How to Shoot a Sunrise: Part 1

I love a good sunrise. I don’t mind getting up and driving through the night to catch one. In fact, it takes me back to when my dad would wake me up to go duck hunting. There is always a sense of excitement as you never really know what you are going to see that day.

However, with all that anticipation also comes a bit of skill that needs to be cultivated over time. No two sunrises are the same and they all need careful attention and experience. Understanding the finer points of this style of photography will help you come back with more images that you are proud of.

It does take a bit of planning too. I typically start to organize my shoots the night before, if it is a location that I am familiar with. If I have never been there before, I will take a bit of time to plan and scout the location at least virtually anyway. Peter West Carey has a decent overview of the process over at Digital Photography School.


For some shots you might get lucky and be able to drive up at sunrise and capture something. However, most good shots take a bit of planning. Particularly with regards to weather, time and location.

Weather is a big one as there is nothing more disappointing than getting up at 3 am, driving for an hour or more, getting set up and then finding out that it is a cloudy day and the sun is not visible.

So to start, I check the weather apps and even going so far as to check the local meteorological sites to see what they say. One of my favourite apps is Weather Live as it has a lot of information that can be useful to photographers.

Also note that sometimes the sunrises are epic after a storm or a period of rain. If the forecast shows partly cloudy skies, you may get lucky and have an epic sunrise. Ideally, you are looking for partly cloudy skies as you want some sort of detail in the sky. Clear skies are fine if your foreground in detailed enough but it can’t beat an epic sky with clouds and colour.


So now that you know that the weather is nice, you want to choose and fine tune your location. I use a site (and app) called The Photographer’s Ephemeris to choose and virtually scout my locations. It shows you a map of your location and tells you where the sun is going to rise. There is a ton of information there but for now focus on the yellow line. That shows you the direction of the sun in relation to your chosen spot.

This is important because the sun is not always in the same spot all year long. This means that if you go to the same spot in the summer and then in the winter, the sun will be in two drastically different spots along the horizon.

If I would have gone to the spot, the sun would have been blocked by the mountains.

For example, I was just talking to some fellow photographers about going to Pohang to shoot a sunrise. However, when I checked the Photographer’s Ephemeris, it showed me that at this time of the year at that location, the sun would be blocked by the mountains on the far side of the beach.

PhotoPills Augmented Reality feature

In the Field, I like to use PhotoPills as it gives me an augmented-reality (AR) view of the rising sun. This is particularly helpful to make minute adjustments on location. If you are waiting for the sun to come up you can shift your position using the AR view to get the best spot for your composition.


Timing is vital and also should be planned out after the location is chosen. This allows you to factor in driving and set up time. Typically, I like to arrive before the sunrise in the morning blue hour phase. This often leads to some great shots as well.

It also takes the pressure off. It gives you a bit of time to do a final scout of the location from the ground level, use the AR in PhotoPills to get into the right spot and then get set up.

Arriving early also allows you to possibly secure a decent spot. In popular places, there are going to be a ton of photographers. Many of whom will arrive just before day break. If you give yourself a bit of a time buffer you can hopefully beat a large portion of the crowd.


During that initial scouting time, I look for places or things that catch my eye. This should be done as you are walking up to your location and well before the sunrise. If there are not too many people around a headlamp can be used to find your way and see what’s around you. I caution the use of headlamps at times because you may accidentally lightpaint another photographers shot.

Look for foreground elements and things that are pleasing to the eye. Use the rule of thirds to adjust for these elements. If the foreground is bland but there are epic clouds in the sky, drop that horizon down.

If the sky is boring, then look for elements in the foreground that can balance the frame. These could be rock formations in the water, train tracks or roads, maybe even rows of trees. So here you can see the importance of scouting. If you can get to a location the day before or find images of the area online, you can pre-plan your shots without scrambling around in the dark.

Set Up

You absolutely have to have a tripod. I see too many photographers trying to jack up their ISO or thinking that when the sun comes up they won’t need it. PLEASE JUST USE A TRIPOD. Also use your camera’s timer or a remote shutter release to reduce the vibrations cause to pressing the shutting button on your camera.

One of the things that I love is a golden hour long exposure shot. Something about the pre-dawn colours is really nice. You can use filters to achieve some great results. A 10-stop Neutral Density (ND) filter or a graduated ND filter can produce some stunning results.

longer exposures can smooth out the water bringing more attention to your subject

I shoot in aperture priority for the most part when I shoot landscapes. There is a narrow window of time for getting good shots and if you are not dialed in correctly, you will miss the shot. This also means do not try and show off by shooting in full manual mode if you don’t have to.

Shooting in aperture priority allows me to adjust only the aperture without worrying about the shutter speed. It just cuts down of the amount of things that I have to worry about. If I am using a filter, I will switch to bulb and make sure that I have my settings dialed in for the filter that I am using.

I use the lowest possible ISO that I can. On my canon it is 100 or if you go into the settings menu, you can change the lowest possible ISO to 50. This will increase the exposure time, so you absolutely need that tripod.

In Part 2, I will discuss the editing involved in the creation of most of these images. For now, focus on the first step and that is getting right in camera first.

Too often people think that they can “fix it later” but photoshop or lightroom can only do so much and if your photo lacks a story or good composition then you are out of luck.

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