Sunrise Portraits Part II - The Techniques

Sunrise Portraits Part II – The Techniques


In the previous article Beginners Tips for Sunrise Portraits : Part I, we discussed a number of tips and tricks that will guarantee a fantastic Sunrise Portrait-Shoot. Experiment with those tips and tricks before taking on these techniques.

Every photographer in love with a good portrait session wants to push the envelop with new techniques to improve results. We love capturing personality and creating something truly beautiful with our photographs. Personally, I’ve found sunrise shoots give me a thrill unlike any other time I could photograph. Sunrise shoots have captivated me with stunning images, enticed me with fond memories, and given me a new found love for portraits.

Image I.jpg

While sunrise shoots aren’t particularly complicated, I have found a few techniques that radically improve my results, and give my portraits a unique look. Before moving forward with these techniques, I’d recommend you start by watching for light – all the time and everywhere. After all, using this breathtaking light is the entire point of getting up before dawn for a photo-shoot. It’s soft. The shadows are long. Make the most of this “magic hour” by paying close attention to light all around you.

Photograph on Manual

So long as you are facing your subject into the light, Aperture Priority is sufficient for a perfectly exposed portrait. However, with Sunrise light you have so many options for more complicated exposures, so manually exposing will be your friend.

Image II.jpg

Experiment with Under-Exposing and adding Fill Flash

Under-exposing the background will keep beautifully vivid color in the sky backdrop. Sunrises can vary from deep reds and oranges, with splashes of bright purples and blues. Including this gorgeous landscape will make dynamic portraits! Avoid a silhouette in this kind of scenario by adding a fill that will light up your subject. Furthermore, your subject will stand out by golden rim lighting.

  • Have your subject stand with their back to the light.
  • Under-expose your shot by 1 – 2 full stops so that the background [the sunrise itself] is an even exposure.
  • Add a fill to light your subject with fill flash or reflector.

Image III.jpg

Over-Expose the Portrait for Variety

It’s easy to use over-exposure too much, but with a bit of creativity, you can use the light in this way for a splash of variety. Want your subject to be evenly exposed and the background to be washed out? Try the following:

  • Position your subject in front of the light. [the sun]
  • Meter for your subject’s face.
  • Increase your exposure by 1/3 to 2/3 a stop to wash out the background without loosing too much detail in in your subjects skin.

One thing to consider, as in the image below, if you photograph entirely into the sun, you may need to shoot on manual. This look is very unique with over exposed images.

Image IV.jpg

Capture Lens Flare

I love lens flare! Think of it as a dash of salt in a portrait shoot – something that adds flavor but should not be the key component in your entire dish. Lens flare is all about the angle of light and how it comes through the lens. You can capture some awesome artistry with lens flare.

  • Position your subject in front of the light.
  • Get down low OR turn your lens at an angle into the light.
  • Overexpose by 1/3 to 2/3 a stop to brighten your subject without loosing the flare.

Image V.jpg

Put your Sunrise Portrait Shoot on the calendar! It may require getting up earlier than normal, but you will find the results to be far worth it! Remember, maturing your eye for seeing light and capturing it effectively will take both time and practice. Evaluate your shots with a critical eye and learn from mistakes. You will make rapid progress with a bit of time and energy!

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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

  • Eric West August 2, 2012 10:50 am

    Sunrise and Sunset are GREAT times to shoot pictures, particularly portraits and particularly of "outdoors" people, (horsemen, lumberjacks, dock workers, that kind of guy or girl) where the strong cross-light can be used to bring out the wrinkles and character of a face and set a mood for the kind of life you are trying to capture.

    And, while the images above are not necessarily my kind of picture, what is the matter with post-processing? It is all part of the art, even going back to the days of shooting on black & white film plates and "burning in" negatives on the enlarger, (a skill we now, sadly, seem to be losing).

    Does any one really think that the image in a portrait by Yusuf Karsh is only what he caught on his camera? The art was in what he did with it after he took it out of the camera!

  • neptunerain November 21, 2011 08:09 pm

    I agree with Paul vS. I loved the lighting in the photos, but not the dark circles under the eyes or the red noses!

  • Paul October 8, 2011 11:43 pm

    I Love to shoot at sun rise and set and one of the best tools I found for any iPhone lovers is Sun Seeker it is a photographers best friend for shooting at these times. It's an augmented reality app and shows you the path of the sun on any day also great for travel. It also is impressive to your clients And helps you pick the best location for you shoot.

  • Selena April 27, 2011 05:29 am

    Ok, putting aside all of our opinions about the author's ability to take good photos, early sunrise photography would be great for other aspects as well...
    imagine the dew on the leaves or the steam from a pond, or the condensation from the breath, or other endless possibilities to tell a story of how darn cold it is outside for the subject. Maybe even snow on the eyelashes.

  • Ryan Sexton April 26, 2011 07:08 am

    Thanks for this post it was very helpful and informative.

  • Killian April 25, 2011 10:49 pm

    I definitely understand the author's use of light, including sunflare, etc. But I guess to me, if the "point" is to get a sunflare, or a huge burst of white light (2nd, 3rd, and 4th shots), then to me, it really isn't a portrait.

    Quite clearly, this is just one person's opinion, and I do recognize that. But if I was shooting a "portrait" and had a huge expanse of space surrounding my subject, I would chastise myself for lousy composition. (I do like the first shot, although for me, not straightening out the background is a travesty. WAY too distracting!) A portrait is supposed to focus on your subject. The eye may well be drawn down to the subject (as in the 2nd shot), but it's still more of a distraction to have so much space offset behind her.

    Again...just my own opinion. Anyone, including the author, can take it or leave it as they choose.

    And for those who demanded our own examples be posted if we dare offer negative opinions, no problem. In this shot, I did deliberately leave a bit of the background: the words "Fine Jewel(ry)" was scripted in the window behind her, and I loved it. But still, the focus is clearly on my subject. The background is a support, not a detraction.

  • Mei Teng April 25, 2011 04:38 pm

    I like the use of lens flare in portraits. Great photos! :)

  • F-64 stopper April 25, 2011 03:50 pm

    You may love lens flare, but not everyone else does. Over exposing an image is not a new "technique." Same goes for posing someone infront of the sun light.

    You should title this: "How to have a top heavy portrait by adding to much head space."

  • Deirdre April 25, 2011 12:16 pm

    Some of the criticisms here are unfair.

    - Someone suggested the flare must be midday sun. I get my favorite blown out and flare photos (if that's what I'm looking for) during the golden hours. When the sun is low, it is easier to get the flare combined with interesting backgrounds. When it is midday, you have to shoot up into the sky for flare.

    - Someone suggested fill flash was silly since this is supposed to be such great light. If you want backlighting, i.e. the sun behind the subject, lighting up his/her hair, then fill flash makes a lot of sense, because the light is behind the subject, not on their face. Many photographers who understand lighting use it all the time.

    - Whatever you may think of the makeup and post processing, these were clearly not taken during harsh midday sun.

    3. All the post processing in the world won't fix the harsh shadows and washed out colors of a photo taken in full sun at midday.

  • Brandon April 25, 2011 07:52 am

    i didn't know chicks liked to wake up early to take pictures

  • Paul vS April 24, 2011 07:15 pm

    These people look horribly tired in the photos. I'm surprised that nobody commented on this fact.

    Technically I like the photos but I think a good picture is more than just the right technique. Taking photos of people that look tired, I don't know... the subject does matter too. I like your style but when scrolling down and seeing the tired girl in the last picture I just thought "you gotta be kidding me, who wants to look like that in a photo?".

  • Ed April 24, 2011 06:03 am

    I have to apologize for the typos. I am under the influence of some very good narcotics as I wait for surgery to repair my right tibia at the ankle.

  • Ed April 24, 2011 04:35 am

    It seems the the offered comments are quite harsh and presented hastily (the initial and follow up). The work offered as examples are not the result of highly produced sessions. The results that can be achieve using sunrise or even sunset light can be quite remarkable. I would offer a challenge to try a couple of sessions at sunrise. I suggest at least one session where you utilize great make up and use some additional light modifiers such as reflectors, and screens. The results can be amazing.

    I would also say that if a person is prone to a lot of post processing, they are not spending enough time getting what should be achieved prior to the sutter release. JMHO

  • David Kay April 24, 2011 04:03 am

    Hi all, I am pretty new to DSLR photography and I am learning all about light, exposure and avoiding 'blown out' photos. These photo's seem to be demonstrating all the things that I am learning to avoid! Don't get me wrong I like these photos but they really have made me confused about what is good and what is not! If I had produced some of these pics I would have deleted them straight away. It just proves that I have a very long way to go! But thanks very much for the article!

  • Megan April 24, 2011 03:18 am

    Very inspiring article Christina! You had successfully motivated me to get up early and try out some of these great ideas in the morning light.

  • Patrick April 24, 2011 01:46 am

    Okay, new rule, if you are going to criticize, back it up with your better photos on the subject... I bet 99% of you won't have the brass to. The contributer is giving you some free advice and showing you the photographs.

    Also, Post processing whiners would never, ever make it in commercial photography seeing that ever since portraits have been taken to show a client in a flattering way, post-processing has been used. Take a history of photo class or two before you whine about standard practice of any photographer making cash by photographing clients.

  • Allen April 23, 2011 05:54 pm

    Celesta is offering a valid criticism. If a person is going to write an article and claim a level of expertise then their example images should illustrate that expertise and not one of them in this article does. All of the images are poorly focused and badly lit.

  • ScottC April 23, 2011 02:29 pm

    Celesta, if you were just offering your opinion or an objective critique no one would have a problem with your comments.

    Your statement is critizing (you used the word yourself), and you went far beyond the scope of the article by personally attacking the author's credibility.

    That doesn't feel so good when it happens to you, does it?

    Everyone has a "right" to disagree, even with you.

  • Celesta April 23, 2011 06:04 am

    Scottc and a few others who were fast to give me names - so, how your judging my opinion is different from my expressing what I think about this article? You deny my right to doubt the quality of the author's work but you do not hesitate to call me nasty.
    Georgino, I have my photography work listed right here behind my nickname. I am not afraid to show it, opposite to what you said. You did not address any of the issues I brought up in my comment - the sepia, overexposure, brown eyes. Do you have anything to say?
    It is up to a person to eat it all what they put in front of you. For me, seeing the work I do not like is also a learning experience - learning what I would not like to see on my photographs. Why am I denied the right to offer feedback to DPS for their learning curve - it is beyond comprehension.

  • Trent A Hawkes April 23, 2011 05:31 am

    Great articles on on sunrise portrait shoots, Christina! I look forward to trying this soon. You have included some great examples of your work to help inspire getting up before the roosters do. Thanks again for the articles. Happy shooting!

  • joann, sidewalk chic April 23, 2011 03:14 am

    Interesting techniques. I've never actually tried fill flash before, so I'll have to experiment next time on my sunrise shoots.

  • Pete April 22, 2011 11:37 pm

    Agree with Bob and Celesta. Add that in the last one, the lens flare suggests a mid-day sun positioning. Tell me it was intentionally added, and I'd suggest maybe just get a cheaper lens. I'd also be more impressed if her bio wasn't so self-aggrandizing and listed a blog link ( that was clearly a parked domain.

    DPS, you can, and regularly do, attract better.

  • Ken April 22, 2011 11:30 pm

    I'm not normally one to comment on such items but the amount of criticism here is interesting. The author was discussing the use of the light at that time and her techniques that might help folks who do or would like to try shoots at that time and shared some creative techniques. If we all liked the same kind if photo we would be a boring bunch wouldn't we. Some folks like the photos taken from the light leaking holga cameras which I personally dont care for. Doesn't mean it's wrong. If improper photogray advice were given, complain away. This is simply a discussion and people just starting out in photography like me can use all the tips I can get. If I try and If not I don't do it again.

  • Paul April 22, 2011 10:18 pm

    And remember to always be careful when pointing your lens into the low sun!

  • Peter April 22, 2011 05:46 pm

    1: If the light is so wonderful in the early morning golden hour, why do we need fill in flash. Surlely that defeating the whole object of using the sun from the golden hour.
    2: People are saying that this style of photography(under/over exposed) is what the customer wants. I say it's because this is what the photographer wants to give them. Perhaps they are not capable of anything better.

  • Bri-Anne April 22, 2011 05:10 pm

    All of these pictures are gorgeous, but I am totally enamored with the very first one! LOVE it!

  • Bob April 22, 2011 08:10 am

    Hi, sorry, but I have to agree with Celesta, most look very over processed and in particular photo two of the girl with the purple shawl, if you present the photo as being taken during the "Golden Hour" then the sun had better not be about 25 - 30 degrees above the horizon as it is in that shot.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer April 22, 2011 06:14 am

    The overexposed shooting into the sun shot does seem to be increasingly popular, which is perhaps what @Georgino is referring to as a modern technique. Personally, this type of photograph is not what I think of when I read the title "sunrise portraits." Since the light is so good at that time, I would expect to see near perfect exposure even using natural light.

    However, if this style of photograph is what clients nowadays want, it is either provide that style or lose that business.

    In the example above stating to use fill light to allow for an exposure that shows the colors of the sunrise sky and still properly expose the subject, the sky is still overexposed so it is nothing but white. The colorful sunrise sky with flash lighting the subject is exactly the type of sunrise portrait I would like to see.

    I have not shot at sunrise, but I often shoot at sunset using simple off camera flash techniques (like this one: ) .... to capture the color of the sky and expose the subject.

  • gloria April 22, 2011 05:28 am

    Great photos..I'm ready to get up early this weekend !!

  • Chris April 22, 2011 04:02 am

    These are great pictures! I am inspired to get up early and practice so I can get great photos like you! Thanks for the article! Keep up the great work!

  • Sad April 22, 2011 03:31 am

    Listen, this is a problem with society. These people take time and effort that is available for free and you are ungrateful.if you don't like it, go somewhere else, but at the least get over yourself and say thank you.

  • Shannon April 22, 2011 03:24 am

    Love the shots. The majority of the shots I do are in the mornings shortly after sunrise because I love the light at that time. Clients are willing to get up for it as long as I tell them the light is the best then.

  • Kiran @ April 22, 2011 03:02 am

    Ive never explore sunrise portraits before, now I want too. Hopefully with amazing results :)

  • Eli April 22, 2011 02:59 am

    I happen to like the photographs, and none look like very much post to me, she explained the technique and gave examples that were spot on.

  • Trish April 22, 2011 02:55 am

    Ignore the nastiness. People who think this is just not their style and are just not impressed should just not comment if they have nothing constructive to add. Calling out DPS for credible contributors? I nominate Celesta to start contributing so that we can all tell her whether or not we believe she is convincing!

    Christina has a very wide range of knowledge. I love most of her work and I find her technical knowledge surpasses my own. In addition, I find her articles pleasantly written and easy to understand. Thank you, Christina, for sharing your expertise with us!!!

  • MJ April 22, 2011 02:09 am

    I love the images and the articles as well. I am inspired to get up early in the morning to experiment. That is the objective of these articles. Thank you.

  • W.Speziali April 22, 2011 02:07 am

    Interesting comment from Celesta but as pointed out it is personal taste. and we all have our likes and dislikes.

    I actually found the article interesting not necessarily from the photo's but the idea that was being conveyed. To that end has caught my attention and gives me another thing to try, and if it requires some post processing thats no big deal.

    As I've follwed this site DPS for past 2 years, I have found it does what it says in its name, I also note that it has benefits to both those who are starting out and those who are experienced. Its unfortunate that some peopel are quick to be crictical of contributors, I would like to see them make a contribution and see how they fair.
    To Christina thanks for a good food for thought article

  • Georgino April 22, 2011 01:56 am

    Yea people who have nothing to show are the biggest critics.
    The shots are very good; you applied all modern techniques what most clients want to see these days. Thanks again for great article and keep up the good work.

  • ScottC April 22, 2011 01:27 am

    So Celesta, where's the link to your exemplary sunrise portrait photos?

    I don't think DPS could find a more credible contributor than Christina Dickson.

    Certainly not every aspect of every photo is perfect, but I haven't seen so many sunrise portraits (a brave attempt, even without contributiing an article) that I'd consider these sub-par in any way.

    I'm not a portrait photographer, but these last two articles have piqued my interest by their emphasis on natural light. I just have to find someone willing to get up as early as I do.

    Even though not a portrait, I think this photo emphasizes some of the challenges involved. It's not "perfect" either, sunrise is not as "golden" as it's made out to be. Effort is required.

    Thanks to Christina for a very interesting article.

  • Celesta April 22, 2011 01:12 am

    I am sorry... It is just not convincing. The photographs show a lot of superficial postprocessing, and I would actually even put them through more, because I do not like what I see. There is a lot of unnecessary sepia that would probably be nice if it was not presented as a result of shooting at holden hour; I do not like the beige eyes that should be white; nothing on the photographs suggests that the potential of the golden hour was actually explored. Looks like they could have been taken at any time during the day and put through a lot of postprocessing effects to achieve this result.
    Sorry. Just my personal taste. I noticed that the author's previous articles also received very mixed feedback from the readers. Yes, I agree that we should all be humble with the extent of criticizing work of others who are potentially better than us, but still, I would really like DPS to look into it. Please, less controversial and more credible contributors.