How To Capture Sunrise Photos

The nerd realm has been abuzz with word of how wonderful the Eta Aquarid meteor shower was gonna be this year. The offspring of Halley’s comet, originating from Aquarius the Water Bearer, was all set to peak in the dark hours before dawn this morning. What’s more, the thin waning crescent moon was supposed to guarantee a great show this year, allowing the ionized gas trails to show persistent trains for seconds after the meteors have passed.

Since I was too lazy to catch the Lyrids last month, I was all set. Not only would I watch this bad boy, I was going to get all fancy up in hyah and play around with some time-lapse photography. I spent most of my 5 hours of sleep dreaming about the gorgeous star trail photos I would catch in the darkness before dawn.

So 4:30am. Rolled out of bed. Woke up my cranky husband. Forced him to make us some coffee. Started gathering my camera equipment and prepping my settings. Headed outside and then……. IT WAS OVERCAST. No stars. No meteors. No lovely star trails. KAJHFDUIBST$@&^#!!!!!

Unable to go back to bed, we decided to make the most of things. We packed up our camera, our coffee and our golden retriever Thor and headed out to Freedom Park in Hanford to watch the sunrise and let our puppy get some energy out in the dog run. And! We captured some sunrise photos. So I figure, why not blog about that?

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Sunrise / sunset pictures are not really my forte and when it comes to photography, I am the least technical camera geek that I know. I love talking about capturing photos, but get self-conscious and irritated when people want to talk about cameras and equipment. I am like the country hick who knows how to make her fiddle sound gorgeous, but couldn’t read sheet music to save her life. Even so, I have picked up some tips and tricks along the way. If you’re looking to grab some pretty shots with minimal thinking and technical exertion (aka, if you’re lazy like me) then I’d like to share how I compose my sunrise pictures.

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Sunrise in Hanford, California. Captured with a Nikon D3S and 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 zoom lens. Taken at 1/640 sec at f/13 and ISO 200.

1. Find a pretty sunrise / sunset. In my experience, the best sunrise / sunset images include clouds and an interesting(ish) foreground.

The clouds capture the growing (or fading) light of the sun and become drenched in wild and rich colors. Silhouettes act as focal points. They can be used as frames (as with the trees in my picture this morning at Freedom Park), or act as the foundation that draws the eyes up to the sunrise (like the mountain range in the Alaskan sunrise below). The great things about silhouettes is that they add mood and context to a shot. Without a silhouette to work with, it’s wise to follow the rule of thirds, (as with the Mexican sunset photo below). But remember, photography is kind of like piracy. It’s always much more interesting with rum, and the “rules” are more like guidelines. Do what makes you happy, and what seems beautiful to you.

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Sunrise in the Tracey Arm Fjord, Alaska. Captured with a Nikon D3S and 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 zoom lens. Taken at 1/400 sec at f/10 and ISO 200.

2. I set my camera to Program Mode, so that the camera automatically calculates the shutter speed and aperture.

3. I set my ISO as low as possible, usually 200.

I usually don’t lug around a tripod with me, so I find the most stable surface I can and then take a few test shots. If light is so terribly low that I’m getting blurry shots with my balancing the camera on a rock or a fence or my husband, then I pick the ISO up a tad. Since sunrise / sunsets are usually best with creamy or smooth imagery, the lower the ISO – and the least noise in the image – the better.

4. I intentionally set the exposure to underexpose the image.

With the constantly changing light with sunrises / sunsets, it’s wise to shoot at a variety of exposures. In my experience, if I let my camera decide the exposure, I’m likely to get an overexposed shot that doesn’t really capture the beauty of the light. But I’ll usually experiment with various exposures to find the formula that “pops”. The key is to experiment.

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Sunrise in Progreso, Mexico. Captured with a Nikon D3S and 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 zoom lens. Taken at 1/320 sec at f/9 and ISO 200.

5. It also helps to take the camera out of auto white balance mode.

When your camera is on auto white balance mode you run the risk of losing some of the warm golden tones of a sunrise or sunset. Instead try shooting in ‘cloudy’ or ‘shade’ which are usually used in cooler lights and tell your camera to warm things up a little.

6. Keep Shooting!

For every one photo I post, I have like, a trillion rejects. I’ve been scolded by fellow photographer friends for being so trigger finger happy, but I prefer to experiment and shoot to my little hearts content, rather than gruel away with a viewfinder and tripod to get “the shot”. Bumbling around with imagery is half the fun for me. Actually, it’s all the fun. Some of my best shots are really happy mistakes and misfires that I’ve come to treasure. So if your temperament matches mine, give these tips a try.

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Gingi Freeman
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Gingi is a photographer, cosplayer, amateur chef, crazy cat lady, anime otaku, bookworm, generic geek, world traveler, conservative Christian, homeschooler, devoted military wife and stay at home new mother of two little girls.

Gingi blogs about anything and everything that is relevant to being a supermom, stay at home wife, homeschooler and geek girl! You can contact her at gingifreeman@gmail.com or via the contact form on her website at www.domesticgeekgirl.com

Gingi Freeman

Gingi is a photographer, cosplayer, amateur chef, crazy cat lady, anime otaku, bookworm, generic geek, world traveler, conservative Christian, homeschooler, devoted military wife and stay at home new mother of two little girls. Gingi blogs about anything and everything that is relevant to being a supermom, stay at home wife, homeschooler and geek girl! You can contact her at gingifreeman@gmail.com or via the contact form on her website at www.domesticgeekgirl.com

2 thoughts on “How To Capture Sunrise Photos

  • 6 May, 2013 at 3:08 pm
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    Excellent tips!!! Makes me wish I had a camera. 🙂

    “I am like the country hick who knows how to make her fiddle sound gorgeous, but couldn’t read sheet music to save her life.” This is exactly how I feel about the healing work I do. 🙂

    • 21 December, 2013 at 12:58 am
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      Have you gotten a camera yet my friend? They are like air!

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