My Mindset at Sunrise

Photographing at Sunrise

It takes a special kind of person to go out in the dark to stand and wait for light

Summer Sunrise at Bald Head Cliff

It starts the night before. I decide I want to photograph at sunrise. Photographing at sunrise doesn't always mean the sun will be in the shot, but it means I want that soft, warm light that the sunrise gives off lighting the scene. So I decide I'm getting up early. And by early, I mean something like 3am in the summer, when the sun rises at 5am. Winter is a little better, with sunrise happening around 7am, but in the winter you have the bitter cold to deal with, when your warm blankets are so much more inviting!

So, I decide I'm getting up early, and I set my alarm. How early depends not only on the time of sunrise, but also on how long it will take me to get to my spot. Some spots I can pull up in my car, get out, and there I am. Other spots, I park in a lot, or on the side of the road, and then I must walk. Sometimes a mile. Sometimes more. I have to plan for that walk so I can be sure to be set up once the light comes.

Usually, when I know I want to be up that early, I try to get to bed at a reasonable time. Being a night owl, this isn't always easy. Some nights, knowing I want to be up early and need to get to sleep, I find myself unable to fall asleep, thinking about the possibilities of the next morning. Sometimes sleep comes easy. Some nights, it is maddeningly elusive.

My alarm goes off and I think, "Do I REALLY need to photograph this morning?" I consider the implications of not getting up, and then force myself to roll out of bed. I get dressed and head out with my gear and get in the car. As I'm driving, I am thinking about the images I want to make. If it's a familiar location, I'll be thinking about trying something different. If it's a new spot, I'll be thinking about images I've seen of the spot, and considering how I can make an image of my own that isn't a copy of something I've seen.

As I get closer, if I haven't left as early as I should, I may start seeing a glow in the eastern sky. My heart races, and the urgency causes a spike in adrenaline as I race to get where I'm going, afraid I'll miss the best color. I keep one eye on the sky to see what the light is doing.

I use an app on my phone to tell me where the sun will be in relation to where I will be standing, or in relation to where my subject is. Knowing this helps me plan where to go before I've arrived on location. So after the agonizing about getting to sleep, then waking up, then getting to the location in time, the last thing I worry about is what I can't control- the weather. There are countless phone apps that attempt to predict how colorful a sunrise will be. I find that none of them are all that accurate and no better than me looking at the weather report and interpreting it myself. So I get set up and hope for the best. I will read the clouds- the direction they are moving, how thick they are, and their position, and determine if I need to move.

The payoff is once the light arrives. I've cut short my sleep. I've driven to my location, which at times can be as much as three hours away. Now, I'm standing there, on a beach, on a rock, in a field, on a cliff, and I'm ready to shoot. I use my experience to get the images I envision, deciding what aperture and shutter speed to use, using on-camera filters to manage my exposure, and using my eyes to compose my shot and then moving on to the next work. The light changes quickly, so I try work just as quickly to maximize the light and get as many different compositions as possible. Some days, I get one shot I like. Some days, I get several. You just never know.

So, there you have it. The passion, and lunacy of getting up in the middle of the night to watch the day begin, and to photograph it.  Want to see more of my sunrise images? Click the button below.