Capturing stunning sunrise photos – the kind that will impress even a professional – might seem difficult, but it’s not as hard as you’d think.
I’ve been doing sunrise photography for years, and over time, I’ve developed plenty of tips and tricks that guarantee great results, including:
- The sunrise camera settings that rarely fail
- The must-have gear for every sunrise photoshoot
- The key steps you should take before you arrive on location
- Much more!
So if you’re looking to get started with sunrise photography or you simply want a few tips to enhance your photos, then read on!
1. Start by scouting the location
As tempting as it is to just show up at a convenient location and start shooting, you greatly increase your chances of success by planning your sunrise photoshoot in advance.
First, you’ll need to determine the best location from which to capture your image. Pick an area that is out of the way of road and foot traffic, where you’re unlikely to be disturbed. If you can, head to the location a few days before the shoot and ensure your view of the horizon will be unobstructed and free of any hazards. (Also make sure that you’ll be able to easily access the location; you’ll be walking around with your camera in the dark, after all!)
As the photoshoot nears, frequently check the weather. If your shooting time coincides with an approaching or recently ended storm, the results can be staggering. Rain and storm clouds can add a dramatic layer of dimension to the scene. But you should also take steps to stay safe; don’t go out if lightning is visible, and make sure you carry a flashlight to help you find your way in the dark.
It’s also important that you pay careful attention to the sunrise time. You don’t want to arrive on location only to find that the sun is already above the horizon! I’d recommend pinpointing the perfect time to shoot by using an online tool or smartphone app that displays precise sunrise times for your location. Many low-cost (and sometimes free) solutions are available, including PhotoPills (for Android and iOS) and The Photographer’s Ephemeris (for Android and iOS).
2. Use the light to your advantage
As you probably already know, sunrise light looks incredible; it’s soft, it’s warm, and it creates long shadows that can add a sense of three-dimensionality to your subjects.
So as soon as the sun peeks over the horizon, use the light to your advantage. You can shoot straight into the sunrise, yes – but you can also try turning your camera until you get beautiful texture and drama in the foreground elements (e.g., rocks, trees, or ocean waves).
You should also try turning around completely; for one, the display to the west is often equally stunning, plus the area behind you will be front lit rather than backlit and therefore offer a completely different sense of atmosphere.
By the way, if you’re after ethereal, even surreal photos, make sure you start shooting before the sun rises. The time just before the sun comes up is known as the blue hour, and it’s a favorite of landscape photographers.
Also, bear in mind that your camera will try to neutralize the warming effect produced by sunrise lighting. If you shoot in RAW, you can always remove this white balance setting in post-processing – but it’s often a good idea to adjust your in-camera white balance options so you can get an accurate image preview on your LCD. Try setting the camera to one of its cooler presets (such as Shade) and see whether you like the results.
3. Plan your sunrise photos in advance
While it’s good to do general scouting – where you establish the viability of the location, check the weather, and determine the sunrise time – it’s important to also think about your image specifics before you arrive on location.
What look am I after? Do I want to capture a clear subject lit by the sunlight? Or will the sunrise itself be the star of the show? You don’t have to commit to an approach in advance – and you can always try out multiple options once you’re in position – but the sunrise will occur quickly, and if you’re not prepared, you’ll miss out on the action.
When planning beforehand, you should also think about any other special considerations. Will you use neutral density filters to lengthen your shutter speed? Will you use a graduated neutral density filter to balance the foreground and background? Will you use an HDR technique? Make sure you have all relevant filters on hand and be ready to quickly capture bracketed shots as needed.
4. Use the right sunset photography equipment
It’s tough to capture a great sunrise shot without the right gear, so make sure you have everything ready to go before you head out. (I’d recommend packing your bag the night before; that way, you don’t accidentally forget any equipment in the rush to leave!)
First and foremost, you’ll want to bring your tripod. The first handful of minutes before the sun has fully risen won’t offer much light, so you’ll need a steady base for your camera. This is even more important if you plan to shoot in the blue hour before sunrise or if you need to do HDR bracketing.
Second, you’ll want to bring the right lens for the shoot. While beautiful landscapes can be captured using a 50mm to 85mm focal length, a wide-angle lens is generally best. If you’re just starting out, a kit zoom lens (such as an 18-55mm model) will get the job done, but if you have a prime lens in the 12mm to 24mm range, you’ll have a better chance of capturing a sharper image, and you’ll be able to capture a vast, sweeping portion of the scene.
Third, make sure you’re using a decent camera. Sensor size and megapixel count make a big difference, especially if you want to create prints of your sunrise photos. Comfort matters, too, and it can be helpful to hold a few cameras in your hands before buying.
Battery life is a crucial but often overlooked aspect. The cold morning air can drain batteries quickly, and the last thing you want is for your camera to die just as the sun breaks the horizon. (If your camera doesn’t offer impressive battery life, you can compensate by carrying several spare batteries; it’s a simple precaution that I highly recommend!)
Finally, although filters can subtly degrade image quality, some can be useful for sunrise photography. As I mentioned above, a GND (graduated neutral density) filter will balance the scene by darkening the upper portion of the sky so you can capture a well-exposed and dramatic shot. And a neutral density filter will block out light, which is helpful if you want to use long-exposure techniques to blur clouds and/or water.
5. Use the right sunrise camera settings
The right camera settings will ensure you capture beautiful colors as well as plenty of detail in both the sky and the foreground. I encourage you to select most of these settings before you even arrive at your photoshoot destination; that way, when the sunrise begins, you’re ready to start shooting!
So what settings are best for sunrise photoshoots?
If possible, use a low ISO such as 100 or 200 to avoid noise in the final file. As with smaller apertures, this shouldn’t be a problem if you’re using a tripod, but if you’re handholding your camera, you’ll need to bump up the ISO to get a shutter speed fast enough to avoid a blurry photo (generally at least 1/60s).
And although you can shoot in Manual mode, I personally prefer to shoot almost everything in Aperture Priority. That way, I can lock my aperture and let the camera choose the shutter speed that will create a balanced exposure. Since low-light situations can confuse the camera and cause overexposure, you can always use your camera’s exposure compensation to subtly reduce the brightness.
I also recommend choosing your white balance in advance. As I mentioned above, you can use this setting to boost (or reduce) the warmth of your shot. If you’re after a warm, orangish image, set your white balance to Shade or Daylight. If you’re after a cooler effect, try using the Tungsten preset.
And, of course, always shoot in RAW! That way, you can adjust the white balance in post-processing, and you can even recover missing shadows and highlights after the fact.
6. Capture sunrise silhouettes
Everyone loves silhouettes framed by a breathtaking sunrise sky. But how do you get the best results?
First, capturing the perfect silhouette during sunrise requires you to identify a strong subject. This could be a tree, a building, or even a person; you want to showcase a clear outline that stands out and really catches the viewer’s eye.
Position your subject between yourself and the sun. Finding the right position may require some trial and error, so don’t be afraid to move around and try different angles.
Finally, make sure you expose for the sky, not the silhouetted subject. So set your exposure using the sky just behind your subject. It may feel counterintuitive, but exposing for the sky helps maintain the silhouette effect while preserving the delicate hues of the sunrise.
7. Compose to add interest
Once you’re on location and ready to take the shot, you must carefully position your camera to create a pleasing composition.
A common error when shooting sunrises is positioning the horizon right in the middle of the frame. While this can make for a nice photo, it normally creates too much symmetry and can make the picture seem static and boring. An alternative is to use the rule of thirds, which encourages you to position the horizon a third of the way into the scene; that way, you end up with a more dynamic, engaging shot.
Don’t just apply the rule of thirds thoughtlessly, however. Take a moment to look your scene over. Ask yourself: What part of the sunrise or sunset is the most dramatic? Are there any parts that aren’t that interesting?
Once you’ve done this, simply compose the shot to include more of the most dramatic scenery. If you have an angry, cloudy sky that accentuates the sunlight, let that occupy the upper two-thirds of the scene. If you have an interesting foreground but a less intriguing sky, let that occupy the bottom two-thirds of the image.
It’s generally best to draw the viewer into the composition, then let their eyes slowly move toward the stunning sunrise.
8. Add compelling foreground elements
Want to take your sunrise compositions further? Foreground elements will give your sunrise photos depth and interest. Look for rocks, flowers, or other natural elements to include in the frame. By adding these elements, you can create a compelling composition that draws the eye through the image.
Position your foreground elements thoughtfully. You want them to add to the composition, not distract from the sunrise. Consider the lines and shapes that these elements create and how they interact with the rest of the scene.
In a previous tip, I mentioned the value of a wide-angle lens, but when working with foreground elements, the wide perspective becomes more important than ever. This can create a grand, sweeping view that encapsulates not just the sunrise, but the entire landscape. A wide-angle lens can make the foreground seem more prominent, so it’s essential to compose your shots carefully to keep the balance.
Focus close to the foreground elements to ensure they’re sufficiently sharp with the sunrise serving as a beautiful backdrop. And experiment with different depths of field. A wide aperture (like f/2.8 or f/4) can blur the sunrise slightly and make your foreground elements stand out. Alternatively, a smaller aperture (like f/8 or f/11) can keep everything in focus, creating a more detailed and layered image.
9. Wait for the right shot
In sunrise photography, you’ll sometimes get lucky and encounter a stunning scene right from the get-go. Other times, however, waiting is the name of the game. Due to the dynamics of natural lighting, a scene can completely change from one hour to the next (sometimes even from one minute to the next).
That’s why you should arrive on location before the sunrise starts and stay until the sunrise ends. Sure, you’ll be there for a while, but you can spend that time testing out different settings and being creative. Try different exposure times and play with your aperture. Let the clouds and sun change positions or move your camera higher or lower for a slightly different angle. And include additional subjects in the frame; put them in the foreground so they contrast with the sunrise.
The longer you’re on location shooting, the more variety you’ll end up with – and the better your chances of capturing an incredible shot.
10. Try HDR techniques
HDR (high dynamic range) techniques are designed to help you capture both dark and light areas in the same frame without losing detail – so by utilizing HDR, you can create sunrise images that are vibrant and filled with texture. (Note that you can create the same effect using a graduated neutral density filter, but these accessories are often expensive and less flexible.)
You’ll want to use a tripod to ensure that your camera is stable because HDR requires multiple shots at different exposures. The shooting process is pretty simple: compose your image, then capture a handful of shots at different exposure levels. Make sure at least one file exposes for the sky, one file exposes for the midtones, and another exposes for the shadows.
You’ll then need to merge the files in software like Photoshop. When merging the images, play around with the settings in your software to make it look natural. A heavy-handed approach to HDR can make your sunrise look surreal, so take your time and make adjustments until it looks right.
11. Come back to the same location
Every sunrise is different – so even once you’ve shot the sunrise at a location, try to come back every so often and see what you can capture.
Returning to the same location for sunrise photography can feel like visiting an old friend. Each visit offers an opportunity to deepen your connection with the landscape. You’ll start to notice the subtle changes in light, shadows, and weather conditions that create a unique scene every time. This familiarity not only aids in capturing remarkable images but also fuels your creative instincts.
Consider creating a series of images that examine a location in different conditions. Shoot the location in both winter and summer; shoot just before sunrise, at the moment the sun comes up, and a few minutes after the sun has risen. Try out different compositions.
A great benefit of revisiting a spot is the ability to learn from your previous experiences. If a shot didn’t work out the last time, you have a chance to refine it. Keeping notes on what you learned can be incredibly helpful. It’s like a conversation with your past self, guiding you to make better choices and ultimately capturing that perfect sunrise photo.
12. Don’t forget to process your sunrise files
As I mentioned above, if your camera has the capability, shoot in RAW for more flexibility in post-processing. RAW files allow for greater manipulation without losing quality; that way, you can bring out the best in your sunrise photos when editing.
Adjusting the white balance can really make the sunrise colors pop. The white balance setting affects how your camera interprets different colors of light, so tweaking it can enhance the warmth and richness of the sunrise. Play around with the temperature in your editing software until you find what looks best for your particular image.
Try enhancing the contrast, which helps the foreground and clouds stand out without looking unnatural. Just be mindful not to overdo it, or you might lose subtlety in the image.
If the sky is too bright, lower the highlights in your editing software. This will reveal more color and detail in the brightest parts of the image, helping to balance the exposure. That way, you can achieve a more harmonious and pleasing result.
Sunrise photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should be ready to capture some stunning images at sunrise. You know the best sunrise settings, you know how to use the light to your advantage, and you know how to create amazing compositions.
So get up early and create some gorgeous photos!
Now over to you:
Do you have any beautiful sunrise photography you’d like to share? Post it in the comments below!
Sunrise photography FAQ
Arriving at least 30 minutes to an hour before sunrise gives you time to set up and capture the beautiful colors that appear before the sun breaks the horizon.
A wide-angle lens is often the best choice for sunrise photography, as it can capture both the expansive sky and interesting foreground elements.
To expose for the sunrise correctly, you can meter off of the midtones in the scene. Alternatively, you can use a graduated neutral density filter or an HDR approach to keep plenty of detail in your shots.
While not absolutely necessary, a tripod is highly recommended for sunrise photography. It ensures stability, which often results in sharper images even at slower shutter speeds.
Using a graduated neutral density (GND) filter can be beneficial in sunrise photography. It helps balance the exposure between the sky and the foreground, creating a more even and visually appealing image.