture the perfect sunrise. The first couple of times it may be too overcast or there may not be enough of that gorgeous fog. Another reason to go again is to capture the sunrise in different seasons. A winter sunrise will look a lot different than a summer sunrise, and the light will be hitting subjects at a different angle too.

Tools I used to create the photos this post:  Canon EOS 60D, Canon EOS 6D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USMCanon EF 135mm f/2.0L USM, Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM, Adobe Photoshop CS6, Canon Speedlite 580EX (replaced by 580EX II), Photoshop Lightroom 4


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