How to take beautiful sunrise (or sunset) photos

I love September for many reasons (and dislike it for a few more!) but one of the best things about September are the morning drives to work. The sun is rising just as I leave the house, and the cool overnight temperatures often lead to misty or foggy mornings. Fog + colourful sunrise = irresistible!


There’s a couple of tricks you can use to capture really amazing sunrise photos. (The same applies to sunset photos, but early riser that I am, it always seems to be the sunrise I’m chasing.) If you’re using your camera, set it to capture the most saturated, vibrant colours possible. If you can pick your exposure, try to expose for the sky away from the sun and not the sun itself — you want to underexpose your image by a stop or two to make those colours nice and rich.

I love using my iPhone for sunrise shots. The filters often add a quick hit of saturation by torquing the colours and the contrast up a bit. This is a Hipstamatic shot, taken with the John S lens that adds a heavy vignette (darkened edges) and contrast:

winter sunrise

While the sky colours are often spectacular in themselves, pay attention to the other things in your picture and try to use those elements to frame the sunrise, or to add interest or contrast. Since you’re exposing for the sky, which is bright, and you’re trying to underexpose it to saturate those colours, everything anything on the ground or in the foreground is likely to become a silhouette.

250:365 Sunrise on the farm

Think about the overall composition as well as the colours, and try not to put the sun or the horizon in the dead centre of your frame. If you’re shooting a gorgeous sky over a boring suburban skyline or an otherwise uninteresting foreground that will be lost in the shade anyway, just use a bit of it as a frame for contrast. Consider other elements of composition like balance, leading lines and shape/form.

"There is nothing is more musical than a sunset." ~ Claude Debussy

And, as far as I’m concerned, a good shot is almost always made better with a human element. Since many of my sunrise shots are snapped on my commute to work, I don’t get the chance to play with people in my shots too often. This one is actually a sunset shot from this summer, but I love it so much I have it both as my iPhone wallpaper and hanging in the living room as a canvas.

Sunset on Lake Huron-6

A little planning goes a long way. This guide will tell you when the sun rises and sets each day, but of course not every sunrise or sunset is spectacular. My favourite conditions are when there’s fog and funky clouds covering half or less of the sky. Think about where the sun will come up (or go down) and think of a few beautiful foregrounds that might frame a beautiful sunrise. I have a few favourites picked out on my way to work, including the Long Island Locks (first shot above) and a handful of barns and silos before I hit the urban part of the city. Also, know that the colours of a sunrise are usually more intense just before the sun comes up or after the sun drops below the horizon, and that the colours change minute by minute.

Happy shooting!

Author: DaniGirl

Canadian. storyteller, photographer, mom to 3. Professional dilettante.

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