Tips for Photographing the Sunrise
There really isn't much to photographing sunrises, yet I wonder if people have realized all the dynamics involved. I am constantly reminded from one situation where I was out doing sunrise photography in a popular location. I arrived BEFORE the sun came up and had been there for a while. Before the sun peaked above the horizon, two women came by with their cameras and asked me how the photography was. They gave me a funny look when I told them they were too late; as far as they were concerned, the sun was just coming up so I was some smart aleck to them.
If you want to be technical, the sunrise is when the sun breaks the horizon. However, many times, you will be too late for photography if that's your only moment of desire to snap a picture.
One thing we all know is not all sunrises are created equal. Some are spectacular, others are boring, and we all know why that is. Atmospheric conditions, dust in the air, humidity, etc., all play a role in what type of sunrise will occur.
So... Point Number One: Why can it be too late to arrive on a scene just as the sun hits the horizon? Colors! Many times the greatest colors will happen BEFORE the sun comes up. That is why I told the people above they were too late; they had missed the peak colors for that particular sunrise. This is not always the case but since you can't predict the perfect moment of a sunrise, you have to be there earlier than you think.
OK... you see the sun come up, capture all kinds of colors, and you're happy. But you're missing out if you only face the sun. Many of you have heard the term "Magic Hour" or "Golden Hour." If you turn around and have the sun at your back, you will know what these mean. The light from the sun is much softer and many times it will be red or orange. These hues will be cast across the landscape which gives everything a different look. The light shines directly at the foreground and shadows are long. But that reddish-orange-ish glow from the sun! If conditions are right the entire landscape will be covered in a a subtle glow that is almost like a neon effect. Many landscape photographers love that moment because it really brings out unique colors in the landscape.
The low sun makes for great landscape photography but that neon glow will last only for about 15 minutes. You have to be there and ready for that moment.
Now, of course, the same above applies to sunsets, but again, there are dynamics in play will make a sunrise very different from a sunset. I live near Lake Michigan, one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world. The temperature of the water affects the weather. It could be cloudy but clear over the lake or the opposite; cloudy over the lake and clear above the land. If you live near the ocean, a mountain range, desert, your sunrises and sunsets will also be affected. Some places, the wind picks up during the day and makes the air hazy with dust at sunset. In other words, if you are too lazy to get up early in the morning for sunrises, don't go thinking that you can do the same for sunsets.
You also must have patience. If there is a location by you that will make for a great photograph for either a sunrise or sunset, you may need to go back to that spot multiple times before you capture everything just right. In doing so you will also learn many of the subtle dynamics the books don't always tell you about.
So here are the tips:
1. Get up ealry and arrive just as dawn is breaking, not when the sun breaks the horizon
2. Turn around and have the sun at your back; take advantage of how the early light affects the landscape
3. Be aware you have a 15 minute window when the red-orange sun casts a unique glow on the landscape
4. Be patient and keep trying; the sun is not always red/orange or anything else due to weather and conditions
5. Sunrises and sunsets are not equal depending on location and time of year
I will end with this photograph; I will have to admit, though, it is a Photoshop composite. It's made up of several images stitched together. Some were taken at sunrise and others at sunset. While it is not an actual scene, the colors and effects on the landscape are still very much real.