Photographing The Sunrise

When I walked out my front door this morning, I stepped into the most glorious sunrise. It was more spectacular than any I have ever witnessed, with one exception. The clouds swept across the sky in an electric shade of pink; they extended from the horizon to well over my head and past my viewing ability. I was taken aback by the sight and uttered the exclamation, "Wow!" It simply took my breath away.

I realized several years ago that I am a morning person. Come about 9 P.M. I begin to fade. If I am lucky I can prop myself awake until 11. Yet the next morning at about 4:30 A.M., something happens in my mind that wakes me up. Oh, I am very sleepy and have no desire to rise, but once awake, I find it impossible to drift back to sleep. I have learned to embrace this part of myself. Sometimes I spend the time in thought, writing articles in my head. It can be very productive. At other times, I give up entirely and go sit outdoors to greet the dawn.

There is something so marvelous about the sunrise. I am blessed to live with an unobstructed view of it. Every morning I sit on my front porch and count the flocks of birds that pass over - white ibis, cattle egrets, sometimes a lone Great Blue Heron, even the occasional hawk. But it is the glow of the sky as the sun crests the far trees that I am there to admire, which brings me to photography.

I have photographed the sunrise in my yard many times. Along the way, I have learned a few things about creating unique photographs. Perhaps the first, and the most important, is to be willing sometimes to just sit and drink it in. This morning, for instance, I didn't have my camera nearby. I knew from my many observations that I didn't have enough time to find it, switch lenses, and adjust settings before the moment would be lost, so I took a mental photograph. I have learned when photography fails to let go. The memory remains. Therefore, the first key to photographing the sunrise is to enjoy it!

The second key is out of my control. The best sunrises are dependent on the weather - clouds, fog, or rain - and often, these are seasonal. The sun sits in different locations at different points in the year. This alters what weather greets the dawn. Obviously, I can't control the weather. What I can do is be persistent. Of all the mornings I have seen, most of them are rather blah. The truly spectacular sunrises are few and far between. The problem is I don't know what day they will come. They cannot be planned for, so I have to determine to arise just in case.

When that morning finally appears, I first choose my lens. I ask myself, "Do I want 18mm or 300?" Never limit yourself to wide angle alone. It seems like the obvious choice. But so often, as in the shot above, it isn't the only choice. I took that photo at full 300mm. It was the only spot of color in the entire sky. It is good to challenge yourself. If you are used to one particular lens, then switch for a while. Try something outside of your comfort zone.

My next question is, "What do I want this photograph to be?" The truth is the same objects are in the same location day after day. My job as a photographer is to prevent these objects from becoming mundane. Instead, they become like stalwart friends. Think of famed landscape artist Ansel Adams returning to his favorite locations, as he was wont to do, and yet coming away each time with new, fresh photographs. So what if it is only a small common tree, to me it is wonderful. My question is, "How can I make that tree a marvelous thing every time?"

Lastly, there are four additional factors to consider:  aperture, point of focus, metering, and perspective. A change in any of these will alter my results. A small aperture creates a star effect, as in the above photograph, and gives more depth of field. A large aperture softens the sky and is more abstract. Therefore, I must decide, "Do I want more detail or less?" 

Here's another good point to remember. Your point of focus need not always be the sun. When I took the flower photograph below, I was prepared to make my standard wide angle shot until I shifted what I was seeing. By focusing on the flower instead and changing my perspective, I created an image of the flower seemingly holding the sun. Look around you for objects that might make a silhouette, perhaps the corner of a building or a person standing against the light. Use the strong backlight to create rim lighting to an object, as in the texture of the flower.

At the same time, also consider your choice of metering. Average, or matrix, metering gives more even lighting to objects and less sky color than does spot metering. Spot metering often makes the surroundings too dark, but can create more color. Try one then the other and see which you like better. I use both depending on the situation and my desire at the time.

Sunrises are about capturing contrasting tones of light. It is color against grayness or dark clouds against light skies that brings texture to otherwise flat scenes. Minute by minute the sky changes, so the best rule is to keep snapping. Sometimes the first photo is my favorite, before the sun has even peeked over the treetops. At other times it is its full, round face that I like more. Afterward, I sort my results, displaying the photo I like best. 

I have decided that is is predictability of the sunrise that I like so much. I like knowing it happens every single day. I like knowing the same objects remain in the same place. Yet I expect them to look vastly different each day as well. Through my photographs, I gaze at the span of time and marvel that at something so simple I have received so much pleasure.