How to photograph sunrise while travelling

Sunrise over The Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA

Motivating my half asleep body out of the perfectly shaped cocoon of bedding I have created in the dark, early hours of the morning does not come naturally to me.

It is something I avoid it at all costs. Living 5 minutes away from an array of golden sandy beaches where sunrises dance across the ocean with a metallic gleam makes me feel guilty about this lazy habit. Last year I photographed the total of 2 sunrises at home. That was only because my early riser of a husband dragged me out of bed.

Travelling somewhere new to experience sunrise it is a whole different story.  I would never miss the rays of golden sun slowly creeping over the crumbling, ancient temple of Angkor Wat or lay in bed while the vast layers of two billion years of Earths’s geological history change colour by the second as the sun comes over the horizon of The Grand Canyon.

Whether you're a natural early bird ( please feel free to write and share your secrets ) or you take some convincing like me, capturing those spellbinding moments of greeting the sun in a new location is a must.

How to photograph sunrise while travelling. Reflections of Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia, South East Asia
Reflections of sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Luckily creating a photograph that takes you back to that golden moment is not as hard as you may think. Follow these easy tips and avoid coming home with a lacklustre sunrise photograph like so many travellers.

Prepare

The scouts live by it and so should you. P.P.P.P.P - Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.

Two things you should have prepped and planned to photograph sunrise perfectly is your camera equipment and your location.

Equipment

Camera - The best cameras to photograph sunrise is a DSLR. Make and model do not matter as much as your ability to use it. Having a camera with all the bells and whistles will not create a photograph any better than most point and shoot cameras if you only use Auto mode. Make sure you know the basics of your camera by watching a few well-chosen Youtube clips. If you're interested, here is my camera of choice.

Battery - Make sure this is charged. Another great idea is to have a spare fully charged and ready to go. Especially if you have a full day of photography planned after sunrise.

Memory Cards - Check that you have plenty of space available. The light changes so quickly during sunrise so you may be taking quite a few shots. If you are experimenting with effects and exposure this is even more important.

File - Shoot in RAW. This is a whole subject to itself so let's just say if you want to do some processing on your image later ( and you should), shooting in RAW lets you do so much more to your images. No idea what RAW is. Head here for a quick overview.

ISO - I set this and a few other settings the night before as I tend to forget things in my groggy morning/ in-awe-of-the-sunrise state. ISO is how sensitive the sensor on your camera is to the available light. Change your ISO to the lowest setting you have. You are going to be using a slow shutter speed to capture as much light as you can in the morning so having a lower ISO ( not as sensitive to the light) makes those subtle colours of sunrise more intense.

White Balance - You can correct this post image but why not try taking your shots in Shade or Cloudy rather than Auto. This will counterbalance the cool colours of sunrise, giving you warm, golden hues. Of course, this is a personal choice, if you want some cooler effects, feel free to play around with this.

Focus Mode - This will depend on your confidence. Aperture Priority mode is perfectly acceptable if you are a little nervous about full manual. But if you are willing to experiment and learn, put this in manual mode. If your new to the world of DSLR's, don't start panicking. We will talk settings later.

Lens - Choose which lens you want to take and give it a quick clean the night before. Light changes so quickly you don't want to waste time fiddling around changing lenses.  Wider lenses are great for landscapes but if you want to focus on a particular point you may want a zoom. I tend to travel light and use my 24-70mm for most situations.

Tripod  - You are going to be using slower shutter speeds to get the best light so a tripod will ensure you don't get any blur. At a push, I have used a wall or fence to place my camera on but it really is worth investing in one if you want to get the best shots possible.

Shutter Release - Don’t stress if you don't have this. If you have one, pack it.

Filters - Take off your filters ( UV and Polarising) if you know you will be shooting into the sun.  You don't want any ghost reflections on your image and they also reduce the light coming into your camera. On the flip side GND filters ( Graduated Neutral Density ) can make exposure easier as it has a gradual dark to light effect over the lens.

Head Lamp - A head lampClick Here is a great accessory. To catch the perfect light you will need to get to your location well before the sun starts to show. This will help you find your way while still being able to carry all your equipment and not fall down any dark holes.

Clothing - Dress appropriately. Standing in one spot for a couple of hours in the freezing cold with no gloves or warm clothes is not going to help you concentrate on getting the perfect shot. Remember temperatures can change dramatically in some parts of the world before the sunrise.

Location

Time - Check the time for the next day's sunrise and aim to be there at least half an hour before the sun actually rises. Seeing the sun come up is beautiful but it is usually the moments before and afterwards, are the times to capture the magic and photograph sunrise.

Research the best spots to see your sunrise -  This may be somewhere a little off the beaten path or it may be that tourist trap ( they are usually popular spots for a reason). Chat with locals, even better ask some local photographers. Know exactly where you are heading and how to get there. Getting lost at 4:30 am then watching a glorious sunrise while still hiking to your location is not a great way to start the day. If you can actually go to the spot the day before and have a quick look around even better.

Tours - Sunrises in some locations will mean you have to get on a tour. If capturing the sunrise on camera is your main goal, do a tour that is going to allow you the time to do this. Even better if your tour guide is a photographer with some great local tips.

How to photograph sunrise while travelling. Sunrise caught on tour with Dineh Bekeyah Tours over Monument Valley, Utah, USA
Sunrise caught on tour with Dineh Bekeyah Tours over Monument Valley, Utah, USA

Check the weather forecast - Clouds and a little haze are the ideal conditions to photograph sunrise ( living in Australia, some of the most amazing sunrises I have seen are during bushfire season). Unfortunately, a forecast can not tell you if the sunrise is going to be spectacular. Most of the time you will need to experience it and hope the weather gods are on your side. If you know the weather really isn't going to work by all means sleep-in.

How to photograph sunrise while travelling. Sunrise caught on tour with Dineh Bekeyah Tours over Monument Valley, Utah, USA
Clouds create a beautiful sunrise over The Grand Canyon. Arizona, USA

Now get an early night to make that early hour alarm not so painful.

Check out some more great tips on settings and composition to photograph sunrise. Or see what we use to capture our images.

 

Do you have an amazing sunrise capture from your travels? Share it with us on Instagram #wetravelwithmeraki

 

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