Friday, January 6, 2012

How To Photograph Sunrises

I'm not exactly sure why, but I like sunrises more than sunsets. They are nearly identical (yet opposites...), but sunrises appeal to me more.

Maybe it's because a sunrise is a beginning--a fresh start. There is a "newness" to a sunrise. A sunset, on the other hand, is an ending.

Or maybe it's because it takes more effort (to get up early out of bed and travel through the dark) and is more of a risk (not knowing if the conditions will be ideal or not) to photograph a sunrise than a sunset.

Anyway, here are some quick thoughts for photographing sunrises.


Start Early

Gila River Before Sunrise - Avondale, Arizona
You want to arrive at least 30 minutes early to the site you wish to photograph. If official sunrise is at 6:00 am, arrive no later than 5:30 am. The show starts early, and you want to be in position to capture it. The above photograph was taken about 20 minutes before the sun peaked over the horizon.

Take a Tripod

Moon Over Desert Sunrise - Mojave, California
From about 30 minutes before until about 10 minutes before official sunrise, there will not be enough light to handhold your camera without bumping up the ISO to 1600 or greater. So bring a tripod with you.

Should you not own a tripod or forget it at home, find a flat and sturdy surface to set your camera on. Use the camera's self-timer so that you are not touching it while the shutter is open.

The photograph above was a four second exposure about 20 minutes before sunrise. I didn't have a tripod, so I set the camera on the hood of my car (with the engine off).
As the sun gets closer to cresting the horizon, you'll eventually be able to take the camera off the tripod, especially if your camera has some sort of anti-shake.

Moon Phases

Full Moon And Saguaro - Goodyear, Arizona
Pay attention to moonrises and moonsets. In the photograph two above this, Moon Over Desert Sunrise, the moon was not far from the horizon as the sun was rising. In the photograph directly above (not the greatest photograph, but the best example I had), the moon was setting in the west as the sun was rising in the east. Including the moon in your image is a good way to add interest.
Partly Cloudy Is Best

Telephone Sunrise - Mojave California
Partly cloudy days will usually produce the best sunrises. If there are no clouds, the sunrise will be boring. If there are too many clouds, you won't be able to see the sunrise. A thin, broken layer will show the vibrant colors.

You cannot know exactly what the conditions will be like on any given day. However, by looking at weather forecasts and paying close attention to local weather patterns, you may be able to determine if a particular day has a better chance than another at producing the sunrise you hope to capture.

Great Sunrises Are Elusive

Two Contrails - Rosamond, California
Truly beautiful sunrises don't happen every day. Depending on where you live and the time of the year, there may only be a few sunrises per month worth photographing.

If you keep encountering boring sunrises--don't give up! Keep getting up early and heading out with your camera in hand. You will eventually find that elusive early morning color show.


Railroad Signal at Sunrise - Lancaster, California
A bright sky will make a dark foreground turn black. That's because your digital sensor or film does not have a dynamic range large enough to capture it all. You could use a graduated neutral density filter, try HDR (blah!), bring your own light, or simply accept the silhouettes and use them to your advantage.

Lighting Your Way

Fences, Fire Sky - Palmdale, California
Like I said above, you can bring your own light to make the dynamic range of the scene closer to what your camera can capture.

You could use the camera's flash, but I find that light to be too harsh and  too "cool" when compared to the "warm" scene (although there are some creative solutions to this). Or you could use any number of auxiliary flashes or studio lights. I've even heard of photographers using flashlights.

In the above photograph I used the car's headlights to add a little light to the wood fence at the bottom of the image. Otherwise, the fence would have been black and would have blended in with the dark road.


River At Dawn - Avondale, Arizona
Sometimes there are things that can be photographed other than the sky. Keep an eye out for reflections, especially.

The above photograph was taken about two minutes before the sun peaked over the horizon.

Use The Landscape Around You Thoughtfully

Trees And River - Avondale, Arizona
Think about how you want the final photograph to look. What do you want it to say? Where will the viewer's eyes get drawn? What will keep the viewer interested? Don't just snap away--think about what you are doing. And be creative.

The above photograph, which was taken a few minutes before official sunrise, I used the water, trees and distant mountain as compositional elements.

Brilliant Colors Are Not Enough

Desert Dawn #2 - Rosamond, California
Brilliant, vibrant reds, yellows and oranges are what makes sunrise photographs very attractive, but often that is not enough. Color should be the foundation, but not the end, of sunrise photographs. Often times a little extra interest is needed.

In the photograph above, which can be viewed larger here, the contrail provides some compositional balance to the silhouetted hill. The contrail also adds a diagonal line different than those of the clouds. And if you look real close, a line of distant telephone poles can be seen on the right side of the image.

Black & White

Vishnu Temple Before Sunrise - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Sometimes black & white can be a good option for sunrise photographs. Don't be afraid to convert a few photographs to black & white to see if they make for a stronger image.

Morning Prison - Palmdale, California
Photography is a form of non-verbal communication. For a photograph to be successful, it has to say something clearly and in an interesting way. If the message of the photograph is not clear, or if it is not presented in a way that it catches and holds the attention of the viewer, nobody will give more than a passing glance to the image.

Consider carefully--before pressing the shutter release button--what you want the photograph to say, and then compose the image to say that as clearly and strongly as possible.

I wanted the photograph above to convey the feeling of the first morning in jail. Or, perhaps, it's someone on the outside looking in on that first morning. Impassable boundary, yet a new chapter. I used the chain-link and electrified barbed wire to add some uneasiness to the otherwise beautiful sky.


The Sun

Sunrise Over Farm Equipment - Buckeye, Arizona
The sun is very, very bright. That makes it difficult to photograph, especially in relation to the dark shadows it creates.

One technique is to partially block it (like in the photograph above). Another is to underexpose the image by a couple f-stops. A graduated neutral density filter is another option. Or bring your own light.

In general, photographing the sun works better when it is still close to the horizon, because the light has more atmosphere to travel through before reaching your camera lens.


Sun Over Intersection - Phoenix, Arizona
If it is particularly hazy, that can diffuse the sun enough to have the dynamic range of the scene a bit closer to what the camera can capture. While you will still likely have some silhouetting, you'll find that you have more details in the dark areas than if there were no haze.

Lens Flare

Sunrise Over Vishnu Temple - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Some people love lens flare, others hate it. I personally like it when used thoughtfully. If you love it, this is a great time to use it to your advantage. If not, be sure to have a lens hood.

In the above photograph, the lens flare gives the viewer a path to the dark corner of the image. There are very few details in that corner, so the lens flare "rainbow" adds interest. After that the viewer may notice the Colorado River barely seen a little above the "rainbow".

Look For Other Opportunities

Hazy Hills and River - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Sunrise photographs don't always have to be about the sky. Look for other photograph opportunities that the low, warm light creates.

In the above photograph, I used a combination of haze and lens flare to create an unreal, almost paint-like-quality image of the canyon.

Add Human Interest

Adolescent Boy At Shoshone Point - Grand Canyon, Arizona
People are attracted to photographs that include people. Maybe because we can relate or feel we can connect. Whatever the reason is, adding a person to the image can make it more interesting.


Exit 195B - Phoenix, Arizona
Clouds add interest to a sunrise photograph before the sun peaks over the horizon and after, but for different reasons. Clouds prior to sunrise reflect the vibrant colors. Clouds after sunrise diffuse the light and add visual interest (as well as reflect some colors).

Sunrises like the one in the above photograph don't occur every day. Be patient and prepared.


Flight To The Sun - Phoenix, Arizona
Composing objects directly in front of the sun can add interest to a photograph. In the photograph above, the airplane appears as if it's being swallowed by the sun.


Desert Landscape Shadows - Goodyear, Arizona
Shadows of objects on a wall or other flat surface can be interesting and are often overlooked. Creatively use shadows to convey a thought or feeling.
The First Ten Minutes
Saguaro At Sunrise - Goodyear, Arizona
The first ten minutes after the sun peaks over the horizon are magical. This is wonderful light to work with--very warm and somewhat soft. Look beside and behind you for photographic opportunities. This light is fleeting, so you have to be quick.

Many photographers who have little interest in sunrises will get up early just to get this light. Take full advantage of it while it lasts.

The Golden Hour

Peaks, Cronin House - Phoenix, Arizona
Man at Shoshone Point - Grand Canyon, Arizona
The first hour after the sun peaks over the horizon is a "golden hour" where the light is typically ideal for photography. Look behind and beside you for other photographic opportunities, because you'll likely find many. Look for play between highlights and shadows.

The photograph two above, Peaks, Cronin House, was taken about 15 minutes after sunrise. The photograph directly above was taken about 30 minutes after sunrise.

Be creative. Try to be original--think of ways that you can be different. Don't be afraid to experiment.

If you don't have success the first, second or even third time you're out--don't give up! The truly great sunrises don't happen but a few times each month. Keep at it and you will eventually be rewarded in spades.


Some are interested in the more technical details. I'm not, because they're usually not important.

I will say that 20 of the photographs above were taken with a Pentax K-x DSLR. The K-x is considered an entry level DSLR, but performs more like a semi-pro. It retails for $700, but I paid $490 for mine. Two of the photographs were taken with a Nikon Coolpix S8100 digital point-and-shoot. The S8100 is a mid-level point-and-shoot that retails for $300, but I paid $150 for mine. One photograph was taken with a Promaster 2500PK SLR using Fujichrome Velvia 50. I paid $150 for that camera 10 years ago (I very much overpaid).

The point in saying this is simple: the camera you use doesn't matter and you don't have to spend thousands of dollars on equipment to get good results.

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