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7 Uncommon Tips for Winter Sunrise Photos Near Water



There are few things in photography that people love more than dreamy sunrise shots full of bold oranges, big suns, washing waters, and burnt horizons. The dawn of a new day is a spiritually significant event as our past misdeeds of yesterday are forgotten under the promise of fresh beginnings. Sunrise also affords us some of the best light to work with in photography.

However, if you live near the coast and you plan to get up early to take some sunrise shots that involve you being in or around rocks on the water’s edge, there are some key things you must remember, especially in the cold, winter months.

1. Set the alarm earlier than you think.

This is stage one. You’ve calculated that the sun rises at 6:00 a.m., you want to get there by 5:30 to set up, it takes you 10 minutes to get there, so you set the alarm for 5:10. But be honest, it never works like this does it? The alarm goes off at 5:10, it’s cold, you’re snug in bed, it’s dark outside, you were in the midst of a dream, and you roll back over. Missed sunrise. How often do you ever jump straight out of bed at 5:10 to take photos, in the midst of winter? By learning this mistake, I set the alarm for 4:40 then give myself three hits on the snooze button to take me to 5:10. It never fails (unless it’s cloudy!!)

2. Make sure you have shoes with spikes on the bottom.

Think about it – you’re an avid photographer who has set up a kit to your liking with lenses, filters, batteries and your camera. You put it in your bag, put your shoes on, head to the wet, rocky location then bammo, you fall over on the freezing, slippery moss. Either you or your bag gets wet, and neither is a desired result. There’s nothing scarier than trying to keep your bag on your back and out of the water as you slip around the rocks on ill-equipped shoes.

I have fisherman’s boots that cost $40. They have small metal spikes on the sole, perfect for getting across the rocks, and for scurrying to new locations quickly. They’re waterproof too. Alternatively, you could try the little clamp-ons that hikers use in icy conditions. They work well too, but your shoes will get cold and wet.

3. Use a head torch (headlamp).

The first time I brought mine I felt utterly ridiculous, like I was a miner heading down into the pits. Now, I wouldn’t dream of not having one. The convenience of having both hands free to see where you’re going, to open and close your bag, and set your camera up in the dark is without comparison. Especially if you are trying to get filters and holders attached to the ends of lenses.


4. Have at least two lens cloths and other lens cleaners or pens.

Imagine this scenario: you are changing your lens out on the rocks and you put your cleaning cloth down to free your hands. There is a little bit of residue on the rocks so when you pick up your cloth and started wiping the lens, it gets coated in a film of goo. You may be able to clean the lens with different parts of the cloth (depending on the type of rock goo!) but it will likely leave most of the cloth dirty. Therefore, you will be unable to clean other lenses later on when they inevitably get hit by sea-spray.

How can I picture such a scenario? Sadly, I have lived it, and there is nothing worse than getting up early to a prime location, only to have your single cleaning cloth ruined before your shooting appetite has been satisfied, leaving you unable to do anything with other lenses that need cleaning. Now I always carry at least three cleaning implements in my bag.

5. Study the tides.

Ideally, you should know exactly what you want to shoot, so you can frame the shot before you go and know where the water will be. This is not always possible, but at least you should know what the tide will be at sunrise. You might go somewhere the day before and see a perfect shot in your head, only to return at dawn the next day and find those beautiful rocks covered in two metres of water. There’s no point setting the alarm for 4:40am if the subject you want in your shot is submerged like a sunken ship.


6. Know where the sun rises. This may seem ridiculous – east you say! Well yeah, the sun rises in the east, but exactly where on the horizon will it rise for you? The angle changes every day. I once woke at 4:00 a.m. to get a shot in at sunrise only to realize after setting up that even my Sigma 10-20mm couldn’t get the sun and subject in my frame. East isn’t just east. Know exactly where the sun rises on the horizon in order to frame the shot you want.


7. Mittens not gloves.

In the wintertime, near the coast, you need something to cover your hands. But not gloves. Mittens are those cute, little gloves that have all the tops of the fingers cut off. The very reason you need mittens is to keep the tips of your fingers free to play with the camera and to get everything set up. This is very difficult with padded, woolly gloves on. Also, don’t make the mistake of buying woollen gloves, then cutting the tops off yourself. This leaves threads hanging that get longer and longer every day, and more and more annoying.


The joy of getting those early morning shots makes a perfect start to the day. Follow these tips and all you’ll have to worry about is framing that perfect shot.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Iain Stanley is an absolute water lover, and bases a lot of his photography around coastal areas. He splits his time between Miyazaki, Japan, and the Gold Coast in Australia, where he tries to capture the beauty of both places. His profession is teaching and he therefore loves to share and exchange all ideas related to photography, particularly long exposures. If he's not behind a lens on land, he's most likely shooting in the water.

  • angusm

    Technically, mittens are gloves that don’t have separate fingers — just a thumb and a second section for all four fingers. What you’re recommending are actually called ‘fingerless gloves’.

    I’ve also seen gloves designed for rifle shooters that were true gloves with separate fingers, but left the trigger finger (the same finger you’d use to click the shutter) bare. They also had a mitten section that folded back and attached to the back of the hand with velcro, but could be pulled forward over the fingers, turning the glove into a mitten, and adding extra protection against the cold.

    To take the guesswork out of figuring out where the sun will come up, there are various smartphone apps that can calculate things for you. Photo Pills for iOS is one that comes to mind. The Photographer’s Ephemeris, also for iOS, is another. Golden Hour is another that might be helpful. Equivalents for Android probably exist.

  • marlin

    What are “fishing boots “?

  • Great tips, I’ve just started integrating most of these into my routine even before reading this, I also add kneepads for these shoots, only way to get low comfortably. For sunrise/set times and locations I use The Photographer’s Ephemeris app, I’ve seen many people recommend it on here. If you do landscapes it really can’t be beat to tell you EXACTLY where the sun will rise in relation to your position.

  • Michael O

    Basically golf shoes, but Wellington boot style.

  • Michael O

    I agree. Mittens are something completely different than what described in the article.
    Also, simply Google will tell you sunrise times for your location.

  • Iain Stanley

    Thanks for the correction. Growing up in Sydney, they were always called mittens in my world, but as long as everyone knows what we’re referring to, it’s all good. With regards to apps and the sunrise, I think you’re spot on. I just like getting up and doing some research myself – however I am very close to the coast. For those not so close, the apps would be a great idea.

  • Iain Stanley

    Thanks for the comment. Sunrise times aren’t the issue so much as where the sun will rise on the horizon in relation to what you want to shoot. I live on a coastline that has a lot of headlands, so I soon found out that the sun isn’t visible behind many of them

  • Iain Stanley

    Yes, as Pro Photographer said, they have spikes on the bottom. The spikes are of utmost importance, as they grip on moss and slippery rocks. It gives you a sense of confidence that you’re not going to slip and slide and damage yourself, or your gear. There’s a picture of my green boots in the main article.

  • Iain Stanley

    Excellent point about the knee pads!! On rocks and crags, it can be painful kneeling down trying to get low perspectives. In the summer I don’t mind kneeling in the water, but not in the Japanese winters!!

  • Pro Photographer

    Ah I get you. Fair enough.

  • Michel

    As a topographer (mesuring with a cold instrument in winter is awfull for fingers), I recommand to use silk gloves : expensive, but warm and thin, so you keep the sensation when touching any button…

  • Michel

    If you have an android phone, try the application “DGS Tide”, It will give you the tide and the sunrise/sunset time… even when there is no internet end no phone connexion 🙂

  • Iain Stanley

    Excellent info Michel!! You can always rely on dPS contributors for great info.

  • Iain Stanley

    I’ve never considered silk gloves but anything that allows you to maintain feeling and control of the camera can only be a good thing. There are always many ways to do the same thing!!

  • marlin

    Thanks. Where would I start looking for them. Do you know the brand? Thanks, M.

  • Iain Stanley

    I bought mine at a standard fishing shop – the kind where you buy rods, lines, lures etc etc. they are standard equipment in such shops. There were various brands at the shop I bought mine from, ranging from $40-80.

  • Pinch

    Right now in Michigan, we have no winter sunrises over water . . . try winter sunrises over ICE. Which makes you point of highlight concerns even more an issue as everything is a bright, white, reflective surface. Non the less all great bit of information.
    Many APPs and websites are available to give you the various sun rise times – civil, nautical and astronomical ( Each with a different aspect of how much light is available at the moment.
    I would concur with other commenters regarding showing the bad example with the good. That said, we probably all have bad examples in our personal collections 🙂

  • Pro Photographer

    You can search ‘Dirt Boot’, they make the ones I have.

    You could also modify ANY normal boot or shoe for much less money by using the following:-

    10 x Yellow Fishing Ice Snow Shoe Spikes Grips Crampons Cleats SHOE SPIKES JRAU

  • marlin

    Thanks, will check them out. m

  • Richard Turner

    I tried those fingerless gloves and gave up. My fingers were less cold without them! I now have thin silk gloves made to be worn inside mittens – the ones motor cyclists use – and they are thin enough to be able to handle the camera with.

  • Irene’s 1st Sunset!

    This one I took at 7.13am. My 1st attempt at this and feels very happy,
    what do others thinks of it?

  • Don Reisinger

    The author committed one fundamental mortal sin of journalism and salesmanship….the whole mitten thing totally changed the reader’s focus. The objective in any sales venture is clear communication of your idea to the prospective client…any significant distraction…you lose the customer’s focus on your entire presentation. All I could think about was mittens, fingerless gloves and regular gloves. Mittens don’t have holes for fingers, regular gloves don’t have holes for fingertips.
    Hmmmm….now what was that whole article about?

  • cdloff

    Interesting to read about what the folks in warmer climes do during the winter… No, I agree – those are not mittens. They are fingerless gloves.

    Around here (Winnipeg, Canada and further north), we have no open water in winter but we do have a large lake that is basically an inland sea. It is frozen solid in winter but that makes for some fabulous shots of ice. You can laze in bed for a 9 am sunrise. Sunset is only 6 hours later so it you miss one… Dress in a snowsuit and parka and wear serious snow boots. Yes, mittens (real ones!), not gloves or you will be in agony. Wetness is not a problem – there won’t be solid water for months. And it is too dry for condensation.

  • Iain Stanley

    Oh how I envy you!! We have zero snow or ice in either of the two locations I base myself. Would be wonderful to shoot hanging ice formations with the sun

  • Iain Stanley

    Well I would imagine you’ll certainly remember the need for gloves of any kind that allow your fingers to remain sensitive enough to manipulate the camera’s buttons and settings 🙂

  • Iain Stanley

    You’re the 2nd person to mention silk gloves so they definitely seem like a good option. They just conjure a 50 shades of grey type image when I pocture them…..:)

  • Iain Stanley

    Winter sunrises over ice are something I’ve never witnessed. That would be something special, though I can’t imagine how cold that must be. Would definitely need boots with spikes on them I’d imagine!!

  • cdloff

    We certainly get some “exotic” snow and ice photo opportunities here – but today, I’d gladly take no snow or ice. It’s been a long winter… and we have a wind chill warning here today, minus 36. I’d really like to photograph something warm! But you can alway visit here between December and March – the winter scenery is quite beautiful.

  • cdloff

    The silk gloves are an excellent idea. I’ve used thin cotton ones, as well. Very thin ones from wool are good too – I have to knit those myself out of sock wool.

    They sell those “photo gloves” here but I think they are a joke – there is no insulation in the finger tips and you wouldn’t believe how frozen your fingers get in no time at all if you try to wear them.

    I’ve found double knit mittens that I don’t take off to be best. How do I work the camera? I have a camera with big dials that I can use with the mittens on.

  • David

    Hi… some thoughts…
    Always go with a buddy for safety!
    Preferably scope out the site during daylight before getting there in darkness.
    Before setting up, watch the waves for a few minutes. See where the big sets are breaking.
    Tide information is very important… if possible go when there when the tide is going out so that you don’t get caught.
    Separately, knowing what the swell and wind strength is as (if not more) important. In NSW, there is a website that shows tide/swell and wind. Great for scuba divers, surfers and photographers
    There are lots of options for footwear including fishing “waders”
    but as the weather is not too cold here, I use scuba booties with metal studded rubber cleats (also called grippers I think) that I can strap on when needed.
    Besides a headlamp, always carry a torch with wrist strap. Firstly for redundancy, secondly for checking for potholes in the rocks (with sea urchins etc in them) as well as for black spots on the rocks. They are the really slippery areas.Thirdly for light painting if needed.
    Ensure that all equipment can be stored in/on your backpack so that you have 2 hands for climbing.
    Tripod spikes are generally better than rubber depending on how smooth the rocks are.
    Of course, filters help immensely: ND (milky waves), ND grad (sky will be very bright cf foreground) and circular polarisers (if you don’t want reflections).
    Wipe down camera/lens afterwards and rinsing tripods in fresh water to remove the salt.

  • Iain Stanley

    Excellent tips David and I agree with all of them. As I grew up around the coast and in the water, I sometimes forget some basic info to give to readers, but all your points are particularly valid for people who are not at home in or around the ocean, but are interested in exploring shots that take them onto rocks and close to water’s edge.

    I didn’t mention ND/CPL etc coz I wanted a few less common tips that may not have been covered before but you’re right, they are all essential tools for sunrise photography near the water. Thanks!!

  • Iain Stanley

    Yes……hmmmm I like the ‘idea’ of snow, ice, and sun, but not that minus 36 part. There’s a reason I base myself in locations with no ice or snow……..

  • Iain Stanley

    Great info!!

  • Iain Stanley

    Nice silhouettes, but you need to sharpen your focus and straighten your horizons. Nice colours though!!

  • rick

    100% agreed.

  • Rob

    I have mittens that you pull the flap off and there are fingerless gloves underneath. You can keep your hands warmer and almost instantly switch to fingerless glove mode to do the fine work, then switch back as needed.

  • Iain Stanley

    Sounds perfect!!

  • shelby taylor

    well written – love your sense of humor (makes reading more enjoyable) AND this is filled with great tips ….thank you!

  • Iain Stanley

    Thanks Shelby. Who says writing has to be staid and dry!!

  • captnpetee

    Iain, a non-technical question; Section 6, in the photo shot into the sun with the fisherman walking… can you tell me what the structure is at the left?? Just curious!

  • Iain Stanley

    It’s a lighthouse on the water’s edge. I tried to compose a shot where the foreground was unclear……..some think its water, some think its rocks. But the structure is a lighthouse used to warn the local fishermen

  • Kitt Gagnon

    I usually wear warm leather mitts but wear a super tight fitting mechanics glove inside. I’m from northern Ontario so it gets a bit cold shooting in -30f winters

  • Iain Stanley

    Nice shot. It could do with brightening up the foreground a little to bring the snow into prominence more.

  • Kitt Gagnon

    thanks for the tip

  • Kitt Gagnon


  • Roger

    Some may find this site helpful for sun rise and sunset

  • Patrick O’Connor

    That’s odd. I thought about the mittens for as long as it took to get to the next point. My main takeaway was the fisherman’s boots.

  • To improve your tonal distribution, consider adding a luminosity mask. I use this technique in nearly every image I produce, either applied to the entire photo or in selected areas as desired.!/zoom/c11u7/imageh61

  • Dominic Bolaa .
    Prediksi Southampton vs Aston Villa

  • Angel

    #1 made me LOL. I learned that lesson the hard way! But I finally got it right & took one of the best shots of my life at about 5:45 am at Big Bear Lake when it was about ten degrees out! This shot was even a winner in the Washington Post travel photography contest one year.

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