The Glory Of Morning

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The Glory Of Morning

How To Shoot A Better Sunrise 
 By Ken Ferguson

Out of all the wonderful and interesting subjects that Nature can provide, there are possibly none more photographed than sunsets or sunrises. Myself, I enjoy shooting both, but I do prefer sunrises (I will explain later). However, during the Winter months, I do not always enjoy slipping out from under the warm covers of my cosy bed; but then, one never knows what the morning will bring and I'd hate to miss out on what could be another spectacular show.
But, those cooler months do have their advantages, you don't need to get up quite so early as you do in the warmer months and I find, much to my pleasure, there are far less people about in those early hours.
I was once asked why I shot more sunrises than sunsets and whilst I don't have any problems with sunsets, they too can produce some really cool and moody shots, I prefer to do sunrises because I much enjoy the fresh, still morning air and the light is generally crisper and clearer; especially if there has been a shower of rain during the night. That really “clears the air”. I also, as do other photographers, find it to be truly the best part of the day. 
Incidentally, the general phases of sunrise and sunset are pretty much the same, only in reverse of each other. So, with that in mind the following article will refer mainly to sunrises.

Some "so called" composition rules and essentials
of both landscape and sunrise photography

Before I proceed I thought it would be appropriate at this time to make you aware of a few, "so called" rules of composition that I think you should be aware of when it comes to composing your sunrise or general landscape/seascape images. Especially if you intend entering them into photo competitions. These rules by the way, are definitely not mandatory and it is entirely up to you as to whether or not you want to apply them, but it is important that you know about them, then you can make that conscious decision regarding their application.
Composition rules were originally put in place by the classic artists for psychological and aesthetic reasons and to help make it easier on the eye of those viewing their works, but also for the interest they add to both paintings and photographic images.
As I stated earlier, it is not mandatory to use these rules, but it is important that you know about them if you wish to submit your photography at competition level, as some judges will look to where and how these rules have been applied and when it comes down to the wire, you may lose out to another contender who has made good use of them in their composition.

1. The rule of thirds
Sometimes an image can look quite boring when the main subject is placed bang in the centre of frame. The rule of thirds can relieve some of that boredom.
It is basically about the placement of focal points and other points of interest when we composing an image in the camera's viewfinder or on our viewing screens.
The best way to put this rule into practice is to imagine your viewfinder, or viewing screen, has an imaginary naughts and crosses type grid on it, with two equally spaced lines running horizontally across the frame and two running vertically down the frame. It is on or near the area where the intersecting lines meet that we place our points of interest. 
So we have four intersections in our grid. And all four of these points are just off centre. How do we know on which of these intersections to place our subject/s? This is dependent on how you wish to configure your subject within the frame. Whilst we are on the subject of sunrises, we will look at how our sunrise could best be placed within the rule of thirds grid.
Firstly, do we have a horizon line running through the scene? If so, we do not particularly want to place it in the middle of the frame if we can avoid it. Such action can cause the resulting image to appear as though it is split in two. So, other forces here will cause us to make the conscious decision as to where we place this line. That decision is generally made for us after we have looked at the sky.
If the sky is totally void of cloud or is simply grey, dull and uninteresting, it is best not to make a feature of it, but to place it on, or at least near, the upper horizontal imaginary line or about 1/3 of the way down from the top of the frame.
If on the other hand, the sky is really dramatic and colourful and you want to make a feature of it, as you would with a really dramatic sunrise, include it by placing it on the bottom horizontal line and the brightest part of the sky, assuming the sun has not yet broken the surface, could take up position on either the left or right bottom intersections. It is up to you on what side you place it.
If for instance, there are sunbeams streaming out from behind some surface clouds and they are pointing to the right of you, then place that part of the sky on the left side, so that the sunbeams then shine across and into the frame.
Try to balance your composition by placing a subordinate element (secondary point of interest) on an opposite intersection, or you may even be using the sunrise merely as a backdrop whilst the second element is in fact your main point of interest.
I might point out here, that there is an instance where it is acceptable to have your horizon line in the centre of the frame, and that is when you have a large object running vertically through the scene. This will then take much of the emphasis away from the horizon.
In portrait photography and even with pets or insects, the focal point, and that includes the face and eyes are usually placed on one of these grid intersections and that the subject is best presented looking into the frame when facing left or right.
It all makes for a better composition, but it also makes it more pleasing on the eye of the person viewing the completed image.

2. The level horizon rule
Whilst we are discussing horizon lines, there is also the rule that insists on a level horizon line. I remember once judging some photos in a competition, when I came across a particular photo that had a horizon line that was quite obviously not level. It was unfortunate, but because of this, it was immediately obvious to me that this photo should not be awarded a place amongst the winners, but when the fault was pointed out to the owner, the person was so surprised and had no idea the horizon was not level, but would certainly make a point of checking it next time.

3. The less is more rule
Keep it simple! When you view an image and there is too much material in it, or it is too busy or cluttered, that's where it becomes difficult for your eye to settle on any particular spot, so you soon become bored and disinterested with it.
We should construct out landscape composition like that of a good book – with a beginning, a mid section and a great ending or background. Incidentally, this can also create a strong sense of depth or give a third dimensional effect to our images, but it should also have a simple story line, with one major player and just a couple of subordinate players.
Keeping this in mind, along with the “rule of thirds”, this will also help your creations hold the interest of viewers, who will want to see them time and time again.

4. The where to amputate rule
This is one rule that may not always apply directly to sunrise photography, but it is one worth knowing because it will sometimes help you get things into perspective.
What it applies to is this, in portrait photography, human and animal, particularly where some part of the human anatomy has to be excluded, it is aesthetically advisable and much more pleasing, if you must amputate, try to do it half way between joints of the anatomy and not at the joint itself.
Where this may apply to sunrise photography, is when you look through the viewfinder and see part of something protruding in from the side of the lens's extremities. You must make a decision then, if you want to include that part, all of it, or omit it out altogether.

5. The landscape focusing rule
When I look at a good landscape vista image, I expect to see all of the shot in clear, sharp focus. From the immediate foreground, all the way through to the distant background. To achieve this with a compact camera, simply turn your shooting mode dial to “landscape” mode and the camera will do the rest. What it does, it sets a small aperture (large setting number), of between say, f-11 to f-22, to allow for this type of shot. With a DSLR, switch to Manual focus and turn the focus ring on your lens till it is set on infinity (that's the little emblem that resembles a figure eight laying on
its side) and while in aperture priority, set the reading to about f-16. Your camera will automatically set the correct shutter speed for that aperture setting.

6. The fill the frame rule
Unless you are shooting your sunrise to have it as a feature in a "Minimalism" image, try to fill the frame with your scene. A zoom lens is ideal for getting in closer to your subject or adding to the composition, but also great for eliminating unwanted elements from within the scene. If after zooming in, you still can't fill the frame, this could be a simple matter of physically moving in closer until you feel you have it right. If necessary, cropping of the scene can always be done later on the computer in your photo editing program. 

More ideas
to help create more interest
in your sunrise images

Portrait or landscape mode?
It is obvious that most cameras are designed and constructed in a horizontal fashion. It is therefore, not unusual for some people to adopt the opinion that that is the way in which they should use it at all times. Generally speaking, most landscape creations, do require the camera to be held in landscape mode (camera held horizontally), simply because that is how landscapes are usually portrayed. But there will be just as many times when you need to use your camera in portrait mode (camera held vertically). This mode is very useful for when you want to include a lot of your scene, but in a vertical format only without the intrusion of side elements. A really wide angle lens is great for this, as you can include all you want that is within the scene, from where you are standing, right up high into the sky.
If you are not used to using your camera in portrait mode, here is an excellent way to allow yourself to become more familiar with it:
Each time you take a landscape shot, take the same scene again in portrait mode. After some practice, it will soon become second nature to you and in no time at all you will be assessing each scene on its merits as to which mode is best to use.

When one is never enough
Even top professional photographers are never that cocky that they can think they can get away with just one shot of their subject/s. A good pro will really work at it – trying various camera settings, shooting angles, points of view, moving the tripod to the left or right, higher angle or lower. Don't waste your time, or your shots. That colour and light won't last long, so get all that you can, while you can, because you may never get the chance again for a while to come.
Try to keep your image distraction free
No matter what type of photography you are into, it is always important not to let any little distracting elements spoil the show for you.
Always keep in mind, your camera sees and records every little thing within the viewing range of its lens. Where as, the novice photographer sees only what he/she wants to see. Therefore, you must always be vigilant about what is being included in your composition. Remember the "level horizon" rule?
These little annoyances could be anything at all – anything that is, that you don't want to have included in the shot. Distractions in photography will only draw the viewer's attention away from the main point of interest and that is definitely one thing that we, as photographers, do not want.
Some of these unwanted elements could be obvious ones like bright colours or, shiny reflections, but they may also be parts of things just intruding along the inside edge of the frame. These can easily be cropped out later, but others internally may not be so easy. So, always check your backgrounds!

No, we are not being confused here with the framing we purchase to mount and show off our finished pride and joys. Right? The framing I am referring to here is that of which we find at the scene of the crime, to frame our subject/s with. Things like tree branches, doorways, arches, bridges, pipes, etc.
When we use elements like this to frame our subject, we can certainly create a lot of interest in our photography and it is also fun to do and good to try and practice it, but we have to be very careful; in that we don't develop a habit of it, but also that it does not end up drawing the attention away from the very thing we are attempting to emphasise. Again, “keep it simple”.

Composition Elements
that will help you create more impact
in your sunrise photos

In the transition from true novice photographer, to enthusiast and eventually going on to become professional, whichever photographic road you decide to follow, in time you will develop your very own individual style – your own footprint or mark, so to speak. As do the great artists, musicians and famous novel writers.
In that time, however long it takes to gain experience, you, like them will use and manipulate the ideas and inspirations of many others who have gained their own notoriety and you will try to emulate them, as you become more and more proficient. Then, like a fledgling bird, that is no longer dependant on its parents, you will ultimately become an individual and as you find your own wings, you will also develop your own personal photographic style and others will surely recognise you by it.
To help speed up this transition, the following ideas can also be used when constructing and composing your sunset or even landscape images.

Emotional values
I mentioned earlier about developing your own individual style. Well, like you, everyone is an individual and what you may perceive as a thing of beauty, another could find it very difficult to muster the same emotion. Beauty and art is truly in the eye of the beholder and that same strong emotion that aroused us to create what we consider to be a photographic masterpiece, also needs to be conveyed in the same way to the average competition judge, but ultimately to those of whom we wish to sell our work to.
The following should help to build emotion or to “convey a story” into your images.
Believe it or not, the use of simple shapes can stir up psychological and emotive feelings subconsciously in the eyes and minds of those who view your images.
Shapes, such as squares, circles, or triangles, flat lines, vertical or angular. In fact, a circle or a square are really just lines joined at both ends. These elements can often be found, for instance in parts of churches or buildings. For instance, steeples, windows, doorways, etc., triangular sails on boats, even letters of the alphabet like the A's and H's, we sometimes find in bridge construction.
In landscape photography we have many of these emotive elements at our fingertips. Earlier, in composition rules, I talked about the decision you need to make about
taking the shot in landscape mode (camera held horizontally), or portrait mode (camera held vertically).
Landscapes are best seen in wide vista style, to have as much scenery in the shot as possible. Because they are mostly horizontal, and horizontal being flat or like a flat line, the emotions usually drawn from that are of restfulness, peace or serenity. This is what convey in our sunrise images and we can even increase those emotive values by using elements like boats laying at anchor or someone quietly fishing in water that is also quiet and still. Especially in the “twilight hour” before the sun has risen to disturb the peace.
On the other hand, we can use portrait mode (camera held vertically), to evoke emotions of heavy action, drama, power, strength and dynamism.
It is worth remembering too that we can also use angular lines or leaning elements to create a sensation of movement.
Curves and straight lines can also bring on different emotive feelings. We simply have to recognise them. In general landscapes we can find curves in the undulating land and lines in roads, fences, a line of trees, a pathway leading into a garden, etc. In our seascape/sunrise, a water rill or run-off perhaps meandering down to the ebbing tide line. This meandering line may even be used to draw the eye of the viewer into our scene or perhaps you could even use the tide line itself. In all of this we are only limited by the extent of our own imaginations.
We have to adopt the correct use of light and shade, we cannot work without the right light and with clouds and shadows we can create dramatic scenes and also use long shadows to create those guiding lines to draw the eye of the viewer into our creations. The strength or softness and the intensity or direction of light can also stir the emotions because of the texture and form it creates on surfaces.
Certain colours can also cause the emotions to stir. Colours in the blue or green range can make you feel cold. On the other hand, strong reds, oranges and pinks can bring about the sensation of comforting warmth.
This is where sunrises can really impact on the viewer, with strong and dramatic colours in the sky and dark heavily silhouetted features in the foreground. You will find an extremely rough sea, with waves smashing heavily over rugged rocks will have a different effect on the viewer, as opposed to where the sea is quiet and serene and reflects the sky, as would a sheet of glass or mirror, with only the odd ripple when something from below occasionally comes up to disturb the surface.

Don't discount that human element
People can be very usefully when placed in the making of an ideal composition especially where we need to provide a sense of height or even depth in an image. And yes, people can also be a darned nuisance at times, when we definitely don't want them in the shot, but they can be strategically placed in a certain part of a scene that, for instance, includes a waterfall. When we shoot a waterfall, we know how high
it is, but how do we convey that same sense of height or scale to those who see our resulting photographs?
There are also places where you would expect to find people and it can be emotionally disturbing if they are not there. I know a photographer who tries to always include people in his photographs. His work is also recognisable by the constant use of “guiding lines” (as mentioned earlier) in his compositions.
You can conjure up feelings of desertion and abandonment when you see certain images of places where you expect to see people, but they are not there. For example, a park bench, with no one sitting on it. A popular seaside beach, with no one sun bathing on it or even an often frequented, but empty, beer garden.
In our coastal sunrise we could include perhaps someone fishing or casting a net. Don't be afraid to include that influential human element whenever and wherever you deem it necessary to do so.


Firstly let's take a look at what you have on hand as tools for the job. Incidentally, I might just say, if you are concerned about the inherent characteristics or quality of your camera, let me say, the camera does not make the photographer, just as the scalpel does not make the surgeon. But if you want to shoot a great sunrise and have it mounted on a large canvas in your living room, then you are going to require, for obvious reasons, something a little better than the camera you have in your mobile phone.
I have really been impressed however, by some of the compact cameras coming onto the market these days and although they do not have all the bells and whistles that SLR cameras can offer, some of them do allow manual operation or at least semi-manual. Including options of manual focusing or flash operation. However, because you are shooting in near-dark conditions, to get a reasonable result with sunrise photography, your camera must have the ability to allow for lengthy exposures. That is, from the time you press (open) the shutter, until it closes again.
For these long exposures, you will also need to stabilise you camera and for that I recommend a good, sturdy tripod. Because at these low shutter speeds, the slightest movement of the camera will cause your photo to come out blurred and even if you have a built-in anti-shake facility, it will not help under these extreme conditions. I also use a remote cable shutter release, so that when I activate the shutter I am not touching the camera at all. However, in some cases, the mere movement brought about by the operation of the camera itself is sometimes enough to cause slight blurriness in your photos. The camera's timer function will also assist in the elimination of camera movement.
What can also be a problem, is if you have your tripod standing on soft terrain such as wet boggy sand, during long exposures the tripod can slowly sink and you will not realise it until you view the results. Just be aware of this and you may be able to improvise.
So, we have the right sort of camera for the job as well as something to keep it stabilised - preferably a good sturdy tripod.
Now, I mentioned above, why I think it is that a lot of sunrise photos never seem to be as interesting as they could be and tend to be a bit lack-lustre, then I stated that I thought it was due to equipment and/or lack of knowledge. Well, most sunrise photos tend to be taken on the spur of the moment, in the heat of the excitement so to speak, with very little planning involved. In anything you do, you simply cannot expect to get a good result without a plan and planning is just as important with sunrise photography, as it is with any other sort of photography.
Your plan should involve, knowing what time and where on the horizon the sun will first appear and you will need to be there at least an hour earlier to give yourself ample time to be set up and ready for the task. Do this the day prior to the shoot and just to be a little more precise, take along a compass. This will give a much better indication of where the sun will rise.
Let us assume you are planning to shoot an ocean sunrise and you already have an idea of what time and of where on the horizon the sun is likely to appear. It is also a good idea to check on the tide times, as this may also be an important factor as to the options and overall quality of your shots.
The impact of your ocean sunrise will depend entirely on what other content you plan to include in the scene. If it is a clear morning without any cloud, the sky parts of your images will be lacking somewhat and remember, it will still be reasonably dark when you arrive on scene, so you really can't be sure at this stage just what the morning is going to bring and it can be very frustrating, after going to all this trouble then finding, when you get there, there is no cloud or there is too much cloud. That's when you have be prepared to get whatever images you can or simply pack up and do it all again tomorrow. Yes, this type of photography can really sort out the men from the boys, but you will definitely find the eventual rewards will far outweigh a few
little disappointments.
It is mainly the clouds, or the light which is reflected from them, that provides not only the magical colour, but also the drama and emotion or much added interest to your sunrise. But that also is dependent on the type, quality and height of the cloud. The higher the cloud base, the more time you will have to allow yourself to be there and this depends a lot on where in the world you are situated. Down here in South East Queensland, Australia, you generally can't go wrong if you allow yourself a good hour before the sun breaks the horizon.
The first traces of colour could start to appear about half an hour (again, depending on the height of the cloud base) prior to the time the sun is due to break the horizon and you may only have a time slot of around 10 to 15 minutes before the colour begins to dissipate. Also as it is constantly changing throughout that time, you need to work fast to get as much out of it as you can.
In our great plan, we now know where and when the sun will rise, we also know if the tide will be in or out and we will check with the weather bureau on the weather and especially the cloud indicators.
What we have to do now, is look for something that will complete our scene in the way of a foreground feature and as we are down on the foreshore, there is no telling to what limits our imaginations will go. Silhouetted Palm trees, boats, rocks, high rise buildings, beach umbrellas, the ideas are endless really, but it has to be right. This is what will make or break our sunrise photos!
Incidentally, if the sunrise itself is a real fizzer, you may just need to utilise one of the secondary subjects as the real thing. To use anything at all is better than to go home with nothing.
Another part of the planning is to look at the scene now in daylight and try to pre-visualise what it will look like in the semi-darkness. Try to get an idea of how the bits you have chosen will all fit neatly into your photo plan. Remembering of course that all these things will be virtual silhouettes. If there is only one extra point of interest, other than the sunset itself, that's alright, but if there are more than one, without making the scene too cluttered, separate each item, so that they are easily distinguishable.
There is nothing more annoying when one is looking at silhouettes in a photo and you cannot make head nor tail of what the shapes might be.
Once you have found the ideal foreground feature and you are happy with how you imagine it will look in the semi-darkness, make a note of where the site is so that you will not encounter any problems finding it again.
Before day's end, make certain you have all that you need for the shoot.
Firstly, your camera. Make sure it is fully charged or if it takes normal batteries, have some fresh ones ready, just in case.
If it is a compact model, turn your mode dial to “Landscape” or if you can manually operate it, switch it to Aperture Priority and set your aperture on f-16. You may have to alter this to an even smaller aperture during the shoot, but f-16 is a good place to start and you will at least be prepared.
If on the other hand, you are using a DSLR camera, have ready any lenses you think you will want to take with you, but have the one you think you will be using mostly already fitted to the camera and check the battery level.
If filters are being used, such as sunset filters, it is probably not a good idea to have it fitted to the camera yet, but wait till the morning light improves a little after you have arrived on the site.
Ensure that your tripod is fully functional and be sure to pack your cable release – if you have one. A pair of rubber boots (and plastic ground sheet) would be handy if the tide is out and be certain to pack a torch (and extra batteries for that too), the brighter the better – I will explain later. But don't pack it away, instead, keep it in a place where it will be easily accessible in the morning. You may need it to go from the car to your preselected site.
When packing your personal gear, don't forget, you will be leaving in the dark or at least semi-darkness, so hats, sunglasses and water bottle will more than likely be the last things you are likely to think about. Also the insect repellent, long trousers and long sleeve shirt.
You are probably now thinking, 'Is all this really necessary?' And I say, from experience, “Yes it is!” All these things should be laid out and ready to jump straight into in the morning. It is all part of the planning, so that it will be “okay on the day” and you will not get half way to the site and realise you have forgotten something and have to come back, thus missing out on half the action.
The next morning, everything should be going nicely and according to plan. It should still too dark to see what the sky is doing, but at least be thankful if it is not raining!
With the light from the interior of your car, calmly and methodically fix the camera to the top of your tripod, the legs of which should be fully extended, put on your insect repellent, grab the rest of your gear, lock the car, making sure all lights are off and quietly make your way to your chosen spot.
Before you get started on your composition, remember the rule, “Less is more”. Try not to include too much stuff in your shot. The sunrise is to be your main feature and whatever else you have included in your shot, should be treated as secondary in value to the main feature. Subordinate things are only stop off places for the eye when you are viewing the resulting image, but remember what I said if the sunrise itself is a complete fizzer!
You should by now, be able to see a bit of light on the horizon, so switch on your camera and knowing that it should already be set on f-16, try the shutter and see if it will expose a shot. This exposure should be a long one, so wait till the shutter closes then take a look and see what you have.
The resulting shot will help you determine whether or not you should change your position. This could be a simple matter of moving slightly to the right or left or shooting from a higher or lower angle. But what you are looking for in the way of a good composition is, and I assume you will have the camera mounted horizontally on the tripod, with your lens, if it is a zoom lens, set at about 45 to 50mm.
You should next determine whether or not it is worth including the sky in your shot. If there is no visible cloud, then you will have an uninteresting sky if you include it. If this is the case, observing the “Rule of thirds” by placing your horizon line 1/3 of the way down from the top of the frame and see that it is “level” and the lower two thirds of the frame will then be taken up by the land features you have already chosen. This is where your bright flash light can come in very handy.
If you would rather see some detail in your foreground feature/s, press the shutter
button again whilst shining your flash light on them. Sometimes, depending on how close in you are to your chosen foreground, your on-camera flash or external flash unit may be enough to cast light on them, but you should definitely be able to get closer in with your flash light.
With the composition of your foreground features, and again observing the “Rule of thirds”, try to place the one showing the most interest, 1/3 of the way in from the side of the frame and the still yet to come sunrise on the other side.
So, in this case, you should have the straight horizon line approximately, although there is no need to be absolutely precise with this, it is only aesthetically correct, 1/3 down from the top of the frame, the foreground feature/s 1/3 of the way in from the side and the sunrise 1/3 of the way in from the other side.
On the other hand, if your sky shows a lot of interest and you want to use it as the main feature, then it should take up about 2/3 of the top of the frame and the land features, 1/3 up from the bottom.
If, at this stage you are not getting much joy as far as colour goes, it is probably best to stay where you are and see it through, as the morning and the ever changing colours can still bring many surprises.
In the course of all this, keep looking around you. The light can play tricks and it could be that there is colour in some other part of the sky behind you.
However, if you change your position entirely, you must realise that your composition and the elements you can include in it have also changed.
So again, just be aware of what you are including in your shot as your foreground content is just as important as your background. As I stated earlier, in the composition rule “less is more”, construct your landscape or seascape as you would if you were writing a good book.
The next phase of the sunrise is when the sun actually starts to peep over the horizon. The pinks, oranges and reds have all but gone now and we are in, what is known as, the “golden hour” phase.
The light is really different now as it takes on a golden hue, but this is the time when you can get some great landscape or even cityscape photography as you will no doubt soon discover, when taking a good look around.
This different light now accentuates surface form and texture with bright areas along with heavily cast shadows. If you are on a beach, look at how it accentuates shapes in the sand and all the little coloured bits a pieces that have been left along the high tide mark. The bark on trees and surfaces of coloured rocks are much more noticeable now because the light puts more emphasis in the texture of their surfaces.
As the golden hour passes, the sun should now be well and truly up, as it starts its slow journey across the sky, the wind has got up and the light has become much more whiter now, so it is generally about this time when I think about starting to pack up and make my way home, wondering at the same time, what tomorrow will bring.
No two sunrises will ever be the same. Each and every morning is totally different. And just as every morning is different, no two photographers will ever photograph the same sunrise, or any scene for that matter, in the same way. We are all individuals - and anyway, it simply wouldn't do for us all to see things in the same way.