Beginners Tips for Sunrise Portraits : Part I

Beginners Tips for Sunrise Portraits : Part I

The last year I’ve embarked on a new adventure to create a series of stunning portraits. My quest: Perfect the Sunrise Portrait shoot.

I’d heard stories of photographers who exclusively work with sunrise light for their portrait sessions – even those who require wedding portraits to be conducted during that time. My skepticism ran deep: who in their right mind would subject themselves to several hours of lost sleep and the early morning cold for a photo-shoot? Could the end-product differences be that significant?

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After a series of more than half a dozen sunrise shoots in consecutive weeks, I have determined that no other time will produce such stunning results. Scheduling sunrise Photo-shoots is without a doubt an almost guaranteed way for gorgeous portraits. To be entirely honest, I am now thrilled when I have the opportunity to schedule a Sunrise Portrait session.

For best results, I’ve created somewhat of a routine for my Sunrise Portrait Shoot prep work to include the following:

  • Research the precise time of the sunrise
  • Take note of hour-by-hour weather for the morning of your shoot [this will drastically effect your results].
  • Know my preferred shooting spots within my location, so I capture exactly what I want, despite the rapidly changing light.
  • Prepare equipment and cards the previous day so nothing is left home on accident by early morning head fog.
  • Have all my equipment by the door [ready to grab and go in the morning]
  • Leave 15 minutes early to pick up coffee for myself and my subjects, to guarantee we are all awake and energetic to the max!

While a Sunrise Portrait shoot isn’t overly complicated, there are a few tips I’ve learned that will help guarantee anyone a stunning capture:

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1. Work with Post-Dawn Light

If you start photographing your portraits before the sun comes up, the light will have blue midtowns and highlights. While you can create some sweet artistic shots during this time, you have to be careful that your subject’s skin doesn’t look lifeless. One other issue you may have if you start photographing when the sun is just rising above the horizon, is intense highlights and mid-tones of red and orange. This may warm up your subjects skin too much.

If you use the light just a few minutes after sunrise, the highlights and mid-tones will create a lovely combination of both warms and cools. This is the most flattering light for skin tones and textures.

2. Take Advantage of the Light

Breathtaking light is the entire point of getting up before dawn for a photos-hoot. The light is soft and golden to create lovely skin tones. The contrast of highlights and shadows is minimized from the sidelight. Additionally, colors are deep and rich, accentuated by the soft light. Shoot on Aperture priority and use these qualities to the max!

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3. Face your Subject Into the Light

Facing your subject into the light will accomplish several things:

  • Give a soft glow to your subject skin.
  • Create lovely catchlights in the eyes.
  • Provide for perfect exposure of both your subject and the background.

4. Be Specific with the Scenery

Wide and open spaces typically work as the best locations for a sunrise shoot. Fields, vineyards, or streets without tall buildings that will block the light. You will want to take special note of Eastward facing backdrops for perfectly lit locations, so scouting out before hand may be an additional step to take.

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The best way to become proficient with Sunrise Photo-shoots is to go out and practice! Setting up these shoots consistently week by week will greatly aid your proficiency. I can guarantee with almost complete certainty that you will enjoy what you create – even despite a few hours of lost snooze time.

Be on the lookout for Part II, which will explain more specific techniques for Sunrise Portraits!

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography and leadership with

Some Older Comments

  • Rama Sivamani July 14, 2013 04:50 pm

    @Timgray if the only reason for golden hour is warm tones then you are right it can be done in post with digital. However angle of light, softness due to lower angle and intensity if light are not things that can easily be changed due to digital methods. Also if you are shooting in a public park or something and you want the photo without having to deal with random people getting in your shoot milling around in your scene you are more likely to get the place to yourself by shooting early in the morning.

  • Jill Dufour September 6, 2012 11:59 am

    Nailed it in a nutshell. Thanks

  • Allan Z. April 20, 2012 02:07 am

    The first thing I notice about any photo (or video) is whether or not it makes sense. For me, there has to be a logical reason for the subject to be at that particular location at that time. OK, it's a photo shoot, I get it. For a person to be in an awkward pose next to a culvert/overpass makes no sense to me. Why on earth would she be there, in high heels, dressed to the nines? And the opposite side of the culvert is so dark that my eye is drawn immediately to that spot instead of the woman.

  • Eve January 1, 2012 08:31 am

    Great tips!---thanks for the inspiration :)

  • Average Joe December 28, 2011 03:04 pm

    Can't wait to give this one a try! ...well perhaps I can... I'm pretty tired. Zzz... Sometime soon though for sure.

  • timgray October 8, 2011 11:41 pm

    I am not sold on "golden hour" anymore with digital. I can understand it with film but with digital the camera has adjustable white balance and I can reproduce "golden hour" by simply shooting after I set white balance with a warm card.

    20 years ago when I shot film exclusively? yes. I agree with golden hour magic. but today it can be reproduced easily without forcing everyone to be up at 5 am.

    Note: to the newbies, if you go and shoot golden hour with your camera set to automatic white balance, you will get NO golden hour advantages other than light angle. your camera will remove or significantly reduce ALL The color advantages. you have to do manual white balance from a preset.

    From my perspective, none of the photos above display golden hour well, they are white balanced back to normal and the light is uniform as if it was overcast. The steep angle of the suns rays, the golden glow, and the way it hits the face is the magic. The above photos are fantastic, but could be done at any time of the day with filters and white balance tricks.

  • chris froome April 26, 2011 09:53 pm

    love this time of day, never thought of shooting portraits at this time though. great article, great tips , thanks

  • Hayley April 25, 2011 04:29 pm

    Thank you for this article!

    A little bit off topic but if any powers that be are listening, I would love an article about portraits at/around midday. Not ideal but, as this article points out, often the most practical time to be out shooting - it would be great to have some advice on how to deal with this often tricky shooting situation other than "re-arrange the time of the shoot" because sometimes, erm, you can't!

  • derek April 24, 2011 07:57 am

    Thank you Christina for a thoroghly professional tutorial and for conveying your enthusiasm for sunrise shooting; a help and an inspiration to us.

  • Flint April 23, 2011 05:22 pm

    I have to agree with Celeste. While a few of the points in the article are decent the example images have poor focus while the heavy makeup and awkward posing detract from anything being written about.

  • joann, sidewalk chic April 23, 2011 02:57 am

    Thanks for this! As a style blogger, sunrise portrait shoots are my favorite kinds of shoots, because the lighting is always perfect, and it's easier to work in certain outdoor locations (like parks) because there aren't as many people milling about.

    One tip I would offer is to take some photos by having the camera face the sun as it's rising. Not only do you get beautiful light, but it helps create a dramatic effect with the silhouettes and scenery.

  • Paul April 23, 2011 12:56 am

    Love the first image. Thank you for the article

  • Randall Fotographer April 23, 2011 12:32 am

    I agree with some of the other comments. The images posted with this article would not make me get up early to shoot. They all seem to have a flat, or bluish hue, not the warm oranges that I would expect to see. And including a B&W image makes me think the author was not really doing this for us, the reader, but just taking advantage of the opportunity to get their name out there.

    In this article, and it's sequel, generally the photos did not match the text at all. Talking about underexposing the background 1-2 stops, and then showing an image with an overexposed background. While this could have been a very informative subject, this article fell completely short (IMHO).

  • Chika April 22, 2011 10:34 pm

    The first image is absolutely stunning!

  • Paul April 22, 2011 10:15 pm

    Thanks for this, I am inspired to try this out. I did one pre dawn shoot and used fill flash to balance the light. It was a pleasing result.

  • Wedding in Bali April 22, 2011 06:18 pm

    thanks for the tips, I will try it

  • Dante April 22, 2011 07:09 am

    I think a lot of you guys are missing the point here, the author is talking strictly about light and scenery. All other compositional elements are unimportant within the context of this article, at least that is how I see it. I agree the makeup is odd but perhaps this was the look the model or photographer wanted. I worked with a friend for engagement photos and they had their mind dead set on a mediocre location. Emotional connection and what not since that is where they met, first kiss yada yada. As a photographer we sometimes have to work within less than ideal parameters but at least I was able to get them to agree to the best time for light and I made sure to nail, to the best of my abilities, the variables I could control. In the end I thought the pics came out good, could have been great with a better location but they LOVED them. They were happy so I was happy.

  • T-Fiz April 22, 2011 05:38 am

    Sorry to kinda jump on the bandwagon here but context IS everything. The models are dressed like it's freezing outside, but seem oblivious to the fact that it is even remotely cold. They seem displaced from their natural environment and what they would naturally be dressed and inclined to do. (I will refrain from my other objections to the project)

    Having said that, and to be constructive with my criticism, it probably would've suited the article better had it been written from the perspective of "How to Use the Sun for Low-Contrast Photography".

  • Celesta April 22, 2011 04:05 am

    Georgino, all I can say is, I've been in your shoes some time ago on DPS when I thought people were overzealous in criticizing one author's photographs. I thought it was rude. But I disagree that the feedback on this article is beyond the limits. What is the point asking the author why the makeup was so bad? What answer do you expect? Is there possibly a good excuse for what we see?
    The critics is not just about the quality of photographs. I agree that liking a photo is a matter of taste. But there is a claim behind these particular photographs that they bear educational message and showcase photographic techniques. I beg you to tell me, what did you learn from this article?
    There is a power of statistical evidence, when an article collects considerably more negative feedback than others. We are not forum trolls here. People put their real names behind the comments, and these are the same people who typically stop by to say thanks and praise other authors. This author collected loads of negative feedback in her prior articles as well.

  • Patrick April 22, 2011 01:46 am

    I love sunrise, sunset photography. One thing I have found is facing your subject(s) into bright sunlight is a good way to get squinting / painful faces. Another option is to put the sun behind them as hair light and then use either a lot of bounce card or a flash (gel to color match) light your subject.

  • starterphotorgraphy April 22, 2011 01:43 am

    Georgino -

    Since I am just learning about the beautiful world of photography - it is important to me to understand what it is that makes a great picture. When I look at those pictures - I am just wondering - what is good about them?
    They are out of focus, strange composition and weird makeup.
    I am treating those articles of something that I can learn form. Yes, you right, I can write an article and put all of my work up, but would it make a great example for people? I don't think so.
    It is a little destructing to look at pictures that are not that great, but other people say that they are just to be polite.
    For this particular article - as I said the material is interesting, but examples does not reflect the content for me.

  • Georgino April 22, 2011 01:35 am

    I just don’t understand why people will take time and effort to criticize the photos. Why don’t you take time and write some useful article?
    With every photo you will find people who will love it and who will hate it. I took many portrait photos and after wile it start to be boring and you will want models with crazy, different or just not that common make up. The photos are great, there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. The most important is that your customer and you as photographer like the work. Everything else doesn’t mater. I am sure there was reason for the make up. The people should ask questions like why the makeup, what was the story behind it? Instead of saying the make up is horrendous. I am sure I can find lost of yours photos horrendous but exactly those can be your favorites!
    Any way thanks and big kudos to author for taking time to write for us the article !!!!

  • Celesta April 22, 2011 01:15 am

    Robin and others who ask about early morning inconvenience: you would probably not get the same result at 9 am, but hey, you can get an afternoon golden hour before the sunset! It produces very beautiful results as well. The time varies a lot based on location and season. In winter near New York it used to be somewhere around 4 pm; in April it is around 5 pm, and further into summer it may get even later in the day.

  • Killian April 21, 2011 10:52 pm

    The subject's makeup is horrendous. The white completely detracts from her beautiful eyes. Too bad; the finer details, which should be caught by the photographer, can make or break a portrait.

    The last photo's focus is off as well. The detail in the bridge is sharp, but her face and body is not. Again, a simple catch that wasn't.

  • Robin April 21, 2011 09:45 pm

    I've always wanted to do a morning shoot but it's so early right now with the light being up by 7am. Can't it be like 9am?

  • Kath April 21, 2011 07:09 am

    Thanks - interesting article. Unfortunately I was very distracted by the weird white makeup around the woman's inner eyes, which you can see even in the b+w. Not nice.

  • Stephanie April 21, 2011 05:35 am

    Very timely article! I was JUST admiring the gorgeous sunrise light out my window this morning and thinking how great it would be for portraits. Wish I were a morning person!

  • ScottC April 21, 2011 04:24 am

    @ Celesta, I know that. I was simply referring back to her mention of the blue tones in the earlier light. You should reread the article.

  • Celesta April 21, 2011 02:29 am

    Scottc, the author is talking about the golden hour with its warm light, while you are talking about blue hour, with twilight blue, colder light. The blue tones are there right before sunrise and right after sunset. The golden hour is after sunrise and before sunset.

  • Celesta April 21, 2011 02:21 am

    The photographs are lovely, though I would not have guessed they were taken during sunrise. They look like day light to me. Just to clarify, does the author mean the golden hour or specifically sunrise?

  • wri7913 April 21, 2011 02:09 am

    Researching the sunrise times is as easy as having an app called "Sunrise" a solar calculator on your smart phone. This particular app is on iPhone but I'm sure there is a droid equivalent as well. Good tips!!

  • ScottC April 21, 2011 02:05 am

    Another great article, with great photos and tips. Anyone who takes photos during one of the twilight periods will know about those blue tones.

    Not a portrait of a "person", but a good example of what the early morning sun does to a subject facing it.

  • Ollie April 21, 2011 01:49 am

    Really nice article! I hadn't really considered sunrise portraits, but now you mention it, it makes perfect sense! Thanks.

  • starterphotorgraphy April 21, 2011 01:30 am

    Those are really nice tips. Thank you!.
    However, I am not impressed with the pictures at all. The subject looks out of focus a bit and oh, my, so much makeup!! Also, looks like she is in the awkward position on the last picture. Plus, I am not sure how "before sunrise" light will help for a black and white photography.
    I am just starting my career in photography and maybe missing something, so I apologize for that.