There’s something truly magical about witnessing and capturing the first light of day. Sunrise photography can be a challenging yet rewarding pursuit, offering opportunities to create stunning images filled with vibrant colours, dramatic shadows, and breathtaking landscapes. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, this guide will provide you with essential tips and techniques for photographing sunrise. We’ll cover everything from planning and equipment to camera settings and composition, helping you capture the beauty and magic of the early morning light. So, grab your camera and let’s get started on your journey to becoming a master of sunrise photography.
Why is a sunrise colourful?
The reason the sky can turn golden at sunrise is that the light needs to pass through more of the atmosphere before it gets to you. This causes more of the blue light to scatter out, leaving the yellows/reds to be left visible.
This is the same reason why the sky is blue, the sunlight is scattered in all directions as it passes through the atmosphere. However, the distance is shorter and the light needs to pass through less of the atmosphere which means the blue light isn’t fully scattered out which is why this is the colour we see the most during the day.
Planning for sunrise photography
Choosing the right location
The sunrise direction in relation to your location is key, if your location has high mountains or buildings in the direction the sun is rising then you’re unlikely to get the stunning morning light as you’re sheltered. Although you may still get the colour in the sky at “golden hour”.
It’s best to look for landscapes with layers, mountains, and trees or where the sun rises out to sea, ideally with foreground interest.
Checking the weather
With a clear sky, you’re sure to see the sun rise over the horizon, which can be stunning, especially when captured with a long focal length zoom. However, without clouds, there is nothing to be lit up in the sky to show the colours at sunrise.
In terms of weather conditions, a fully overcast morning is very unlikely to allow for any colour in the sky at sunrise. A large number of low clouds can also be problematic as they block the horizon when the sun is starting to emerge. The ideal conditions are to have some mid to high-level clouds, with enough space for the sun to break through.
There are phone apps such as Alpen Glow with the tagline “Never miss an incredible sunrise or sunset again”. This checks the weather forecast in relation to the best conditions for a good sunrise, together with proving timings. This can help you make sure that you know when there’s going to be that incredible golden hour light.
Timing the sunrise
Firstly, check sunrise timings, getting to your location with plenty of time to set up and scope out the location before photographing the sunrise. It may even be worth exploring the location in the light the day before to scope out the best spots for sunrise pictures. The best time for sunrise shots depends on the weather conditions, particularly the clouds. A general rule is to aim for the “golden hour” which is typically the period of time after sunrise. “blue hour” before sunrise can also be a good time for photography in certain locations where the light on the landscape isn’t critical.
Another consideration is the time of year, in the UK the sun can rise as early as 4:45 am, which is a challenge even for an early riser! To avoid getting up in the early hours avoiding summer is preferred, but bear in mind that as the sunrise time becomes later in the day some locations will get busier, or you may be at work!
Equipment for sunrise photography
Any camera can be used for photos at sunrise. Stick with what you’re comfortable using. Getting the exposure right can be quite challenging, especially because of the significant difference in brightness between the dark shadows and the bright sunlight. For this reason, a camera with a good dynamic range can be beneficial.
Lens choice depends on the composition and conditions, therefore flexibility is preferred. Often during sunrise, colour in the sky can be isolated to certain areas, for this reason, a range of focal lengths is preferred. Sometimes, golden light can disappear rapidly, even within seconds. To capture the perfect shot and create a variety of compositions, having a zoom lens on hand can be quite helpful. Many of the photos in this post are taken with the Tamron 16-300mm is one of the Best lenses for Nikon D7200 for travel photography
If you have a well-defined focal point and are looking for a shallow depth of field then prime lenses with their low/large apertures are the preferred type of lens.
If there are limited clouds in the sky and you can see the sun rising over the horizon then long focal lengths can help create interest by filling the frame with the sun, horizon and a few clouds. When the sky is on fire with red and orange clouds, then a wide-angle lens can work well.
If you’re having difficulty maintaining a high enough shutter speed for a given aperture and lighting condition, it may be necessary to increase the ISO. As this can increase noise it’s often preferred to use a tripod. This will enable slower shutter speeds with low ISO, while achieving the correct exposure in a low-light situation.
That being said, once the sun comes over the horizon there is usually sufficient lighting to keep your ISO low while maintaining an acceptable shutter speed for handheld photography.
Some people use a graduated neutral density filter to darken the bright sky in comparison to the typically dark foreground to get an even exposure. I’ve never felt a need for this, as the dynamic range of most modern cameras is excellent. If you’re still unable to properly expose your image bracketing can be used and then HDR applied in post.
If you’re using a tripod and you’re intentionally looking to reduce your shutter speed then neutral density filters are the best way to go. These are available in different f/stops, for example, 6 or 10-stop ND filters. These can be a great way to capture the motion of water, or even remove moving people from showing up in your photos.
Camera settings for sunrise photography
As always, the best settings depend on the conditions and composition, however, some general guidelines specific to sunrise photography are provided below:
- Shutter Speed: Your camera and subject will typically be relatively still for sunrise photography therefore your shutter speed will depend on your focal length and lighting conditions. If you’re shooting handheld try to keep above 1/focal length. e.g 1/100 for a 100mm lens. If you’re shooting on a stable tripod longer shutter speeds can be used, enabling lower ISO and smaller apertures.
- Aperture: As always, this depends on your composition. In general, to keep the entire scene in focus use a small aperture. To reduce your depth of field to focus on a subject use a wider aperture.
- ISO: As per the shutter speed details above, ISO will need to be increased if you’re unable to keep your shutter speed high enough for a given aperture and lighting condition.
- White Balance: It’s best to leave this on auto, this can be corrected if needed during post-processing. Always make sure to shoot in RAW.
As per the post on the Best camera settings for travel photography I typically stick to using aperture priority with auto ISO as my go-to camera mode. The one thing to watch for sunrise photography when in this mode is your exposure compensation, this may need to be adjusted as the camera tends to over-expose, clipping highlights in the sky. I find this setup to be much easier to react quickly to changing conditions as opposed to manual mode.
Composition tips for sunrise photography
Many different compositional “rules” can be applied to sunrise photography, however often the colours can do a lot of the work for you!
Rule of thirds: One of the best-known rules, is the rule of thirds, this is to place the focal point or subject on one of the intersecting lines when an image is divided into 9 equal parts. This is demonstrated in the image below.
Silhouettes and layers: These are some of my favourite compositional tools for sunrise photography. Silhouettes naturally work very well due to the contrast of black against the colours, such as the hot air balloon against the golden sky below.
Layers also work extremely well when combined with a beautiful sunrise. To capture layers you need to get up high, whether that’s on a hill, or mountain or by using a drone, helicopter, plane or hot air balloon! The contrast of trees against mist catching the light of the sunrise is a perfect combination if you’re lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
Leading lines: Where possible use natural leading lines to lead the viewer’s eyes towards your subject. In the photo below the reflections of the stunning sunset on the wet sand lead towards Ieva, who is looking into the frame. It’s important your subject isn’t looking out of the frame.
When including clouds, try and ensure they work well with the composition. Avoid cropping through an interesting cloud as this can be distracting. The photo below leaves a small gap at the top of the frame to give the clouds some space. Also, if you’re including people or a subject, be aware of the location of the horizon. It’s best to have your subject standing out clearly from the background, without overlaps and ideally with contrasting colours.
Techniques for capturing sunrise photos
Bracketing / HDR photography
As mentioned in the earlier sections, one of the challenges with sunrise photography. However, to combat this most cameras have built-in capability for exposure bracketing, which allows images to be taken at various exposures. After capturing several images, you can merge them in post-processing to create a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image. This image can be further adjusted to your liking by darkening highlights and brightening shadows. Using images which are exposed correctly for light and dark areas has the additional benefit of increasing image quality as raising shadows can bring out noise. The main challenge with bracketing is that merging hald held images may not be successful if the framing changes. This works best with images taken on a tripod as they can be easily combined with the same framing.
On some occasions, it’s not possible to get the entire image in focus, even with a narrow aperture. This is usually a challenge with wide-angle lenses where the foreground can be very close to the lens whilst the background is far away, requiring a very large depth of field. Focus stacking, much like exposure bracketing is taking images which different focal planes, which can then be merged together in post to ensure the entire image is tack sharp.
Use of long shutter speeds requires a tripod, or supporting your camera in a stable way. But this allows you to lower your ISO and your shutter speed for less noise for your images in low-light situations. The photo below of the Vilnius TV tower was captured at 300mm using my Nikon D7200 & Tamron 16-300mm (450mm equivalent on full frame) using a 3-second shutter speed. The use of a telephoto lens is a great way to focus on details when there may not be interesting clouds.
Remember to turn off your camera or lens image stabilisation when using slow shutter speeds on a tripod.
Dealing with common challenges in sunrise photography
Lens flare: Shooting into the sun can create lens fare, which is often undesirable and also difficult to avoid. The extent of lens flare depends on the lens, aperture and direction of the sun. Sometimes it can be removed in post-processing or even cropped out.
If the sun is shining into the lens but isn’t in the field of view this can also cause haze over the image which reduces contract. This can be prevented or reduced with the use of a lens hood, which also can help protect your front element during travel.
Changing light: Be prepared for the colours to change quickly at sunrise, with or without clouds. Make sure to have a variety of compositions ready to ensure you are always prepared. Have your camera configuration and lens ready to go, as the last thing you want is to miss the best conditions for a perfect image.
Witnessing and capturing the first light of day through sunrise photography is a truly magical experience. It presents a unique set of challenges and rewards for photographers of all levels. This guide has provided essential tips and techniques for mastering the art of sunrise photography, from planning and equipment selection to camera settings and composition.
By choosing the right location, checking the weather conditions, and timing the sunrise, you can maximize your chances of capturing stunning images filled with vibrant colours and breathtaking landscapes. Additionally, understanding the role of equipment such as cameras, lenses, tripods, and filters, as well as implementing camera settings like shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and white balance, can greatly enhance your sunrise photography results. Finally, incorporating compositional techniques such as the rule of thirds, silhouettes, layers, and leading lines can add depth and visual interest to your sunrise images. With these techniques and an appreciation for the challenges that may arise, you are well-equipped to embark on a captivating journey of sunrise photography and capture the beauty and magic of the early morning light.