Have you ever watched in awe as a spectacular sunrise unfolded before you? And then looked at your photos and discovered they only turned out ho-hum? Try these hacks for better sunrise photography.
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Sunrises Always Leave Me with a Feeling of Awe
I confess I felt a little guilty as I shot photo after photo of the ho-hum sunrise that turned into an awe-inspiring event. All those amazing shots while my friend Julie missed out on the spectacle (you can read about that here).
A spectacular sunrise (or sunset) fills me with awe, no matter what else might be going on in my life. I’ll drop everything when I see a good sunrise brewing and dash out the door in my pajamas to find just the right spot to capture the awe of sunrise. It doesn’t matter if I don’t have my DSLR handy, either. My iPhone takes beautiful photos, too.
My first attempts at capturing the awe of a spectacular sunrise didn’t turn out so great, though. I had the settings on my camera wrong and usually ended up with a washed-out mess (or blurry objects in the foreground).
I’ll share the lessons I’ve learned along the way. Make some time this weekend to venture outside in the early morning with your camera and discover the awe of a sunrise as seen through your camera’s lens. PJs are optional.
Tips for Capturing the Awe of a Sunrise
1. Use a phone weather app.
Find out the weather conditions and exact time the sun will come up. I check my Weather Underground app to find out first light and sunrise times. If you want to spend $10, you can buy PhotoPills—an app that helps you plan in great detail based on your location. An app like this comes in handy if you want to shoot moon or Milky Way shots, as well as spectacular sunrises and sunsets.
2. Dress appropriately.
You can always take off a layer or two, but if your fingers can’t move because of the cold, you’ll regret their clumsiness. Keep a package or two of HotHands or Little Hotties with you. Standing around waiting for the sun to come up can freeze your hands and your feet.
3. Be aware.
Carry bear spray and bring a buddy. Don’t trample things in your attempt to get the perfect shot.
4. Scout ahead of time.
If possible, look for interesting landmarks to use as a frame for your sunrise photos. Rock outcroppings, trees, man-made structures, and water all provide visual interest. Bonus points of you can get a sunrise shot with an animal. What will turn your photo from ordinary to awe-inspiring?
5. Use a tripod.
If you don’t have a tripod, use something to keep your camera completely steady. I’ve used rocks, a wadded-up jacket, a backpack, the hood of my car, and sticks. Can you tell I’m often out and about without my tripod? Plan ahead so you can get great shots even if you don’t have a tripod.
6. Learn your camera’s settings.
Review the second, third, and fourth posts in this series for tips on how to learn about all of your camera’s settings. You don’t want to fumble around with this in the semi-darkness and cold.
7. Wear a headlamp.
A flashlight works (I’ve even used my phone flashlight in a pinch), but a headlamp will give both of your hands freedom to set up equipment and change settings on your camera. I’ve learned to keep a headlamp in my camera bag.
8. Change your point of view often.
Don’t stay glued to one spot while shooting sunrise photos. Work the scene by moving down low, to one side or the other, and getting a little higher. You can never predict how an ordinary tree can turn your photo into an awe-inspiring masterpiece.
9. Don’t forget to check your back.
Often times, the sun playing over mountain tops behind you will inspire just as much awe as the sunrise in front of you. Check over your shoulder to see what the backstory looks like.
10. Take time to breathe deeply.
Enjoy the awe of every sunrise experience, whether you get a spectacular photo or not.
Try These Camera Settings for Better Sunrise Photographs
You’ll want to experiment with different settings based on how soon before the actual sunrise you start shooting.
Before the sun comes up, the sky will turn amazing colors you might want to capture. Try setting your ISO at 400 and your shutter speed to 10 or 20 seconds. You’ll want a tripod or something to stabilize your camera at this shutter speed. Experiment with aperture settings, remembering that the smaller the f-stop number the more light will come in to your camera and the closer your focal point will be. If you want to capture a rosy glow, change your white balance to cloudy or shady.
As the sun starts to rise, switch to ISO 100. Change your shutter speed to one-half to one-fifths seconds and close your aperture down (make the number bigger) so more of the scene will end up in focus.
You may also want to use your camera’s [exposure compensation] feature. This allows you to underexpose the photo because your camera will naturally want to expose the photo based on the brightest light. Some cameras allow you to bracket the exposure so you can take three photos in quick succession at different exposure settings. One underexposed, one in the middle, and one overexposed. Just don’t forget to take your camera off this setting when you finish your sunrise shoot.
If you have time and money, you could also invest in a gradient filter for your lens. A gradient filter helps even out the lighting. You can also do this when you process the photos with a program like Adobe Lightroom.
Point and Shoot Cameras
You have more limitations with a point and shoot camera, but you can still get out there and experiment! My little seven-year-old Nikon Coolpix even has a dawn/dusk scene selection I could use. In addition, it has a handy +/- button that lets me quickly dial in exposure compensation.
You can always try shooting from different points of view and experiment with the different scenes that come pre-programmed into your camera.
With an iPhone, you can change where your camera meters the light by touching the screen in the spot you want the camera to use. I usually try to meter off the brightest point (the sun). Remember to work the scene and try taking your photo from different angles.
Come Back Tomorrow
Tomorrow I’ll continue the Behind the Lens with a post on creativity and point of view.