Some of the best light for landscape photography comes right before and just after sunrise. But, setting your alarm to wake up while it’s still dark outside is not an easy task, and there have been many mornings that I’ve talked myself out of an early shoot, finding my bed much more desirable (winter is particularly tough!). Here are a handful of tips that will keep you focused on the days leading up to the shoot and ultimately help you achieve your goal on that morning of capturing beautiful sunrise scenery.
1. Scout the Area Beforehand
If possible, make a scouting trip to the area that you’ll be shooting. Use your phone to take location scouting shots to get a feel for the area and to get your mind thinking about shots you may want to take when you return at sunrise. Doing this will help you get a feel for the location, the parking situation, how long it might take you to get there and also how long a hike may be. If you can’t get to the area beforehand, use Google Maps and satellite view to gain an understanding of the roads in the area and parking lots you can potentially use.
2. Prepare the Night Before
Set out your clothes for the morning, make sure everything is charged, clean your gear (this includes formatting memory cards) and have it all packed and ready to go. I’ll never forget my camera, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forgotten essential landscape gear like ND or polarizing filters, step up rings or tripod quick release plates. Don’t forget to bring some water and a small snack. If you do all of this, once the alarm goes off you can be out the door in no time.
3. Check Weather Diligently
If the weather’s not going to be in my favor, I’m not going to waste my time. So, make sure you’re checking on things right up until you go to bed. There are about 100 places to check weather, but I usually rely on the National Weather Service (in the US). If you’re a landscape photographer, you’re a person who’s interested in weather and after a while you’ll get a feel for how temperatures and storms can change the conditions favorably or unfavorably for a shoot.
4. Use The Photographer’s Ephemeris
The Photographer’s Ephemeris is an incredible app that’s packed with features to help aid in a landscape shoot. Leading up to the shoot, I can pinpoint my location, save it, and see how the sunrise on the morning that I’ll be photographing will affect the area. It also lets me keep a close watch on the Nautical and Civil twilight start times, which can often be interesting for early morning photography.
5. Wait for the light
If you were able to do some scouting beforehand, hopefully you have an idea of where you want to set up for your first shot. The fact that you’re arriving before sunrise already increases your chances of capturing beautiful scenery. Now, all you need to do is set up, compose your shot and wait for the light.
6. Slow down
The landscape changes so dramatically during the first hour of sunrise that sometimes you’re scrambling around trying to catch the best light or angle for a photo. I often have to tell myself to slow down, observe and wait. Some of the best moments come from just watching closely to see how the light changes the scene. If you’re running around trying to photograph everything, you may miss some of them.
7. Know when to go home
I think this is a tough one for all photographers. You might have captured some great shots throughout the morning, but you keep thinking that the next one might be even better, or that if you pack it up you may miss something. Having an obligation, like work or a family function can make knowing when to call it quits easier, but I find a good rule of thumb is about one hour past sunrise. Unless there’s something spectacular going on in the sky, by the time an hour has passed the entire landscape has been flooded with light. There are, of course, exceptions — cloudy mornings, dense forest or mountains blocking the light — but when my shots all start to look the same, I know it’s time to pack it up.
Do you have any early morning prep tips or tricks that you use when trying to photograph at sunrise? Do you find it hard to wake up at 6 am when it’s -10 F out? 🙂 Let me know in the comments!