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With sunrises, it ain't over until the sun's completely up

July 09, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Yesterday, I did something I hadn't done for a while: I got out of bed in the dark, and headed out to photograph a sunrise. It was worth it.

If you haven't done this, it has its challenges. Firstly, by definition, it's dark. I doubt if as the saying goes, "it's darkest just before the dawn", but it is dark. It's also cold - in winter, at least.

The other thing is that sunrise (and sunset) photography requires lots of adjustments and quick thinking. I've heard it described as being like photographing sports. While I'm not sure I would go that far, things happen fast - and are unpredictable. So you need to keep your wits about you, and it helps to do whatever setting up you can in advance.

So … I went to Point Walter on Perth's Swan River as I'd heard it was a good place to shoot the sunrise. I arrived in good time, set up my tripod, and decided to use my Nikon 24-120 f/4 lens on my D800. It's not my fastest lens, but I knew I'd be shooting be shooting at a high f-number to achieve the maximum depth of field, so that wasn't an issue. It's a good lens, and gave me the option to move from wide to medium telephoto as required. (I also remembered to turn off the lens's stabilisation as it would be on the tripod due to low light.)

Because the light changes rapidly, I chose my preferred aperture priority mode (where the camera sets the shutter speed according to my choice of aperture) and I selected ISO 100 with auto ISO off. Shutter speed seemed unlikely to be an issue as I was using the tripod, and I wanted the lowest possible noise in my images.

I was ready for the sunrise. I waited, and soon, there was enough pre-dawn light to make some exposures. The problem is, of course that you can only see lights at that time of day, so there was some guessing about the river bank and such.

The cloud was good, and after about 30 shots, which included changing the focal length and lowering the tripod to try for better reflection, I came up with this.

Sunrise over the Swan River from Point Walter, Perth Western Australia.Sunrise over the Swan River.Sunrise over the Swan River from Point Walter, Perth Western Australia.

Quite nice, but as the light increased, I knew that was it. I was disappointed. I'd wanted more colour in the sky, but it clearly wasn't coming, so I packed up. In the next 10 minutes, I folded the tripod, put my camera back in its bag and put the gear in the car. I had a brief chat with a local dog and his people, and started the car – then I saw the sky. That colour that wasn't going to happen was happening!

Damn!!

Hoping I'd have time, I grabbed my stuff and double-timed back to the beach, stuck the camera on the tripod and started shooting.

The light kept changing, so I had to keep agile.

Then I noticed that the slowish shutter speed I was using was blurring the waves, so I decided to trade a little noise for speed and upped the ISO to 400 – and was able to get this.

Sunrise over the Swan River from Point WalterSunrise over the Swan River from Point WalterSunrise over the Swan River made at Point Walter, in the Perth suburb of Bicton.

I wasn't disappointed any more. Surely this time I had what I'd climbed out of bed to get?

Back home, I loaded the files into Capture One and held my breath. Sunrises and sunsets very tough on cameras. They have very high contrast ratios ranging from really, really bright bits where the sun is, and pure black areas. I was glad I'd shot in raw format, rather than JPEG because that gave me a few more options in "post". I was also hoping I'd got my focus right. A blurry landscape is not a good thing!

The files didn't need much processing actually. The D800 may be an old camera in terms of digital, but it's still a great camera. I made tiny adjustments to levels, and almost imperceptible adjustments in clarity, curves and vignetting and I was done.

As I said: it was worth getting out of my nice warm bed. I'll do it again soon-ish.

Lessons? Really only one: don't stop shooting a sunrise or sunset until it's full daylight/dark. As I proved, your opinion of what's going to happen isn't worth much – you have to wait until it's well and truly over.

Or maybe I'm just a bit impatient – which sounds about right.

If you're considering trying sunrise photography, this check list may help. You will need:

  • your camera with a freshly charged battery.
  • a good tripod – meaning it's stable and with a quick and reliable method of attaching your camera.
  • a suitable lens or lenses. A medium zoom is a good choice as while you'll probably need a wide lens, sometimes you may need a medium telephoto (believe it or not).
  • warm clothing - in winter at least, including fingerless gloves.
  • a light. I suggest a headlight torch as these point where you're looking and keep your hands free.
  • be awake – and be patient!

Good shooting.

Shane Baker
shanebakerphotos@iinet.net.au


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