How to photograph sunrises like a pro

How to capture stunning sunrise images like a pro

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As a traveller, becoming a photographer is one of the best decisions you will ever make. It’s not because it can take you to the most beautiful places in the world (that’s already the plan, right?!), but because it forces you to capture and experience your destination at the best possible time of day to do so.

Sunrise is every photographer’s open secret. It is, hands down, the best time to shoot – especially when you want to capture Queensland’s gorgeous eastern coast.

It’s a simple concept, but not always so simple in practice, so read ahead for our guide on how to nail the perfect sunrise images!

Be prepared

Photographing sunrises

The beauty of sunrise starts well before the sun is actually visible on the horizon, so you should be arriving in your location in near-darkness. Without city lights or a bright full moon, you’ll find it very difficult to see what you want to shoot, so it’s always crucial to plan your sunrise spot well ahead of time.

Explore as much as you can in daylight, then look east and imagine your scene with the sun rising in a good position for your planned shoot. If you want to be exact, the internet is your friend – there are plenty of websites and apps that will give you maps of the precise location and direction of the sun at any time of day. I use a free and simple app on my phone called SunPositionMap.

Gear up

How to take photos of a sunrise

The right gear is just as important as your location when snapping sunrise images. You’ll need:

  • Torch or headlamp – don’t hurt yourself while you set up in the dark!
  • Camera with manual settings override – DSLR or Mirrorless with a wide-angle lens is best.
  • Sturdy Tripod – the heavier, the better. Some tripods have a hook underneath the centre-column that holds your bag for extra weight.
  • Cable or wireless shutter remote – this allows ultra-long exposures over 30 seconds (in Bulb mode) while helping stop the camera movement that comes from physically pressing the shutter button. If you can’t bring a remote, find and use the 2-second timer in your ‘capture mode’ menu to keep the camera steady.
  • Lens Filters – My personal favourite is the ND Graduated filter, which helps balance the brightness of the sky with a darker foreground. A circular polarising filter (CPL) will also help remove glare from water and other reflective surfaces.

The technical side

Taking sunrise photos

The brightness level of a pre, mid and post-sunrise scene varies so dramatically that it’s impossible to provide a single recommendation for camera settings. The exact same aperture (lens opening width) and ISO (sensitivity to light) settings could require a 30-second exposure time half an hour before sunrise, and a 1/100-second exposure time half an hour after.

It’s best just to trust your tripod and stick to the basics of landscape photography – a narrow aperture and the lowest possible ISO – while adjusting the exposure time as the light changes. For me, this is usually around f/11-16 and ISO100.

Frame it right

Sunrise photography

The most important elements in a sunrise scene are the horizon and the sky – but it’s important to know how to make them work together.

The oldest and most famous composition technique is the rule of thirds, where the horizon is placed along a line marking 1/3 or 2/3 of the photo’s total height. This is a great way to start, and it allows you to decide whether to include more of the sky or foreground based on how interesting you find each. After you take some ‘safe’ frames using this technique, feel free to mix it up and try something different – breaking the rules is when you have the most fun!

After you take some ‘safe’ frames using this technique, feel free to mix it up and try something different – breaking the rules is when you have the most fun!

In the below photo, for example, I shot a half-half horizon and applied the rule of thirds to the mangrove tree instead.

Watch the clock

How to take photos of sunrises

Sunrise can be split up into three different periods: nautical twilight, civil twilight and daylight.

Nautical twilight lasts between around one hour to 30 minutes before sunrise, and is usually referred to as ‘first light’. This time provides deep blue skies with slight pink/purple cloud linings and some leftover stars. Shooting nautical twilight is almost impossible without a tripod, which allows you to capture creamy long exposure effects with water and fast-moving clouds.

Civil twilight is the final 30 minutes before sunrise. This time provides a huge, vibrant range of colour in both the sky and clouds, and is probably your best chance for a ‘hero shot’. The tripod is still important, but you will find it best shooting sharper exposures around the 1/2 to 5-second mark.

Daylight is all of the time after the sun actually rises above the horizon. The moment where the sun first appears is a great time to swap your wide angle for a telephoto lens, then zoom in and capture the red sun just as it’s breaching. Keep in mind that it’s very dangerous to look directly through an optical viewfinder at the sun, so it’s best to use live view and preview your photo through the screen!

Once the sun has risen, it should be bright enough to shoot handheld, and you will find a lot more freedom and control in packing away the clunky tripod and exploring your location extensively on foot.

Where to next?

Now you know the ‘how’ and ‘when’, it’s time to find the ‘where’! Check out our features on the best sunrise spots in Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Mackay for some inspiration, and tag #thisisqueensland on your photos so we can see them too.

Do you have any other sunrise photography tips to share?