Photographing Sunrise Using Your Digital SLR - dummies

Photographing Sunrise Using Your Digital SLR

By Doug Sahlin

The rising sun bathes the sky in wonderful hues of orange, pink, and violet. Capturing them with your digital SLR is a matter of setting up your camera and yourself properly. Don’t go out just before the sun crests, allow yourself at least 30 minutes before the actual moment to find a good spot and set up your equipment. You’ll be working in near-dark conditions, so bring a flashlight to scare off any nocturnal critters and to illuminate the dials on your camera.

Setting up your SLR to shoot the sunrise

In photographing a landscape at sunrise, you want a large depth of field, so use Aperture Priority mode and choose a fairly small aperture. Use the largest aperture (f/8) before the sun rises when you don’t have as much light. Use the smallest aperture (f/16) when the sun is above the horizon, and you have more light to work with. An ISO range between 400 and 800 helps you cope with the dim conditions before the sun rises. You end up using the lower ISO setting while the sun rises higher in the sky. A 28mm to 35mm focal length range is ideal for photographing landscapes. You can use image stabilization to ensure a blur-free photo, especially if you end up with a shutter speed slower than 1/30 of a second.

Taking sunrise pictures

The best sunrise images include clouds. The clouds give the sun a palette on which to paint wild and giddy colors just before and after the sun rises. When the clouds start changing color, it’s time to go to work.

Press the shutter button halfway to achieve focus, and then compose the picture. The glimmer of light on the horizon is your visual clue to where the sun will actually rise. Compose the image so that you place the sun on one side.


Also, pay attention to where you place the horizon line. If you’re taking a picture of a landscape in silhouette and the clouds are the predominant part of your image, place the horizon line in the lower third of the image. If you’re photographing the reflection of the sun on a calm body of water, place the horizon line in the upper third of the image.


Continue taking pictures while the sun rises above the horizon. When the color starts disappearing from the clouds, pack up and grab breakfast.

Wait until the sun is about 15 degrees above the horizon. Compose the photograph to position the sun behind a tree, and then take a picture with shafts of light peaking from behind the tree. This technique works great on a foggy morning.


Troubleshooting sunrise photos

Sunrises pose a couple special problems:

  • The image is blurry. If the light is very dim, even at a high ISO, you end up with a shutter speed that’s less than 1/15 of a second. Choose a slightly larger aperture (a smaller f/stop number) until you have a shutter speed faster than 1/15 of a second. However, if you have a tripod and you’re photographing a beach at sunrise, you can get a nice dreamy image that shows the water as a silky mist.

  • The foreground is too dark. Your camera does the best it can to give you a properly exposed image. However, the dynamic range of a digital camera is less than that of the human eye. People can see more distinctions from dark to light than cameras can record, which is why the foreground appears dark.

    Use a reverse-graduated neutral density filter. The gradient is darkest at the horizon, where the sun rises, so the shutter stays open longer and the camera does a better job of recording the scene the way you see it.