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Great photos occur when they do and not when it’s convenient for you. Part of being passionate about photography is the willingness to shoot during the best times of the day…and early morning is one of them. You may not be a morning person, but being on location, with your camera ready, 20 to 30 minutes before sunrise is well worth the effort, even if you can only schedule it a few times a month.
Of course, the period before and just after sunrise is one of the “magic hours” of the day for photographers, videographers and filmmakers. The light is diffuse and the rays of the sun penetrate the atmosphere, clouds and fog at an obtuse angle, creating rich colors both subtle and spectacular and shadows and contrasts not found at any other time of the day.
A productive sunrise shoot begins with proper preparation. If possible, then dedicate a previous morning to a scouting trip, just to find excellent positions and camera angles. Remember, the best part of sunrise doesn’t last very long, so you want your equipment ready, so you’re able to capture a maximum number of marvelous sunrises instead of scurrying across the landscape looking for places to shoot. Don’t limit your sunrise photography expedition to the wide-open spaces. Cityscapes and urban scenes can be quite interesting during these early morning hours, especially if you’re out before the commuting traffic has filled the streets. You can also wait until then to capture a different set of early-morning images, as the world comes alive to another day of work.
When you’ve decided on a date for an early morning sunrise photo session, begin to check the weather forecast a few days prior, and just before you go to bed the previous night. The weather doesn’t have to be totally clear to bring home some interesting sunrise images. In fact, some clouds, fog and even a bit of precipitation are elements that will add greatly to your composition, especially how the light affects them. Knowing the weather will also help you be dressed appropriately. It may be early, but there is no reason to be uncomfortable. Remember, the ground, vegetation and roads may be wet from dew, so wear the right kind of shoes. Even if the rain is not in the forecast, bring your raingear or at least a wide-brimmed hat.
In addition to dressing appropriately, it’s a good idea to bring a flashlight. You may also want a towel to wipe any equipment that becomes wet. In terms of photography equipment, you’ll want a good tripod and a wireless shutter release if possible to give you more shooting and exposure latitude than just handheld images at faster shutter speeds. Pack a graduated ND, or neutral density, filter too, so you can balance a very bright sky with the dark ground elements.
You’ll want to be able to shoot with 2 focal lengths: wide-angle for landscape photos and telephoto if you want to fill the frame with the sun as it rises over the horizon. A telephoto zoom with the right focal length selections could be all you need, for example, an 18–270mm, or you might try a 18–135mm with a teleconverter. Make sure your battery is fully charged, your memory card has plenty of room and consider taking a backup for each.
In the Shooting Mode
If everything goes as planned, then you’ll have your camera on a tripod in the location you’ve pre-selected approximately 20 minutes before the sun first appears above the horizon. Your eyes are not likely to be as sensitive to the soft light as your camera, so choose the cloudy or shade white-balance mode.
The light level will change quickly during the few minutes of actual sunrise, so your exposure values will need to be adjusted just as quickly. Consider bracketing and recording many images. You can always use editing software to blend multiple images for a better rendering of highlights and shadows. When you go to a telephoto focal length to fill most of your frame with the sun use the sky next to the sun for spot metering, but bracketing is still a good idea.
The standard composition guidelines apply to sunrise photography, such as the rule-of-thirds. Remember never to place the horizon line across the middle of the image. Either show more sky or compose a wide-angle view with a smaller, complementary or contrasting object in the foreground.
You may discover that shooting early morning sunrise photos is much easier than waking while it’s still dark; but when you do you’ll have a collection of photos your lazy photo buddies will never take.
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Image credit: almir1968 / 123RF Stock Photo
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