Shooting Sunrises: The 10-Point Checklist

Getting out of bed before the sun itself is a labour of love.

Before you go through all the effort required to find and shoot the perfect sunrise, it pays to write a to-do list.

Thankfully, we’ve written it for you.

☑ Be early

Rise before the shine.

Arriving at your spot 60 minutes before dawn sets you up for sunrise shoot success.

Overkill much?

Fortune favours the well-prepared and one hour prep time isn’t much when you consider:

  •  The very first signs of light aka twilight actually start well before dawn The sun may not be visible, but twilight’s blue-hued lights can produce unique, breathtaking results. Once the sun peeks over the horizon—you’ve missed it.
  • Just because you’re on location, doesn’t mean you’ve found your shot
    Allow time to wander around, frame your perfect shot(s) and adjust for unforeseen changes like cloud cover or rained-out terrain.

☑ Pack a torch

Sunlight isn’t the only light you need to capture.

If you’re following our first point on the checklist, it’s going to be dark when you arrive.

It’s really a practical matter of safety and convenience.

Packing a torch or headlamp means:

  • Avoiding accidents while scouting locations
  • Setting up your gear and camera settings with ease
  • Having a light source for creative effects e.g. light painting

☑ Pack a tripod

It’s the foundation of all good sunrise photography. (Literally.)

Even if you’re not taking long exposure shots or your stabiliser tech is top of the range, a tripod is a must—always.

If you don’t have one, invest in a sturdy, good quality tripod.
Depending on where and when you shoot, consider a tripod that has:

  • A hook under the head that allows you to hang weight to help you steady your shot against wind or uneven terrain
  • Vibration dampening technology to reduce shake
  • The option to attach spiked feet for setups in the dirt, sand or water

☑ Check the weather

Get to know the weatherman.

The success (or failure) of most landscape photography is determined by the weather.

But how can you predict whether a sunrise is going to be good or not?

Part science part luck, it comes down to learning how to translate weather forecasts.

Conditions to take into account include:

  • Cloud cover
    Clouds simply act as the light’s canvas.
    Mid to high-level clouds are the most effective canvases, as they reflect the rising sun’s colours the best.
  • Air purity
    Clean air is highly effective at scattering and showing off bright-coloured light. When is the air cleanest of particles? After a rain or windstorm.
  • Humidity
    High humidity mutes colours because of the water content in the air. Shooting in cooler seasons will increase your odds of getting more vibrant colours.
  • Wind
    The wind can be your saving grace or worst nightmare because it can have a positive or negative impact on both cloud cover and air purity.

Generally speaking, for ideal sunrise conditions, look for:

  • Mid to high-level clouds
  • 30-70% cloud coverage
  • Clean air
  • Low humidity
  • Calm winds

☑ Bracket your exposures

It’s all about conveniently covering all your bases.

Bracketing is the technique of taking multiple shots of the same subject using different exposures—some underexposed, some overexposed.

Why bracket?

  • Your camera’s light meter doesn’t always get it right
  • Finding the right exposure through trial and error and changing your settings between each shot is time-consuming

There are two main ways to bracket:

  • Automatic bracketing
    Most digital cameras include automatic exposure bracketing.
    Turn it on and your camera will automatically take several shots (three or
    more) at different exposures. You can then review them all in post.
  • Manual bracketing
    Manually adjusting the aperture or shutter speed is another way to bracket.
    Simply change your aperture and/or shutter speed values up or down to let more or less light in. However, keep in mind that adjusting both of these settings can affect things like depth of field.

☑ Shoot during Golden Hour

That magical hour when it’s your time to shine.

The blue hour is the period of twilight in the morning when the sun has not yet breached the horizon and produces shades of blue.

The golden hour is the period just after sunrise (or just before sunset) and it creates a light that simply cannot be replicated.

Both should be taken advantage of to capture a range of shots and hone your different skills.

But what makes the golden hour so special?

  • Warmth
    Light has a spectrum of temperatures that correspond to different colours. Without getting too into it, during the golden hour, the temperature is in the yellow range—that unmistakable, highly coveted golden hue.
  • Diffusion
    In the early hours, the sun’s light has to travel through more atmosphere than at any other point in the sky/day. This makes the atmosphere act as a diffuser, softening and reducing the intensity of direct light—like a giant light-box!
  • Directional
    When the sun is low in the sky, it creates longer, softer shadows.
    Having long shadows in shot helps you paint and capture a more dimensional sunrise and landscape. Plus, because your exposure is more even, it’s easy to define and properly expose your fore, middle and background.

☑ Get focussed

What do you do when you can’t autofocus?

It’s hard to focus your camera in the early morning, but not impossible.

  • Aim for a bright spot
    Simply switch to Live View (it’ll be too dark to see through your tiny viewfinder), switch to manual focus and manually focus on a light source e.g. the moon, a star or a lighthouse.
  • Use your torch
    We told you it would come in handy.
    Shine your light on an object that’s at least three metres away from you, focus your camera on it and then switch over to manual focus and shoot.
  • Open your aperture
    Open up the aperture as wide as possible.
    Now that your camera can ‘see’ better, focus anywhere, then switch to manual focus and increase the f-number back to normal.

Tip: You can combine this method with the torch technique.

☑ Change locations

Don’t be afraid to switch up your position.

There’s something almost honourable about staying steadfast and committing to one spot to get that perfect shot.

It can also just be really boring.

If you don’t think your spot offers the right shot, or you’ve got what you need—move.

By covering different angles, not only can you collect more unique shots but you are teaching yourself to:

  • Be decisive and learn on the go
  • Take advantage of the windows of opportunities you are given
  • Be flexible

But what happens if you end up in a worse shooting location?

There’s always tomorrow.

☑ Gaze away from the Sun

The effects of the sunrise can be as captivating as the sunrise itself.

The sunrise might be the star of the morning show, but it’s got an amazing support cast.

Broaden your mind and your viewfinder to see what’s happening around and as a result of the sunrise.

For example:

  • A mountain range washed with vibrant sunrise colours
  • The sun or cloud’s reflection in a body of water
  • The silhouettes of people or natural landmarks

☑ Stay a little longer

Don’t pack it up so soon—the show may not be over.

There are several reasons to hang back after the sunrise:

  • You might witness Crepuscular rays beaming from behind the clouds.
    Piercing upwards or downwards through the clouds, their lines produce great elements to feature in your image.
  • True to their nature, clouds change shape and location with the wind all time. What might have been obstructed or overshadowed a moment ago, might well turn into a one-of-a-kind shot.
  • You’ve spent so long witnessing the sunrise through the lens. Take a moment to take it all in.

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