“knowing the sun’s imminent location is
critical to composing the image”
Sunsets are much easier to photograph than sunrises. The difference is, literally, night and day. The biggest reason? You know where the sun will set because you can watch it descend. This allows you to place yourself, your foreground and your background exactly where you want it to be with daylight to aid you. You can show up in the light, walk in, set up and plan your exposure at leisure. Sunrises are much more problematic.
At sunrise, the Earth hides the sun until the instant it peeks over the horizon. Every sunrise is a little bit of a surprise. You have to do your planning and set up in the dark-or at least predawn twilight. When it does finally come up, you don’t have much time (about 4 minutes) until it clears the horizon. Time is short and you won’t have enough time to reset if you guess wrongly. If you have foreground or more distant elements in your photograph that are important to the composition, knowing the sun’s imminent location is critical to composing the image.
Your eyes can see the sky growing lighter and generally you can guess the rough area where the sun will first peak over the distant hills but you will be far from exact. Your eye constantly adjusts its aperture as you scan the horizon making it difficult to discern the subtle variatons in brightness.
You can also go the route of using a program like Stellarium to give you exact coordinates and then revert to map and compass to choose your vantage. With adequate planning you can put yourself in the right place pointed the right direction and await the rising of the sun.
Sometimes planning isn’t adequate enough or you find yourself perched on a precipice awaiting a dawn that you didn’t anticipate shooting. Here is where you digital camera comes to the rescue. First, make certain the overexposure warning is turned on – provided your camera offers the feature. Use your camera in whatever shooting mode you prefer but set it to over expose by a full F-stop or so above the metered light. Fire your shutter at the point where you think the sun will rise. Look at your LCD. The blinking portion of the display will point you to the brightest spot. The center of the over exposed area should be the sunrise position unless there are clouds skewing the data with reflective hotspots. If the blinking area is too large, dial back your over-exposure until it shows you a small enough area to pinpoint sunrise.
If your camera doesn’t have a warning to tell you of over exposure, you can dial back your exposure compensation to severely underexpose the photo. Two to three stops under should turn everything dark except the impending sunrise location. Shoot for the middle of the bright spot and you should be close.
You can see both methods yield very similar results. Your eye may not be able to survey the scene and find the hidden sun but your digital camera can.
Rikk Flohr ©2008