You know the old saying: The early bird gets the worm—or the stunning photograph. Sunrise pictures can be some of the most spectacular nature photography shots if you’re willing to wake up for them.

But the ephemeral sunrise can also be the hardest thing to capture well on camera.

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How to Take Sunrise Photos

sunrise over landscape
Source: Unsplash
Landscape sunrise photo by Dawid Zawila.

While most phone cameras can capture decent sunset and sunrise photography on their own these days (especially with a filter added), you can take them to the next level with a few steps that professional nature photographers swear by.

Find the Sunrise Golden Hour

Most people only try to capture the scene when the sun is cresting the horizon, but you can get beautiful photos anytime during the sunrise “golden hour,” which is the hour just after sunrise. Taking pictures at sunrise is great because the light is softer than it will be at midday and the angle of the sun can create interesting shadows to use in your composition. 

Some photographers also love the sunrise “blue hour”—the 30 minutes or so before sunrise—for its dark and dramatic hue.

Either way, you can take sunrise pictures at any time of year, but you’ll want to pay attention to how the sunrise time changes throughout the seasons. If you’re not much of an early bird, winter sunrise will occur latest in the morning, so it may be easier for you!

Choose the Right Sunrise Photography Camera Settings

Choosing the correct ISO, aperture, and shutter speed is always the key to getting excellent photos, but there’s no one best setting for sunrise photography. In fact, a lot of different camera settings can lead to a great sunrise capture.

Let’s start with the ISO: A low ISO creates a darker picture, and a high ISO makes a brighter one. You may be tempted to choose a high ISO to capture the light and colors of the sunrise, but that can lead to a grainier-looking photo. Most professionals recommend a lower ISO for landscape sunrise photography—as close to 100 as you can get.

That means you’re going to need to brighten your photo with either a large aperture or a slow shutter speed. Which you choose depends on the conditions of your photograph: If you’re trying to create a crisp, still picture, you may need a faster shutter speed, whereas if you want a little blurred motion, you can go with a slower shutter speed. If you want everything in focus, you may want a small aperture (high f-stop)—if you want the foreground in focus with a blurred background, you can go with a smaller aperture (low f-stop). 

Play with these settings, using your exposure meter to get the balance right for capturing the dim, early-morning light. Travel photographer Sean Dalton recommends slightly under-exposing at sunrise, so you don’t blow out the sky. You can fix it later in editing.

rice paddy
For this sunrise photo, Sean Dalton shot at ISO 100, 1/40 sec shutter speed, and f/11 aperture, slightly under exposing to avoid losing the detail in the sky, then brought it to life in editing on the right.

If you’re not using a DSLR camera and are shooting on your phone, try photo apps that allow you to adjust these settings, or simply tweak the exposure in your native camera app. 

iphone taking photo of camera
Adjust the exposure in the standard iPhone camera by tapping the frame, then dragging the sun icon up or down to increase or decrease exposure.

Follow These Sunrise Photography Tips

Here are a few more easy tips to make your sunrise photos really shine:

  • Get to your location early, and take lots of photos: The light changes fast at sunrise, so you’ll want to know the photos you’re aiming for before the sun even comes up. Then, once you’re ready, don’t think too hard and take lots of photos, playing with different settings. You could even try some time lapse photography to capture every moment!
  • Use a tripod and shutter release: Since you’re photographing in low light, it’s easy to end up with shaky photos. A little bit of equipment can help stabilize everything.
  • Pay attention to the shadows: So many people just take a photo of the sun coming over the horizon, but other elements in your landscape may be even more interesting thanks to the shadows the low sun is creating. Using other photo composition tricks will take your sunrise pictures from flat to dynamic.

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Best Sunrise Photography Settings

With the right eye, you can get beautiful sunrise images anywhere you go. But here are some especially stunning settings to try, along with a few sunrise images to inspire you. 

Landscape Sunrise Photography

sunrise over misty lake
Sunrise photography on a lake by Skillshare student Jennifer Morrow.

Ocean Sunrise Photography

sunrise at campsite
Ocean sunrise picture by Skillshare teacher Chris Burkard.

Beach Sunrise Photography

sunrise under ocean pier
Sunrise picture taken on the beach by Skillshare teacher Chris Burkard.

Mountain Sunrise Photography

sunrise over mountains
Sunrise picture taken in the mountains by Skillshare student Barnabas Siwila.

Start Taking Professional Sunrise Photography Today

Whether you’re taking sunrise or sunset photographs, the trick to mastering any nature photography is to practice as much as you can. Experiment with different camera settings, compositions, and editing techniques until you determine what captures the style you’re looking for. Hey, even if it takes some practice to get the perfect photo, you’ll get to experience plenty of beautiful sunrises along the way. 

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Written by:

Erin Greenawald