Every landscape photographer has at the very least a couple of stunning sunrise pictures in their portfolios.
If we think of a beautiful landscape photo, the first things that come to mind are images of beautiful sunrises or sunsets. Often people think that these photos are easy to take, since the light is so beautiful and the scenery so stunning, that should be enough to obtain a great image. But is it that easy?
Achieving good results when shooting sunrises or sunsets is not easy.
I particularly love shooting at the earliest hours of the day, but sunrises can be hard to capture.
It takes quite some effort to build the habit of shooting at sunrise, but trust me it’s totally worth it. I wrote down a series of steps I always follow for capturing amazing sunrises pictures and I want to share it with you. So these are my best tips for taking sunrise pictures.
It applies to any style of photography and could be also considered part of your planning, but you can do it anytime really. Start using Instagram, 500px (here’s my profiles Instagram, 500px) and Google images to see what other photographers have done in that location. Feed your brain with great images, check the work of expert photographers and don’t be afraid of not being original, you can shoot a place hundreds of times and I guarantee you that you will obtain always different results. The light is always going to be different, the clouds in the sky and the weather conditions in general are constantly creating different scenarios for us to capture our amazing images. You can save on your computer or on your phone screenshots of some of your favourite artists’ work and try to study what they have in common, try to see which effect or result you think you want to try to reproduce and go for it!
Plan in advance
This is especially true for people just starting in landscape photography. The best sunrise and sunset images come out of a good planning.
Be mindful of all the aspects, what you need to bring with you, how to reach the desired location, where to park your car, how long is the walk, how the light will be and the composition you would like to create. You’ve got enough inspiration from the step before and sometimes it’s useful to try and “draw” in your mind the final image you want to obtain.
Study what some of the possible compositions are so that you’ll get an idea of what you want to achieve.
If it’s my first time I go to a location, I always try to know as much as I can about it.
I do my research, from where to park my car to how to reach the place and what could be the possible angles to shoot.
Make sure that everything is in your bag from the night before, all your gear, extra batteries for your camera (make sure to charge them), filters, tripod and that you know exactly at what time is the sunrise and from which direction the sun gets up. I use the app The Photographer’s Ephemeris, you can download the app for both iOS and Android at this link.
It’s a really useful tool because it tells you the exact direction from where the sun is going to illuminate your composition. If possible it’s also really important to know if the sky is going to be clear or covered with clouds. A cloudy sky can be a really beautiful addition to your background, but a sky entirely obscured by clouds is not going to let the light through and I can look dull.
Arrive early on location
The alarm clock buzzes early. Very early… Too early! You weakly open your eyes, barely remember who and where you are, and most importantly why you’ve set up the alarm that early. Well at least this is what happens to me every single time I weak up (or try) for a sunrise shoot!
I know this sounds obvious but trust me it’s not easy to achieve and I promise we’ll talk about camera settings in a second. Arriving early on location is probably one of the most important rules of landscape photography and it’s fundamental to get awesome sunrise pictures. It happened to me as well and I see so many photographers getting to the spot at the last second when the good light is just about to come up and I see them struggle with setting up their cameras since they’re in a rush and they fear they are going to miss the shot. It’s not easy I get it, but for sunrises (or sunsets) it is crucial to be there at the right time to capture the proper light. Sometimes it’s a matter of minutes if not seconds. You must be on the spot at least 30 minutes before sunrise. Ready, with everything already set up.
Yes because setting up your camera can take time and if you’re in a rush you might risk to forget something important. After setting up your camera on you tripod you must define your composition and probably if it’s a popular location, there will be other photographers already occupying the best vantage points. You’ll get really surprised from how many people actually planned to go shooting the same location.
There’s nothing worse than finding you can’t take photos from the angle you wanted because someone is already there.
Wake up on time and arrive early! 😉
What to do when you are on location
The first thing I do when I arrive on location is to take a few quick snaps to study my composition and analyze a few possible angles. Only after, I decide where exactly I want to position my tripod (you can’t shoot a sunrise or a sunset without a tripod, more on that later).
It’s worth exploring the area a little bit and walking around to see how the composition changes depending on where we position ourselves. Doing so will guarantee that you can go home with the best possible composition you could take on that day.
Since you’ve arrived early, you’ll have time to change the viewpoint if after a few clicks you’re not happy with the initial images. Often we don’t realise that there’s a better vantage point close to us, a better angle just a few meters from where we are and that would make the final composition look so much more interesting.
Use a tripod when shooting sunrise
Sunrises (and sunsets) create beautiful colors in the sky and cast that wonderful golden light that makes your photos look stunning.
But the intensity of light is little, compared to other hours of the day.
You’ll need to set your camera to a smaller aperture (let’s say f/11) and a slower shutter speed to make sure that the camera sensor gets hit by enough light and it’s able to collect enough information. This is called increasing the length of the exposure. When doing so, you’ll need to hold your camera completely still or the final picture will be shaky and blurred. That’s why you need a tripod.
The tripod I use is the Manfrotto Befree. It’s not an expensive tripod, it’s light and compact and I bring with me pretty much everywhere and so far I am really happy with the results I’ve achieved with it. If you don’t have a tripod I highly recommend taking a look at it.
You can learn more about long exposure in landscape photography by reading my post 11 Tips to improve your long exposure photography
These are the settings I generally use to capture a landscape at sunrise. You can try to experiment with them too and let me know your results.
Ask me questions in the comments below or simply share your experience if you want. I would be really happy to read it and I always reply.
To the settings now:
Aperture and Shutter speed: I shoot landscapes in Aperture Priority Mode. I set the aperture value and the camera decides the appropriate shutter speed.
I like it this way because I have an easier control on the Depth of Field (DOF). For a landscape, I always want everything in focus and I achieve that by shooting from f/8 to f/16 depending on the effect I want to obtain. In Aperture Priority Mode, the camera will decide how long the exposure must be.
ISO = 200 with long shutter speed you don’t need high ISO.
I shoot with an Olympus OE-M EM1 Mark II and the minimum ISO value is 200. Set the ISO to the lowest value as possible on your camera. It can be 200, 100 or 50, depending on your camera. A low ISO will give you the sharpest possible results. This is another reason you always need a tripod for a sunrise or sunset landscape. Shooting at low ISO in Aperture Priority mode will lower the shutter speed, meaning you cannot hand hold your camera or your final image will be blurred.
Use an ND Filter. For best results, you need a Neutral Density filter. ND filters give you control over the exposure and creative control over the shutter speed.
Using a filter will make it so the quantity of light that hits the sensor of your camera is reduced, hence the camera will increase the exposure time (decreasing the shutter speed).
Don’t stop shooting
Experiment with different focal lengths, different angles, shoot also when the sun is already high in the sky because the light will be constantly changing and you can obtain different effects. Also remember, going back to a location will always give you a different scenario. It will never be the same as the time before. Keep shooting and if you follow the steps above you will definitely achieve great results with your photos!
I hope that you find these simple tips for shooting better sunrise helpful. My goal is to inspire you and to get you more motivated and start your journey in sunrise photography. If you’re already into it I really hope you can learn something new.
Share this article on social media now! Doing so will help me expanding my audience and I can write more articles like this to help other people like you improving their photography skills.
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