How To Perfect Sunrise Photography – 11 Tips For Success

There are few things better than witnessing a beautiful mountain or coastline soaked in the soft glow of a sunrise. And then to capture that moment, allowing you to reminisce on the memory and share it with others, is every photographer’s dream. 

But more often than not, we end up with an image that is vastly different and frankly lacklustre compared to the magic we just experienced. The incredible glow and pastel colours end up lost in the harsh glare of the budding sun or the deep shadows that are leaking over the horizon. 

We’ve spent countless hours sitting atop mountain peaks and cold wet coastal boulders in the wee hours of the morning, enduring a considerable amount of trial and error before finally reaching a level we’re happy with! 

But we wouldn’t have it any other way. 

While it can be tedious work perfecting the skills needed to successfully shoot sunrise photography, the results and the experience of witnessing the show are worth every early waking hour. 

And with these 11 sunrise photography tips, we guarantee you’ll be on the right track to nailing your next attempt and enjoying the process. 

Sunrise glowing from the summit of Frenchmans Cap Tasmania

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How To Shoot Epic Sunrise Photography

Scout Your Location

Scouting for the perfect sunrise photography composition at Mt Kosciuszko while hiking

Landscape photography is all about finding a unique perspective. It’s about choosing an angle that captures the beauty of a location and makes the viewer feel as if they’re standing in the moment. 

The idea of scouting is to help you find that perfect vantage point without fussing about the day of, risking missing the moment entirely. Following these steps below will allow you to plan ahead and decide whether the location you’re dreaming of really will be worth the time and effort to shoot for sunrise. 

  • Familiarise yourself with the location. If it’s a coastal destination you’ll need to study the tides and similarly, if it’s a mountain top then you’ll want to research common weather patterns that surround the peak
  • Learn where the sun will rise. Download an app like photopills to help you plan and use augmented reality to visualise where the sun will appear, Photopills is a great tool as you can skip ahead to certain dates and visualise the exact moment through your phone screen

*Remember, the sun’s arc changes with the seasons so it will rise in different locations depending on the time of year

  • Find an interesting subject. A captivating subject in the foreground of a sunrise image increases its appeal, and even more so when the subject is basked in the soft yellow glow of the rising sun

Another benefit of scouting your location is to find a composition that hasn’t been photographed before – or not so much. Great photographers are able to shoot a popular location and make it look completely new, they do this by straying off the beaten track and finding a truly unique vantage point. 

Bonus Tip: Always carry your camera gear on a scouting mission, even if it’s just a basic set-up and the wrong time of day. Taking practice shots is a great way to remember your vision – and you never know when magic could strike!

Shoot To Edit

You might be familiar with the term shoot to edit, but if you’re not, don’t get the wrong idea. Basically, shooting to edit refers to setting your camera in a way that will ultimately enhance the scene, allowing you to create your final vision. 

When a professional photographer goes to an epic sunrise location, they’re envisioning what the final image is going to look like well before they’ve considered taking the first shot. They’re taking into account the lighting, angles and everything else that is going to contribute to the perfect image. 

With a vision in mind, you dive deeper than simply pointing your camera and taking hundreds of shots hoping that one of the images will turn out. Instead, you’re thinking carefully about the composition, exposure and timing to ensure your vision will come to life with minimal effort in the editing stage.

We use Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom for all of our editing needs and couldn’t be happier with the software.

One of the most common shooting techniques for sunrise photography is exposure bracketing. 

What is Bracketing?

To put it simply, bracketing is the technique of taking multiple shots of the same image while changing your camera settings for each shot. This enables you to either blend them in post to create the desired image or at the very least, increases your chances that at least one will turn out the way you imagined.  

In regards to sunrise photography, the camera setting that you’ll change most is the exposure to increase dynamic range. Every camera has limitations and oftentimes it’s impossible to capture all of the detail in the foreground without over-exposing the sky. By shooting multiple exposures you will be able to show the landscape for what it truly is to the human eye.

Bracketing is by no means the only editing technique for sunrise photography, but in my opinion, it’s the most important one to become familiar with.

Composition Is Key

Perfect reflection of Mt Murchison from Tullah Campsite during a sunrise photography shoot

If you’ve read any of our photography guides, you may have noticed that we are massive on composition and the importance it plays in creating a beautifully captivating image.

Sunrise photography is no different. 

Many factors contribute to producing an inspiring sunrise composition, such as the location, weather, time of day, foreground subject and the angle of the shot – to name just a few!

But don’t feel overwhelmed, with the proper scouting and planning it’s easier to execute the perfect composition for your vision than you may think. To help me, I usually have a list that I tick off each time I go out on a scouting mission so I don’t forget to check any of the most important factors. 

Below is a checklist that I have for my sunrise compositions. I strongly encourage you to use this or to create your own in order to match your style. 

Sunrise Photography Composition Cheat Sheet

  • Leading lines – are they strong and visible?
  • Lighting – where will the soft natural light of the sun hit and will it enhance the subject?
  • Strong foreground subject – where is it and is it emphasised?
  • Rule of thirds – does the angle of the camera enhance the image or can I make a small adjustment to increase the overall aesthetics?
  • Remember – the sky isn’t always the most important part of the sunrise photo

Having a checklist like this on hand is beneficial in more than one way. Not only will it help you remember the basics, but when your creative juices aren’t flowing you can use it to fall back on and look for simple yet compelling compositions. 

Do I follow these guidelines all of the time? Definitely not. They are simply that – guidelines that can be altered to promote thinking outside the box.

If you plan properly and scout diligently, the correct composition will often fall into your lap. Because more often than not, the most striking subject you find out on a mission is the correct composition of your shot.

Lighting Is Everything In Sunrise Photography

Lighting is everything in all forms of photography, but especially for sunrise photography. After all, the point of dragging ourselves out of bed in the wee hours of the morning is to capture the soft pastel colours and subtle light produced by the rising sun. 

I use lighting as my main composition technique when shooting sunrises and plan the rest of the image around it. Because when used correctly, the soft sunrise lighting will create emotion, increase contrast, add emphasis to the subject, and quite frankly, it just looks so darn good!

The first thing to consider in regards to lighting is the placement of the sun. It’s a common mistake to simply shoot directly into the sun every time you’re attempting a sunrise photo. But in actual fact, sometimes the best shot, the best colours, the best frame will be facing away from the sun.

Hiking to the summit of Frenchmans Cap during a cloud inversion with Alpen glow lining the horizon

Shooting into the sun also introduces more elements to consider and creates complications that can be hard to overcome, such as lens flaring, lens imperfections, intense shadowing and loss of detail in the foreground. 

Of course, I don’t mean that you should never shoot into the sun, only to look at the scene as a whole and use the morning light to your advantage. After all, the goal is to use the soft glow of the sun’s rays to enhance your entire image and thus create a masterpiece. 

In the planning stage, if you’ve decided on the composition and the sunrise doesn’t provide the perfect angle of light, then maybe you’ll be better off attempting your vision at sunset when the lighting will be reversed.

Bonus Tip: Use the histogram. This powerful little tool indicates how the lighting is exposed in your shot and using it can remove human error. It can show whether the highlights are blown out or the shadows are too dark to bring back to life. A well-balanced histogram will result in maximum detail captured and a well-balanced photo.

Sunrise Or Sunset

Moody Sunset overlooking Strahan and the West Coast of Tasmania from the peak of Mount Tyndall

The overall composition of an image will be vastly different when shot at sunrise or sunset. And deciding which time to choose comes down to your vision and the desired effect. While there are many similarities between the two magical times of day, there are plenty of differences that could affect the vision of your image. 

These are the main differences, tips and factors to consider between sunrise and sunset.

  • Generally, sunrise is slightly less vibrant and displays bluer tones
  • Sunset usually produces warmer reddish tones and is often more abrupt
  • The composition of the image may be shadowed at one of the two times of day, resulting in an undesirable effect
  • If you don’t want to shoot towards the sun, you can choose the opposite time of day to drastically change the effect of light
  • Sunrise often requires more commitment so if you’re just starting out, maybe consider choosing to practice at sunset when your mind is fresh 

But ultimately, the deciding factor should be your ideal composition and more specifically, the desired lighting. 

Don’t Forget About The Foreground

A lone Seagull sitting on the orange lichen rocks at Skeleton Point Tasmania

We touched on this subject above, but I feel it’s important enough to elaborate on. When shooting sunrise photography, it’s easy to get lost focusing solely on a beautifully lit morning sky. While this may work in some scenarios, more often than not the absence of an interesting subject will make the image feel lacklustre – even with the most magnificent sunrise.

More often than not, I find I am drawn to images that showcase more of the foreground than the sky. I believe the sky should be used to enhance a well-lit sunrise landscape. 

Bonus Tip: Put some thought into the foreground and how you want it to be portrayed. Remember the rule of thirds and avoid intense shadowing across the land. 

Adapt To The Weather

Moody Sunrise over the ocean at Grants Point in the Bay of Fires

When I began photographing sunrises, I used to get very angry at the weatherman – how can they consistently get the forecasts so wrong!? 

Now, before you think ill of me, I know the weather is fickle and forecasting it is a game of probability, but it can still get you down when you wake early only to have a dense set of clouds form on the horizon and block the sun. 

But arming yourself with the mindset that there is nothing you can do about the weather and trying to use it to your advantage will greatly improve your skills and mood! Instead of throwing in the towel when the weather misbehaves, get creative and find a new perspective that could potentially produce an even better image. 

One of my favourite sunrise images I’ve taken was a result of getting creative when the clouds rolled in. And to think I almost walked away without bothering to commit to trying something unique. 

And if nothing works out, you still experienced the awakening of a new day and there is always another chance tomorrow. 

Use The Correct Settings

Using a Tripod to shoot the alpen glow in the mountains during a sunrise photography

Shooting a sunrise is magical but doesn’t come without its difficulties, which can be quite daunting for a beginner photographer. The scene before the sunrise is generally very dark and carries with it all of the same difficulties as low-light photography. And as the sun begins to breach the horizon, over-exposure and dynamic range become a problem to overcome.

We covered a couple of techniques for editing sunrise photography earlier in this post, but understanding the basic settings to control focus, exposure and colour will exponentially help bring your vision to life.

Below are some of the basic settings to set in order to achieve your perfect sunrise photo.

Quick Tips For Settings For Sunrise Photography

  • Use a tripod – This allows you to take full control over your shutter speed and exposure
  • Manual focus in low light – During blue hour, manual focus may prove to be a more accurate method of focusing
  • Manually set white balance – Auto white balance will sometimes miss the mark and create inaccurate colours throughout your image, start with 5500K and using your LCD screen and make small adjustments from there
  • Set the aperture first – Think about the focus plane and set your aperture accordingly
  • Control the exposure and dramatic effect with shutter speed
  • Raise ISO as a last resort – Revisit your aperture and shutter speed settings before raising the ISO

Manual Or Auto-Focus

While manual focus used to constantly outperform auto-focus, the latter has come a long way in new-age cameras, allowing for better accuracy and versatility than ever before. So in saying that, there really isn’t a correct answer for which focus method to use in regards to sunrise photography. In most circumstances, you can use whichever you’re most comfortable with as the scene is generally stationary and doesn’t require rapidly changing shots.

Personally, I use auto-focus – specifically single-point autofocus – for almost every circumstance, including sunrise photography. The only time I find myself switching to manual focus is when I’m shooting at Blue Hour and the conditions are too dark for my camera to auto-focus accurately. However, even this doesn’t happen often as the Canon R6 is extremely good for low-light photography.

Hiking to a perfect sunrise location in the Kosciuzsko National Park

White Balance

In many instances, using auto white-balance will do the trick. But in darker scenes or scenes with loads of dynamic range, cameras often struggle to determine the correct setting. 

After gaining some truly odd-coloured images, I always manually set my white balance during sunrise and sunset to coincide with my planned vision. This generally involves making it slightly cooler if I’m going for a darker/moodier look, or slightly warmer for bright, glowing sunshine. 

  • Cooler settings (4500K – 5500K)
  • Warmers settings (5500K – 6500K)


Some may disagree with me, but I recommend setting your aperture first. This determines the focus plane of an image, which I believe is the most important aspect of the exposure triangle in relation to composition.

Decide whether you want all of the image in focus or to emphasise the subject, then make the necessary changes before adjusting anything else.

  • Higher Aperture = Everything in focus and sun stars (f8 – f16)
  • Lower Aperture = More depth of field and softer light (f2.8 – f5.6)

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed not only controls the exposure but can set the mood of an image by adding a dramatic effect. Long shutter speeds will smooth the clouds and in extreme circumstances, turn the sky into a soft pastel masterpiece.

When used correctly, you can transform the mood of an image and make the viewer engage their imagination. But don’t forget, to achieve slow shutter speeds you will need a sturdy Tripod and in most cases, a good ND Filter.

However, when using a slow shutter speed, you need to be mindful of any action you need to freeze. In regards to landscape sunrises, oftentimes the entire composition will be stationary, allowing you to use slow shutter speeds and keep your ISO as low as possible. But in some cases, you will feature a moving subject or have a howling wind to contend with and in these circumstances, you will need a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action.

Effect of Shutter Speed on Sunrise

  • Freeze all aspects of the landscape – 1/100th – 1/5th second exposure time
  • Slight motion blur in clouds – 1 – 20 second exposure time
  • Extreme motion blur in clouds – 30+ second exposure time

Remember there is no exact science or specific answer to how fast your shutter speed should be, it depends heavily on the conditions of your sunrise shoot. Use the settings above as guidelines and adjust from there to create your desired effect.

Note: To achieve longer shutter speeds than 30 seconds, if your camera doesn’t have an internal intervalometer, you will need to use a remote intervalometer.


Lastly, set your ISO. ISO should be the last step as this setting will introduce noise and negatively affect the sharpness if you set it too high. A good rule of thumb is to try and keep your ISO as low as possible (ISO 100 – 400) and if your image is still too dark, reassess your shutter speed and aperture before going any higher.

Again, using a tripod will greatly increase the shutter speed length you’re able to set and allow you to leave your ISO as low as possible. 

Use The Correct Lens

Tracks Less Travelled shooting a beautiful sunset from the summit of Mt Victoria Tasmania

When you think of landscape photos, I’m guessing your immediate thoughts would lead to using a wide-angle lens. But don’t limit yourself to what’s most common, think outside the box and create a unique composition. 

Just remember to make this decision in the scouting and composition stages. 

Some landscapes are better expressed using a telephoto lens as you don’t always need to include the entire scene in an image, you can leave a little to the imagination. 

Here are the positives of the most common lenses for sunrise photography. 

  • Wide-angle lens (16-24mm): Can capture the whole scene, showcasing a beautiful landscape in its entirety
  • Mid-range zoom lens (24-105mm): Great for a variety of focal options without needing to carry extra lenses or interchange at a crucial moment
  • Telephoto lens (70-200mm): Image Compression created by longer focal lengths can really emphasise a subject and create an image of interest that the human eye can’t otherwise experience
  • Telephoto lens (100-400mm): All the same pros as above, but on a more exaggerated scale, this also allows sun to look exceptionally large behind a closer landscape

Be Patient 

Sunrise over tents at Shelf Camp Below Mt Anne While Hiking the Mt Anne Circuit

The sunrise, the actual moment that the sun breaches the horizon, lasts but a few minutes. However, the magic begins well before this moment and continues long after. 

Arrive at least an hour before sunrise to experience the soft pastel colours of dawn (blue hour) and stay until the warm yellow glow (golden hour) has reached the entire landscape. Sometimes the best light will happen when you least expect it. 

Even if your planned composition is very specific and based around a certain moment in the sunrise, we still recommend being early. Setting up can sometimes take longer than expected and if the weather changes, you need to have time to be versatile and adapt to the new conditions. 

Be Prepared

Moody Golden Sunrise on top of Stacks Bluff overlooking Tranquil Tarn

Few broach this subject, but if you’re out shooting for sunrise you’re going to be up EARLY. In summer, reaching a destination before dawn could mean rolling out of bed at 2 am. It will be dark and most likely cold, and you will be standing around for at least two hours in order to make the most of your sunrise shoot. 

Make sure you’re as comfortable as can be to avoid packing it all in after a few minutes! We recommend bringing the following with you to ensure you can comfortably concentrate on your photography for a few hours.

  • Headtorch
  • Snacks
  • Water
  • Hot drink in an insulated cup
  • Extra warm layers
  • Gloves
  • Beanie
  • Warm socks

Final Thoughts On Sunrise Photography

Sunrise is perhaps our favourite time of day to photograph, as each day offers a unique experience and the opportunity to create a truly magical image. And while there is a healthy dose of trial and error involved in perfecting your sunrise photography skills, by following these 11 steps and continuously practising, it will become easy and enjoyable. 

Just remember to scout a location for your unique angle and the sun’s position, shoot with a vision in mind, plan your composition and how you want the light to manipulate your image, practice the correct settings and bring the right gear. 

We hope you’ve found these tips helpful and as always, would love to hear your thoughts, questions and suggestions on the subject in the comments below. But for now, get out there and practice! 

Happy photographing!