Want Great Sunrise Photos? Get Up Early!

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The glow on the horizon starts to take over the blue hour.

Rookie mistake #1 when photographing sunrises – show up just before the sun rises.

When you should have been there at least 30 minutes earlier.

While out photographing a sunrise I almost always have the place to myself. That is right up until just a few minutes prior to the sun peeking over the horizon. That’s when other photographers start showing up.

Sadly for them quite often they’ve already missed the best part of sunrise.

Fire Over The Ridge. Sunrise In Crawford Notch, NH

The sky is on fire, 23 minutes before sunrise.

With the technology we have available as photographers today there are easily dozens, if not hundreds of sources to find out what time sunrise is. From smartphone apps to a quick Google search an aspiring sunrise photographer can easily find out what time that big fiery ball in the sky will be making its daily appearance.

What none of these apps will tell you is that by showing up right at sunrise, or even just a few minutes before, may very well cost you the best light of the morning.

Which is why I always recommend showing up 30-45 minutes prior to sunrise,  the best light is often long before actual sunrise(each of the above photos was taken at least 20 minutes before).

No more running around while the light is fading.

Reason number two for showing up early is choosing compositions. By showing up early you then have plenty of time to chose your composition, or possibly multiple compositions. Light changes fast, if you know ahead of time exactly which compositions you would like to capture you can capture each one quickly because you’ve done a little scouting having arrived with plenty of time before the sun comes up. If on the other hand you show up right as the light is at its best, or the sun is just peeking over the horizon you then end up rushing around and having to settle on a composition that may not be the best one on that particular day.

The photo below illustrates this point. Nubble Light is one of themes photographed lighthouses in the U.S., therefor I like to try for something a little different each time I photograph it. By arriving at the parking lot 45 minutes before the sun came up I was able to wander around the rocks until I found just the composition and point of view I wanted. Had I shown up just as the sun rose above the horizon I would have had considerably less time to chose my composition and then set up my camera and tripod.

Sunrise and Rough Seas at Nubble Light

The composition I wanted, not the one I had to settle for. 

While the early bird is out catching their worms, the early photographers are capturing the best light.

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9 thoughts on “Want Great Sunrise Photos? Get Up Early!

  1. thank you for this great guidance…I was up and about this morning; yet, didn’t take time to explore the weather report…and…a dark cloud bank in the east…sigh

    • You’re very welcome Brenda. You never know what the weather will bring. I don’t always pay too close attention to the weather unless it’s going to be terrible. Even if there isn’t going to be a great sunrise to photograph there is always something to make a photo of.

  2. Hi Jeff,
    Just found you on IG and came to your blog. Great images and great advice. Wondering if you could share a little or write about all the filters you use? I read about the CPL but wondered what filters you have and use. Looking forward to take one of your workshops too. I live in Salem, NH and think that would be a great way to get to know the state.
    Thanks again.
    Eric

    • Hi Eric,

      Besides the CPL, which I consider the one filter every landscape photographer should have, there are several other filters I use regularly. I have two graduated neutral density (GND) filters, both made by Singh Ray. For sunrise seascapes I use the Daryl Benson 3-stop reverse GND a lot. Kind of on the expensive side, but since buying it I couldn’t live without it. The other is the Galen Rowell 3-stop soft edge GND , also on the pricey side. There are less expensive options such as Lee and Hitech. I also use the Lee Big Stopper 10-stop neutral density filter, though this one doesn’t get a lot of use because though I like the results I get, I rarely have the patience to sit around waiting for a 3 minute exposure. 🙂 Lastly I have another Singh Ray filter, the Vari-N-Duo which is a CPL and an 8-stop variable ND filter. (By the way, I have no affiliation with Singh Ray).

      As for workshops, just let me know when you’re ready. I have a waterfalls workshop coming up the weekend of June 24-25 that still has openings, as well as two fall foliage workshops scheduled. I also do private workshops at the same rates as my small group workshops. For a private workshop I’m more able to taylor on to your needs and abilities both with a camera as well as based on your fitness level. There are some amazing views here in NH that require some effort and a decent level of fitness to get to. But there are also plenty of great locations that require little more than a short walk from the car. For more details you can use the contact page here on my blog or message me via my Fan Page.

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