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.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park Totem Pole

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.

Virgin Towers Dawn, Zion

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.

Virgin Towers Dawn, Zion

Photo credits: , Svecchiotti, Wisconsinart.
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  • Wisconsinart
My greatest passion is landscape and fine art photography. However, stock does provide a challenge in itself. I enjoy coming up with new ideas and concepts and learning new techniques. In the end, each compliments the other. The things you learn from one can apply for another and you grow with the craft. I have over 30 years experience with different kinds of art and freelance endeavors and have yet to become tired or bored with finding new ways to exercise the creative side of me. Thank you for visiting my profile and I hope your time here will be a reward in itself. I am located in Wisconsin, USA.

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June 03, 2010

Excellent tips!


April 21, 2010

I am also from Wisconsin and have many Lake Michigan sunrises. (not on my port) One more bit of advise is to shoot RAW not jpg and you will have full control of the colors etc. Nice informative blog!


April 15, 2010

Wow. I’m glad I read this. I love photography, and I love taking pictures of sunrises and sunsets. I really never thought that it was too late to take pictures of the sunrise after it had just risen. But it makes sense after I read this. The best colors for sunrises happen before the sun actually rises. So if you really want a spectacular shot, you need to get to your location earlier than you think! Also I never thought of taking pictures of a sunrise with the sun at your back. Now I know to take advantage of the effects the sunrise has on the surrounding landscape. This blog made me think of some things I previously never thought of, so thank you! I’ll definitely use these tips the next time I go out to take pictures.


April 11, 2010

Also I'm curious, do you use a filter when photographing sunrises and sunsets?

I don't use filters, I would need to learn how to use them. Too many other projects right now I'm busy with right now.


April 11, 2010

Useful tips and beautiful shots Wisconsinart, thank you!
I went to Uluru recently and was happy to see beautiful sunrises and sunsets. As you are saying it's good to have the opportunity to go back to the same place as weather conditions have a great impact on the colours.
I'd add not to forget a tripod as it makes a big difference.
Also I'm curious, do you use a filter when photographing sunrises and sunsets?


April 11, 2010

i love the tips and the photos are great. i really cannot wait until i can shoot like that. thanks for the inspiration! keep going!


April 10, 2010

Great article... I would like to draw attention to the FOCUS of these images...For those images where the SKY is the focus, be sure that the sky is the prominent part of the image, but don't neglect the necessity for an interesting anchor (rock formation, house, or other item that will be an interesting silhouette). For those images taken where the sun is at your back and you are taking advantage of that warm light, the sky will probably not be the focus of the image, so the rock formation or whatever is blanketed by light will be the focus. Be sure to NOT make your viewers guess about your focus. All of the images in this blog demonstrate this. With the composite, you can see how the horizon is centered because both the sky and the landscape are full of color and deserve to share the frame.


April 09, 2010

Great photos and article too!


April 08, 2010

Thanks for sharing! :) Great tips and very useful article.


April 08, 2010

Good tips, and so true. When I am at the beach house, I'm often up before the dawn and on the beach, waiting for the sunrise. I love those dark quiet moments. The beach, and the sunrise are never the same way twice. Sometimes a piece of driftwood, a shell, an abandoned chair can make a sunrise shot just that little bit different. For predicting that "magic hour" I like an app for the iPhone called MagicHour.


April 07, 2010

Thank you for sharing with us these useful tips. Nice pictures ;)


April 07, 2010

Thanks a lot for sharing your knowledge with us!


April 07, 2010

Great tips & nice shots! Cheers ;)


April 07, 2010

Nice images, great article, my only suggestion to make it more complete is regarding your camera settings suggestions (I know that every sunrise is different and conditions for the camera changes from shoot to shoot).