• Sam Wilson

Sunrise Photography Tips

5 Tips To Improve Your Sunrise Photos

Including A Free Downloadable Checklist

"Just as the sun rises, a fresh start begins. We all have a choice.

Will you make the best of it?" - Jacqueline Cooper

The best light for landscape photography is at the beginning and end of each day - this is when the sky can fill with beautiful rich colours - most definitely worth getting up for.

Now let's get this out of the way - you have to get out of bed EARLY to capture a great sunrise, but it’s always worth it. And don’t forget you get rewarded with coffee AND beautiful images.

Holding a coffee showing a camera set up to photograph Bells Beach, Victoria from a lookout at sunrise
Sunrise Coffee At Bells Beach, Victoria

Most of these tips apply equally to photographing sunsets, but I really do prefer sunrise. This is mostly because I love being out for the start of the day, and also, you know - sunset is wine time!

So here are my top 5 tips for improving your sunrise photos -

  1. Planning

  2. Gear

  3. Composing Your Scene

  4. Camera Settings

  5. Adapt With The Light

1 - Planning

This can’t be stressed enough - those gorgeous photos you see with beautiful coloured skies usually aren’t created from luck.

Researching the location and potential conditions will give you a good indication of when the best time to head out and capture a stunning sunrise image.

Things to research include - First light and sunrise times, tides, direction of sun, weather, parking, gear needed etc.

Read more on ‘Planning A Sunrise Shoot’ HERE

Do you check your apps for the details and then have to check again because you've forgotten, or sick of writing it all down on scraps of paper, or forgetting to check something crucial (like the tides)?

Just below you can download my free Sunrise Photoshoot Checklist. This covers everything you need to plan your next sunrise photoshoot. Just save it somewhere handy and print as needed - this has made planning my shoots so much easier and hope you find value in it as well.

A downloadable checklist to plan a sunrise photoshoot - includes times, conditions and what to take
Free Checklist - just right click on the image and save it somewhere handy

Scout beforehand or research photos of location - this will also help with having a starting composition.

Arrive earlier than you think you should - there is nothing worse than driving to your location watching the sky light up with colour before you even get there - my suggestion is to time it so you are ready and set up at least 15 minutes before first light. Sometimes these earlier photos are the best of the day.

2 - Gear - What’s In The Bag?

Think about what you really need depending on how far you have to walk and how much you want to carry, but as a minimum I always pack the following -

  • Camera and lenses. I say lenses as I usually include at least 2 - a wide angle (16-35mm) and mid range (24-70mm). Sometimes I also include the telephoto (100-400mm) if I think I might want to zoom in and take some wave photos.

  • Cleaning cloths, spare memory cards and batteries

  • Filters - optional but handy to manage the dynamic range of light at sunrise

  • Remote - depending on your camera, you may need one of these for exposures longer than 30 seconds. You may also be able to use your phone.

  • Torch or headlamp - this I put in my pocket before I leave the house as I use it almost every time I head out.

Composition is absolutely key! Get a good framing and you're well on your way to a good image.

If you’ve researched beforehand you should have some compositions in mind to get you started (especially if it’s dark).

Your phone can come in really handy as a composition tool - much easier than walking around with your camera if you haven’t set up yet.

If you’re at the beach, look where the waves are crashing, interesting rocks, or other items in the foreground, headlands - anything really to give you a point of interest other than just the sun.

If you have an incredible sunrise full of a colourful sky, this may suffice, but be aware this is definitely not the case most of the time, so look for that interest factor as a priority.

Keep that horizon straight.

The rule of thirds is a great starting point with your composition - if you’ve got an interesting sky, fill the frame with ⅔ sky and ⅓ foreground - swap this around if you’ve got a great foreground, or a less than impressive sky.

Look around you! Quite often the best light is not where the sun is rising, but where it is hitting or there may be beautiful colour and clouds in the sky behind you.

The Sun Was Rising Over On The Left Side Of This Image, But The Light On This Headland Was Just Beautiful

Bear in mind that the light can change very quickly, so focus on getting that first shot on the memory card that you’re happy with before looking around and getting sidetracked.

Camera Settings

ISO - 100

Aperture - F8 - F11

Shutter Speed - adjusted accordingly to achieve the correct exposure

White Balance - I tend to leave this on auto as I shoot in raw, and can change it while editing. If you are shooting in Jpeg you will need to consider this when setting up. As a starting point check out auto or cloudy (if indeed there are clouds around).

What about Focus in the dark?

Can be tricky early on in the morning, but this can be helped by focusing a bit closer while shining your torch (well worth having a powerful light source)

Tip - set these up on your camera before you leave home so you’ve

got less fiddling to do in the dark

Adapt Your Settings With The Light

The light can change very quickly so make sure you’re continually checking your exposure and making adjustments as it gets lighter. The main thing to change here will be your shutter speed - it should get shorter and shorter as the sun comes up.

Don’t leave too early (yet another reason for bringing a coffee from home)

Now it’s time for that well earned coffee and breakfast - enjoy!

A Well Earned But Decadent Breakfast That Almost Looked Too Pretty To Eat ... Almost

Final thoughts - Post shoot

As soon as I get home I upload and save my images. The card then gets formatted, battery recharged, quick clean, settings checked and then your camera is ready for the next outing.

The next step is editing and sharing your images but that will have to wait for another time …

That’s it for now - Keep smiling and stay caffeinated

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Note - This post does not contain any sponsored or affiliated links. All suggestions and opinions are mine. Unless otherwise stated, all photos are mine and remain my copyright images - Sam Wilson Photography.

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