10 Tips for those new to morning sunrise

Now I must begin by saying I am not a morning person.  My wife will confirm at home an early morning weekend involves a grumble at 8am, one eye open at 9am and potentially a vertical position by 10.  But when I travel there is a different me.  And I think it is due to the magic of our country under a rising sun.

The following information is not designed for more advanced photographers who want to delve in to graduated filters or multiple exposures and blending.  I may save that for later. This is for those who are wanting to improve their skills. All the photos below are with minimum post processing that many should be able to achieve with most cameras.

Tip 1 – the first tip starts the day before.  If I know I am going to get up early the next morning I will do a couple of things.  Firstly I will use an app on my phone. The best known is the Photographers Ephemeris but I also use lightTrac.  Both of these apps are great at telling you not only what time the sun rises but also exactly what direction.  This is important to know if there are hills or headlands that may be in the way.  If I have google maps available I will also use this to scout for a location.  It is also good to see the weather forecast saying partly cloudy day as this is when the fireworks really occurs.

Tip 2 - The next is to have all my gear ready the night before.  My wife is not a fan of me getting up from the camp site at 5am making a racket clambering over her in the tent trying to find my gear.  So the night before I pack everything, including my clothes for the morning.  Some of the must haves to check before I go to bed include fresh batteries to the camera and a head torch.

Tip 3 - For those new to taking early morning photos you really do need a tripod.  When the sun is up you can capture some photos hand held but you have already missed the best part of the morning. You will need a tripod as the speeds on your camera may be several seconds (or can be as long as 1 minute).

Tip 4 is to be there BEFORE sunrise.  The most amazing light nearly always occurs about 20 minutes before the sun breaks the horizon.  If you are lucky to have clouds in the sky you will be mesmerised.  The same goes for sunsets.  I cant count the number of times we have been at a popular place watching the sun set.  As soon as the sun drops below the horizon everyone packs and leaves.  Then 10 minutes later the sky lights up in a blaze of colour. Also don’t forget to look behind you.  Sometimes it is the light on the other horizon that is more spectacular.

Tip 5 relates to your camera setting.  While most cameras now days have program settings if you can use the ‘Manual’ or ‘Aperture Priority’ mode on your camera you will notice the difference.

While I will generally have an aperture of around f8 or f11 to have a large depth of field, the good news is there is no correct setting and it is often a matter of experimenting.  If the sun has not come up yet I will often raise my ISO (up to 800 but it really depends on your camera).

Are your photos bright and overexposed with washed out sky?  This is because your camera is looking at a very high contrast from a bright sky to dark foreground objects.  As it can't expose for both it will often expose for the foreground resulting in an over exposed sky (often washing out those great colours).  Therefore you will want to compensate by manually under exposing the image. This should give you a nice dark silhouette.

To do this, if your camera has a ‘bracket exposure’ feature use it (this is where the camera takes three or more photos at different exposures).  Otherwise just do this your self by using the ‘Manual’ or ‘Aperture Priority’ mode. Keep the aperture the same and change your exposure compensation by up to 2 stops. 

Tip 6 – if you shoot in RAW then this is not an issue but assuming you are still new to this and shooting in jpeg then change your camera’s ‘white balance’ off auto to ‘cloudy’ of ‘shade’.  This gives your image a more golden warm colour.

Tip 7 – you don’t need a cable release.  While beneficial especially if you have a DSLR to stop any vibration from the mirror you can also set your self time to 2 or 5 seconds.  This means you can press the shutter then move your hand away from the camera before it releases.

Tip 8  - find a spot and get set up.  Don’t wait until the last minute. I have found sunrise photos work better with some other element to the image (rocks, trees etc.). This provides depth, a greater sense of where you are and something of interest beyond just the sunset. The other advantage of this is it provides an opportunity for an interesting silhouette to be created. If I am in a place for a few days I will often scout out for a good place to go the next morning.  There is nothing worse than climbing a hill or beach in the dark if you have not been there during the day.


So your are there and the sun is 15 minutes from rising and all of a sudden the sky explodes.  You don’t have much time.

Tip 9 – experiment and have fun.  Try different exposures.  Don’t forget to zoom in if you have a zoom lens on.  But also take a moment to just enjoy.

Tip 10 – you should have captured some great photos already and now you can get ready for the sun to break the horizon.  I always find the best photos are just as the sun breaks the horizon.  Once it is higher it becomes very bright and difficult to shoot.  In these situations I look for an object to create some interest.  As the sun appears the object will form a nice silhouette. I will also adjust my aperture to something like f16 or f22 in order to get a nice lens flare (I will do a separate post on this later).

By this stage you have taken lots of photos and are ready for an early morning cuppa.  Or alternatively you could crawl back in to bed – but take my advice – DON’T wake your partner!

For those new to photography don’t try to compare your photos with many you see on the web.  Some of the amazing images where both the foreground is bright as well as the sun behind are done using filters and post processing. (NOTE - All the images in this post use basic editing with no use of filters or blending images). 

Next time you are travelling try setting the alarm a little bit earlier and try the above tips.  She often puts on an amazing light show.