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Taking a beautiful sunrise picture might seem simple: just point your camera or mobile at the sun as it creeps over the horizon and you’re good to go. While this can certainly result in an interesting image, you can take sunrise pictures to a whole new level with a zoom lens and a bit of camera knowledge. If you have a lens with a longer focal length that goes to 200 or 300mm, you can get some epic sunrise pictures with a zoom that showcase the majesty of nature in the morning.
Before you can take a good sunrise picture, you need to do a bit of planning, so you know when the sun is going to come up. It also helps to know where to look so you’re ready when the moment hits. A quick internet search with your location and the words “sunrise time” will help you know what time to take pictures. As far as where to look, that’s up to you.
Of course, the sun always rises in the east, but it’s necessary to know exactly where it will come up relative to your specific location and time of year. To get the best results, you want to snap your pictures right as the sun appears on the horizon. If buildings obstruct your view, you’re going to need to find a location that offers an unobstructed view in the right direction.
To show how precise this process is, look at the picture below. I shot it as the sun was coming up, but the result is boring, bland, and entirely unremarkable.
This was shot precisely one minute and 48 seconds before the picture at the top of this article. Why is it so boring? The answer is a simple truth of the business world: location, location, location. While I looked east for the sun, I didn’t realize it had already crested the horizon behind a grove of trees. I was able to take a vastly improved picture just by repositioning myself 100 meters from this point.
When you go out to take sunrise photos, make sure you can actually find the sun!
Nailing the exposure on a sunrise picture is quite tricky. Imagine taking a picture of a flashlight in a dimly-lit room. You’ll end up with one of two results:
It’s nearly impossible to get a properly-exposed flashlight and a properly-exposed room.
That is precisely what it’s like to take a picture of the sunrise, especially with a telephoto lens. What you want is a picture where the bright parts (i.e. the sun and sky) aren’t too bright, and the dark parts (i.e. the foreground) aren’t too dark. Basically you want an HDR image, but rather than shooting on a tripod and combining multiple exposures in post-production, you can do it with a single image by shooting in RAW.
Since RAW files capture much more picture data than JPEG files, you can fix many issues in Lightroom, Photoshop, Luminar, and other editing applications. The trick is to make sure you don’t lose any data to clipping, which happens when bright things are so bright that it doesn’t record data. The same can happen with dark areas too, but it’s usually not as much of a problem.
There are a couple of ways to expose for the sun so it’s not too bright. You can set your camera to Center-Weighted metering, which ensures the middle of your picture is not too bright or too dark. Another method (and the one which I prefer), is to have your camera evaluate the entire scene but use exposure compensation to under-expose by roughly two stops.
Regardless of how you meter the scene and set your exposure, the end result is the same. In your resulting image, you want the sun to be visible and not too bright. This means the foreground will be dark, but remember that you can recover everything you need when you process the RAW file.
If you have a high-end zoom lens like a 70-200 f/2.8 or a 300mm f/4, you might be tempted to shoot sunrise pictures with the largest possible aperture. Blurry foregrounds and backgrounds are great, right? So why wouldn’t you shoot wide open?
Contrary to what you might think, smaller apertures are better when taking sunrise photos. First, it helps make sure your entire picture is sharp. Bokeh is great on portraits but not so desirable on most landscapes. A blurry foreground (thanks to a wide aperture) can distract the viewer and leave the scene feeling kind of mushy as a result.
Another reason to use smaller apertures, like f/8 or f/11, is that it gives you more control over your exposure. Remember, the sun is really bright, so you don’t need to worry about not getting enough light in your picture! On the contrary, you actually want to limit the amount of light, especially since you want the foreground to be underexposed. A small aperture helps with this.
The sun moves fast – really fast. Or, rather, the earth spins fast. That’s what is actually happening when you see the sun come up. And just like any time you want to capture motion, you need to use a shutter speed that’s up to the task. Slower values like 1/30th and 1/60th will not only make exposure tricky, but result in a blurry sun as it speeds upwards on the horizon.
I recommend a minimum shutter speed of 1/250th, and even faster if possible. 1/500th is even better. If you are exposing for the sun, you might even use ultra-fast shutter speeds like 1/1000th or more. Of course, the foreground will be dim, but that’s fine since you can recover those shadows in post-production.
One nice thing about this is it means you don’t need to use a tripod. So that means one less thing for you to bring with you to your sunrise photo shoots. Handheld will work fine, even when zoomed all the way in. That’s because you should have a shutter speed that will compensate for any motion blur due to camera shake.
Once you have the technical aspects figured out, and you know where you want to position yourself to capture a sunrise, the final piece off the puzzle is patience. I recommend arriving early so you can make sure everything is situated properly. Bring some music or a podcast because you might be waiting a little while. However, it’s better to arrive early than scramble at the last minute.
As soon as you start to see the sun peek over the horizon, you only have a few minutes to get your shots. Remember to use a small aperture, expose for the sun, and shoot in RAW, and you should be fine. Go ahead and snap a few pictures with your mobile phone too. You’ll be amazed at how much more dramatic and impactful your pictures are with a zoom lens!
Do you have any other tips for sunrise photos with a zoom lens? Share with us in the comments. Also, I’d love to see your sunrise photos, and I’m sure the rest of the DPS community would also, so please share them in the comments too!