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.