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Taking Better Sunrise Pictures

Sunrise on the water - sailboat silhouetted in the glow

I have been a photographer for many, many years. And one of my favorite subjects is sunrises. Yeah, I know; I am an early bird, so that makes it easier for me. But besides luck, there are a few critical factors in getting those exceptional shots that people ooooh and ah over. And sunsets also provide stunning colors if you don’t like getting up early. Several factors are involved in getting better than average sunrise and sunset pics. Many of these will be obvious to any experienced photographers out there. But even the pros have their areas of specialization, and if this isn’t yours, then I can give you a few pointers. You can bet that I read other people’s blogs and articles to learn as much as possible.

What part does weather play in getting good sunrise pictures?

 Look at the weather forecast. But be aware; a clear morning may well mean dull skies in your sunrise pictures. But you also can’t always rule out the forecast that says mostly cloudy. A break in those clouds at the right time could give you a great shot. Having some clouds in your picture can add a lot of variety, texture, and color when shooting sunrises. High, puffy clouds are also great. Ideally you will want a good mix of clouds and open sky on the horizon.

Why is location important when taking sunrise pictures?

 If you can find a spot with a reasonably open body of water, like a lake or ocean, that helps. Reflections can add to the effect. Or an excellent silhouette to use, such as an old barn. Or even better, something nobody else has done that you can think of that will accentuate the brilliant colors. I try to scout out the location ahead of time, when possible, to know what features are available. If nothing else you want a clear view of the horizon, which is not always easy to find.

Why does composition matter when taking sunrise pictures?

 Composition is always important in any photograph. Try to compose the image to get the best effect. Some photographers believe you only need one shot to get it right if you know what you are doing. I have had success taking various perspectives, angles, and settings over a wide range of times. In fact, I frequently get several good shots from each sunrise or sunset because I take various shots throughout the shoot. Colors, clouds, wildlife, and many factors can vary immensely and provide distinctly different photos of the exact location.

An important part of composition includes adding depth to your landscape images. Cameras take two-dimensional images, but our eyes and brains work together to show us life in three dimensions. Your landscape pictures, such as sunrises, will look much more appealing to the eye if you include foreground, mid-ground, and background elements. Move around in all three dimensions. You would be surprised what a difference a shot from 6 inches off the surface of the ground or water will look like compared to eye level. Even zooming in or out (or using different lenses) to include different terrain features and varying colors can give a very different look. A dock, old pier, pilings, rocks in the water, something to add character.

How early should I arrive to take sunrise pictures?

 Don’t start at “sunrise,” the official time. Some great colors show up about 30-45 minutes before sunrise or 30-45 after sunset. Be patient and be early. Scout the area to see what elements would improve your pictures, and what things you want to avoid. 

What camera settings should I use for sunrise pictures?

As with all landscape photos, you want to make sure that the entire picture will be in sharp focus. Use a small aperture setting (large number) such as F22, and a long exposure time. Use the highest number (smallest opening) aperture that gives a good image to get great depth of field. Shoot with a negative exposure compensation. Not too much, but 1/2 to 2/3 of a stop. It helps pull out those great colors even more. You can also use exposure bracketing to help make sure you get the best exposure.  And focus about 1/3 of the way into the image area so that everything is sharp. And, of course, use a tripod and cable release or timer. 


 Composition matters. Use a small aperture and long exposure time. And finally, be patient and have fun. Not every attempt will produce great shots. Mother nature is not always cooperative. Oh, and I almost forgot to add something. Look around; sometimes, the best shot is behind you, whether shooting sunrises or anything else. Don’t focus on one thing to the point of missing other equally interesting pictures you had not anticipated. You will find other articles on photography in my blog at

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