Setting the Scene: How to Photograph Sunrise

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Learn to Photograph Sunrise

Photographing the warm glow of a sunrise is perhaps the most relaxing scene to capture…or is that because I’m usually still half asleep at the time?
Asleep or not, as the sun hovers below the horizon then slowly peeks above revealing more and more of the landscape with increased light, it’s pretty damn wonderful. Knowing the right settings to photograph sunrise as the sunlight progressively changes will enable you to operate effectively despite the early rise.
Sunrise photography is about being in the right place at the right time, too late and you’ll miss the colours. You need to also research which direction the sun rises in your location, if you’re after that beautiful burst of sunshine check which way faces east and try to find a location where you can compose a number of shots before and after the sun appears.
Beaches and coastal locations are a popular choice for sunrise mainly because you can work with both the water and sunlight, two elements that blend together beautifully. If you’re not near the coast, head for somewhere with a clear opening to the east so you can benefit from the early tones in the sky before the sun rises.

Planning the Location:

As I mentioned above, research places in your area that will face east or facilitate a good horizon. Keep an eye on the weather and time of year as the sunrise time is constantly changing! Aim to be at the location at least 30minutes ahead of the sunrise as it’s during this time that some real magic can happen.

Websites like Accuweather (my addition!) will tell you exactly what time sunrise is for your location along with hour by hour forecasts so you’ll know whether to expect clouds or a straight clear sky.

What Gear You Need:

When it comes to shooting sunrise, I like the less is more approach because no one likes to lug a huge bag of gear around at 5 or 6am. Keep it simple and know what you want to capture.
Typically I’ll take my Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II with a wide angle lens like the 7-14mm for landscapes and then my 40-150mm zoom for capturing more detailed shots and patterns once the sun has risen.
Having a lens that shoots nice and fast will enable you to capture shots with less noise during the early hours. Both of my lenses are f/2.8 meaning I can open the shutter nice and wide to capture the movement even when there’s really low light conditions.
Since the light will be low it will also help to have a tripod handy. If you don’t want to carry one (some days it’s just not fun), you can either shoot hand held and increase your ISO slightly or rest your camera on a bench, rock, building…basically whatever you can find. I’m all for making photography fun and sometimes leaving the tripod at home forces you to search for new ways to compose your image based on what’s available to rest your camera on.

Best Settings for Sunrise:

Shooting sunrise is the same as shooting in low light conditions. Before the sun rises above the horizon you’ll need to balance your ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture to allow enough light into your image yet also not too much that your shots end up blurry.
Below are some settings to get started with, as always take a test shot and then adjust as necessary.
30 minutes before Sunrise – ISO 400, Shutter Speed 10-20 seconds (for long exposures) or 1/400sec – 1/2000sec if you’re after a quick shot, Aperture f/2.8, white balance Shaded or Cloudy
Sunrise – ISO 100, Shutter Speed 1/2-5seconds depending on the outcome you’re looking for, Aperture f/14 (to enable sun stars) or f/6 if you’re going for a fast shot. Keep the white balance off auto and use either Shaded or Cloudy to bring out the warm tones.
Post Sunrise – ISO 100 (or as low as your camera will go), Shutter Speed 1/15 – 1/200sec, Aperture f/11 for clarity or f/2.8 if you’re shooting details and want the beautiful bokeh blur in the light.
*The above settings are to be used as a starting point only, play around with your settings to achieve the results you’re aiming for based on what light conditions appear while you’re photographing.

Composing Sunrise Photos:

From my point of view, composition is everything. Creating a shot with impact is all a result of composition and thinking about how to frame your image to enhance its perspective.
If you’re at the beach, look for lines, streams running into the ocean, breaking waves, headlands, anything that you can use to compose with the sunrise. Sometimes simply pointing in the direction of sunrise is enough if it’s producing firey skies but usually you’ll need to find an element to add to your image as an interesting feature.
For wide-angle landscapes, you’ll notice the sun will appear very small and distant in your image. This isn’t a bad thing if your composition is creative and showcases the landscape in the foreground. In natural environments keep a look out for feature rocks and trees that you can create your image around.
Alternatively, you can shoot with a zoom lens and increase the size of the sun simply by zooming into the horizon. Again though, watch for subjects to compose within your image.
Keep in mind the rule of thirds, it’s a great planning resource to have in the back of your mind when composing your shot. Rather than focusing the horizon in the dead centre of your image, place it in the bottom third and allow the top two thirds to be made up of the colourful sky.

One Last Tip:

Don’t forget to look behind! It’s easy to get carried away watching the sun rising before you but sometimes there’s more magic happening in the opposite direction. Capturing the anti-sunrise can produce gorgeous pastel pinks and purple colours that you won’t get facing the sun.
If you’ve got a great sunrise shot feel free to leave a link to your portfolio in the comments below or share on Instagram using the hashtag #thewanderinglens

Below are some sample photos and the settings I used to capture them with –

Settings: ISO 640, Shutter Speed 1/200sec, F/5.6, White Balance Cloudy. Shot handheld with my Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II at 135mm.

Settings: ISO 64, Shutter Speed 1/30sec, F/22, White Balance Cloudy. Shot handheld with my Olympus OM-D E-M1 MarkII at 120mm.

Settings: ISO 64, Shutter Speed 1/18sec, F/18, White Balance Cloudy. Shot handheld with my Olympus OM-D E-M1 MarkII at 12mm.

Settings: ISO 400, Shutter Speed 1/8000sec, F/2.8, White Balance Cloudy. Shot handheld with my Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II at 150mm.

Settings: ISO 64, Shutter Speed 1/10sec, F/22, White Balance Cloudy. Shot handheld with my Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II at 40mm.

Settings: ISO 64, Shutter Speed 1/2sec, F/22, White Balance Cloudy. Shot handheld with my Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II at 14mm.

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Lisa Michele Burns

Lisa Michele Burns

Photographer at The Wandering Lens
Lisa is the founder and photographer behind The Wandering Lens. As an Australian currently based in France she's never in one place for too long and is always looking for the next destination to photograph whether it be above or below the water. With 10+yrs as a professional photographer, all advice found on this site is from Lisa's personal experience on the road.
Lisa Michele Burns

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7 Comments

  1. Nicole

    March 14, 2017 at 6:27 am

    So you are saying I should get up for sunrise at least once in my life? haha

    • thewanderinglens

      March 31, 2017 at 12:49 am

      I’m with you for the sleeping in! But I recommend definitely trying it at least once 😉

  2. tess

    March 16, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    Thank you for breaking it down into easier to understand bits. i struggle with remembering settings so this is truly helpful. Beautiful photos are very inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Marlena

    March 24, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    Thanks for the tip about white balance, I always struggle to get the warm colours so it’s good to know I can change this! Love your site by the way 🙂

    • thewanderinglens

      March 31, 2017 at 12:55 am

      Thanks so much Marlena! Where are you reading from? Definitely give the white balance trick a try, it really changes the tones and pumps out those beautiful warm colours of sunrise!

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