Weekly Theme #6: Shoot A Spectacular Sunrise

by Tiffany Mueller September. 06, 2016 3710 views

Sunrise from the mountain.

Playing guitar to greet the sunrise in Petit Jean State Park (Arkansas).

I have to admit, I'm not much of a morning person. But, if there's one thing that gets me excited enough to get out of bed early, it's taking photos of a sunrise. Okay, coffee and taking photos of a sunrise. Preferably while I'm perched atop an overlook on the side of a mountain.

I took the photo you see above while traveling through Petit Jean State Park in Arkansas on a camping trip last fall. Despite being a night owl at heart, I always make it a point to get up in time for a sunrise or two when I'm traveling. It makes me feel like I'm really getting to experience a place in all it's glory.  (And when the sunrise is as beautiful as it was that foggy morning in Arkansas, it makes climbing out of my toasty sleeping bag on a brisk fall morning totally worth it.)

Keeping in mind the "totally worth it" part, I want to introduce our next weekly photo theme...

Drumroll, please!

This week, let's all set our alarms and head out there to shoot the SUNRISE. Once you're ready to share your sunrise photo (or photos!), just create a new blog post and add the tag #weeklytheme6.

Here's all the details:

  • Deadline: September 12th
  • How to submit: Add weeklytheme6 as one of the tags of your post
  • How to view submissions: Check the tag weeklytheme6


But, before I send you off on a photo adventure, I wanted to share a few sunrise photography tips I've picked up along the way. 

Bonus -- 5 Sunrise Photography Tips

foggy sunrise in norway

Painted By Light by Marzena Jozefczyk

If you're new to shooting sunrise, you might find solace in the fact it isn't much different than photographing a sunset. You just have to get up a little earlier. (I know, I know, just remember: there's always coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.)

Now that we have the early rising issue squared away, let's talk about the fun stuff like taking amazing sunrise photos we can hang above the fireplace.

Tip #1 - Plan Ahead

The day before I was going to do a sunrise shoot, I took some time to do a little location scouting. I did some online research to learn about the area and find any location leads. Once I had some options, I put gravel under toe and went to check them out in search of the best one.

I knew I wanted to arrive when it was still dark outside so I wouldn't miss the big show. I checked my ephemeris which told me sunrise was going to be at 7:21 am on the day of the shoot. I used that to determine I wanted to be there no later than 6 am. That way I could get everything set up and still have time to catch the blue hour, which comes right before the sunrise golden hour.

Planning ahead really helped make things go as painlessly as possible. Especially since I knew I'd be a little groggy and likely to forget something if I just tried to wing it.

I'm a huge advocate of planning out shoots that are important to me. Once I made this a habit, I noticed I was getting better landscape photos on a more consistent basis.

sunrise photography tips

If you're not already putting work into planning your shoots, do it. Seriously. It makes a big difference! I was able to snap the photos I had envisioned during scouting without an issue because I spent an extra 45 minutes to set myself up for success.

Tip #2 - Abandon The Plan

I had actually been hanging out on the lookout for over nearly two hours before I got the shot of the woman playing a guitar. I was getting some good shots and was feeling quite pleased with all my planning. Then I heard a woman’s voice singing along to a guitar. Sensing something even more beautiful was happening close by, I immediately grabbed my camera and followed the music.

There are always going to be variables that are beyond our control. Sometimes they work against us and sometimes they work to our advantage. Regardless, it’s our job as photographers to adapt quickly, even if that means a last minute change of plans.

sunrise in norway photography tips

Painted In Light by Marzena Jozefczyk

In this case, since I was "on" and actively seeking new shooting opportunities--even though I was happy with my plan--it worked out that my favorite shot from the entire shoot was one which wasn't part of the plan at all.

Tip #3 - Choosing The Right Gear


On my Arkansas trip, I was doing a lot of hiking and didn't want to carry a lot of extra weight around so I packed up my Nikon D7000 and 35mm f1.8. Many photographers suggest using something more versatile such as a 24-70mm. If you have a lens in that range, it's a great choice and you wouldn't be wrong if you chose to use it. Whether they be prime or zooms, wide angle lenses are generally best for landscape style sunrise photos.

To that end, there's a lot to be said for making the equipment you have available work to complete the task at hand. So don't be discouraged if you don't have a wide angle. There are a lot of great sunrise shots to be taken with a zoom. Get out there with whatever lens you have and look for ways to make it work!


Don't forget your tripod! You'll most likely be working with slow shutter speeds which means taking hand held shots may result in blurry, unsharp photos. If you don't have a tripod, find something sturdy and secure you can set your camera on so you don't have to hold it. In a pinch, I've used large boulders and the roof of my car--get creative, just make sure your camera won't slip and fall off.


Shutter release cables and remote triggers are great little gadgets to keep in your gear bag. Since camera shake is introduced to our cameras every time we use our fingers to press the shutter button, we risk getting blurry images as a result. If you don't own one, I recommend investing in one.

In the meantime, try this nifty little workaround:

Set your camera's self timer mode to around 5 seconds. This method lets you press the shutter button on the camera, but since the shutter will be delayed, the camera will have some time to steady itself back out and minimize camera shake.

sunrise photography equipment gear tips

Sunrise Over Waipio Valley by Tiffany Mueller

Tip #4 - Exposure Settings


First things first, if your camera allows you to shoot in RAW, make sure it's set to do so. RAW files will include more image data than a JPEG file, giving you extra wiggle room while editing your photos.


Additionally, shooting at a low ISO will help minimize the amount of noise in your images. I like to shoot at ISO 100 for sunrise photography. That being said, this won't always be possible. You'll most likely be shooting at slow shutter speeds since the light won't be very bright.

However, if you don't have a tripod, or there's too much motion in your composition that would result in motion blur when combined with a slow shutter speed, try raising your ISO one stop at a time until you can achieve a usable shutter speed.

sunrise photography exposure settings tip


I recommend shooting in aperture priority mode because it will allow you to choose the aperture and control how much depth of field you want in your composition. In most cases, you'll want to use a narrower aperture to make sure you're maximizing depth of field--that's important in landscape photography.

Shutter priority mode can be useful to experiment with different shutter speeds; however, it’s not recommended for shots where you want to everything in focus as it will most likely use wide apertures that result in background blur. 

For the header shot of this post, the one of the woman playing guitar, I used an aperture of f7.1. You can use that as a starting point if you'd like, but you may find a narrower aperture of f11 or even f18 to be more suitable if you want a deep depth of field. Be sure to experiment with different settings and take notes you can refer to next time.


It's also worth noting, I took that shot in manual mode, not a priority mode--if you're comfortable and confident shooting in manual mode, use it instead. To get started, set your ISO to 100 and aperture to around f11. If it’s still pretty dark outside, try a shutter speed of 1 second. (You’ll definitely want a tripod!) Check the histogram and increase the shutter speed if the frame is too dark. Decrease the shutter speed if the photo is overexposed.


If you're shooting in aperture priority mode, once you have your aperture dialed in, the camera will do it's best to decide on the correct shutter speed to make sure you get a balanced exposure. Removing the extra step of calculating a shutter speed can be really useful when the light is changing as much as it will during a sunrise.

At the beginning of sunrise, your shutter speeds may exceed a full second. That's a long time to have to hold your camera perfectly still, so bring a tripod! As the sun begins to rise, the shutter speed will start to speed up, but you'll likely still be shooting at speeds in the 1/50th to 1/80th range. This, of course, will vary depending on the shooting conditions specific to your location.


Autofocus tends to be unpredictable in low light conditions, so I will usually rely on manual focus to ensure everything is nice and sharp. You can use the zoom function on your DSLR’s rear LCD screen to zoom into an object to make focusing easier and more accurate.

You will need to put your camera into “Live Mode”. This will turn on the LCD preview screen. Setup your composition as you please, then use the zoom function by pressing the buttons with magnifying glasses on it. You can navigate to different parts of the composition using the arrow buttons. This works on many modern DSLR cameras--you can refer your to your user manual if you need help with your specific camera.

Tip # 5 - Composition

Even though we're shooting the sunrise, I rarely see the sun itself as the main subject in the composition. More often than not, the color array in the sky caused by the sunrise is more impressive. Not to mention, shooting directly into the sun can make it really difficult to not have over exposed (if not blown out) highlights and underexposed shadows.

Moreover, we don't want to be looking directly into the sun for the sake of our eyes!

That's why I prefer to choose locations that offer something interesting to include in the composition. Some common points of interest include piers, winding rivers, people, church steeples, old barns, trees that work as a "frame" for the sky--really, anything that adds interest to a composition.

Here are a few PhotoBlog community member shots to give you some inspiration:

sunrise photography tutorial

Moony Sunrise Over The Continental Divide by Igor

early morning sunrise in UK photo tips

Early Morning by Phil Child

mountain sunrise photo guide

Sunrise Over Mt. Śnieżnik, Sudeten Mountains by Marzena Jozefczyk

A quick step you can take to get help you get the best shot possible is to take a second and make sure the horizon line in your composition is straight--or as it appears in real life. Crooked compositions can degrade the aesthetic of your photos!

Now Get Out There And Start Shooting

Alright friends, it's time to get out there and start practicing. If you don't already know the perfect spot to grab a sunrise, do a little location scouting first to make sure you're in the right place at the right time!

In closing, I'm really looking forward to experiencing a virtual sunrise from your neck of the woods, so be sure to tag your PhotoBlog posts with the tag weeklytheme6 to share with the rest of the community!

Join the conversation
There are 12 comments , add yours!
Olga Helys 4 years ago

thank you for giving tips

4 years ago Edited
Leslie D 4 years ago

A well written article, Tiffany. Thank you for sharing your time and tips ~ I'm almost convinced to get my lazy self up and go meet the sun....

4 years ago Edited
Tiffany Mueller Replied to Leslie D 4 years ago

You're most welcome! And you should do it (at least every once in a while), it's so peaceful at sunrise!

4 years ago Edited
Gonia 4 years ago

very interesting and pretty. greetings. Maggie

4 years ago Edited
Tiffany Mueller Replied to Gonia 4 years ago

Thanks, Maggie :)

4 years ago Edited
Bzh29 4 years ago

All that is excellent ! You just forgot two essential things : good taste and talent ! :)

4 years ago Edited
Tiffany Mueller Replied to Bzh29 4 years ago

Lol, well, those two things certainly do help, but you still gotta know how to take the pictures! =D

4 years ago Edited
Antonio Gil 4 years ago

Thank you so much for such interesting tips. I will be following your blog with a lot of attention.

4 years ago Edited
Tiffany Mueller Replied to Antonio Gil 4 years ago

You're welcome--I'm here to help! Thanks for stopping by :)

4 years ago Edited
Jay Boggess 4 years ago

Fantastic tips & images!
Thank You! I'm up most every morning & on site, before the sun comes over the horizon.
The same goes for the sunsets, just in reverse.
Being a beginner, I appreciate all the sage advice I can get......
Cheers & Hearty Welcomes!

4 years ago Edited
Tiffany Mueller Replied to Jay Boggess 4 years ago

Thanks again, Jay!

4 years ago Edited
Jay Boggess Replied to Tiffany Mueller 4 years ago

Thank YOU!!!

4 years ago Edited
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