A vision in mind
A good sunrise is always a pleasant way to start the day but it represents a challenge to capture it in a convincing way. Preparation (like most things) is the key to going home with a memory card full of decent photos.
No doubt the initial challenging aspect of taking sunrise photos is just getting up and getting to the location where you want to take the photographs in good time. How big an ordeal this is will depend on sunrise time. But no matter what the time will be it will mean getting to the location during the hours of darkness. Getting to the location about 30 minutes before the sun peaks over the horizon provides sufficient preparation time. The direction and timing of the sunrise is easily determined from websites on the Internet or from applications built into mobile devices (gps units and mobile phones).
Before getting to the location it is worth having in mind the kind of scene you wish to capture. It may help to visit the location during normal daylight hours in order to get some appreciation of the environment. However, while the light from the sun low in the sky be prepared for some changes.
Apart from the camera and lenses (if shooting with a DSLR) probably the most essential piece of kit will be the tripod. Whether you are using a full sized tripod or just a much smaller table top or gorillapad tripod it is important to steady the camera. The shutter speeds achieve are likely to be too slow to hand hold even with image stabilisation. Boosting ISO sensitivity may help but the results may not be as good as required. It is always handy to have a light weight tripod for easy of transport but that is sturdy enough the weight of your camera plus lens. If you are shooting with a compact camera then a light weight tripod will do fine.
This is one instance when autofocus is not necessary as once the lens has been focused on infinity it does not have to be refocused again (assuming the focus is accurate). With the sun just below the horizon light levels will be low and manual focusing must be done with care. With a compact camera that has basic focus distance selection, the focus mode should be landscape or infinity depending which option is provided.
Assuming that for the scene to be taken depth of field is not an issue, then the aperture to be selected need not be a large 'f' number. The aperture selected should be chosen where the lens will perform at its best. This will typically be around f/8 to f/11 for a DSLR lens and lower for a compact camera (where diffusion is more of an issue at the higher f stops).
White Balance should be set to 'Daylight' rather than Auto WB as auto will try and remove excessive colour casts produced by the rising sun. RAW is the format of choice to save images if it is available as it will ensure the best image quality is maintained and options are available if post processing is required.
The type of lens to shoot with will be down to the scene you wish to capture. A wide angle prime or zoom for capturing a wide expanse of area or perhaps a telephoto lens to get some nice big images of the sun rising. It is important to point out here that the time between the sun being just below the horizon with the sky starting to pick up colour and later being above the horizon with significant brightness is quite short. Whilst the sun is just above the horizon it's brightness is softened by the atmosphere but once it's height becomes significant it's intensity becomes a danger to the eye.
Rather than just taking the obvious sunrise photo the camera could be pointed away from the sun and the light and shadows forming on buildings or the landscape can make more compelling images. All this depends on the atmospheric conditions of course. With heavy cloud fall and the early sunlight being totally obscured that the light levels slow increase but the overall scene remains rather dull. The consider here therefore will be when there is significant clarity to the sky for the sun's presence to be clearly seen.
It may be considered that the best overall effect if wanting to directly capture a sunrise is when there is some background detail. This may be in the form of man made structures, landscape, and clouds. In the case of the structures and landscape details, the will be rendered as a near silhouettes. If the photo you have envisaged will consist mostly of the sky (especially in the case where a telephone lens is to be used) the having some added detail in the sky will help turn what could potentially be a dull photo into something of more interest. Cloud formations on or near the horizon well help to do this. The clouds may be rendered in a semi opaque manner with the sun behind them.
With the light changing fast it will pay to plan in advance especially if sufficient experience has not been obtained. To minimise the possibility of camera shake a cable release should be used. Alternatively if that facility is not available (in situations when shooting with a compact camera) then the timer standby feature may be used.
Most cameras these days are using
evaluative light metering which basically sample light
levels from pre-defined areas of the scene the camera is
facing. The meter will try and determine where the
subject is based on AF sensor information. The up shot
of all of this is that the meter will try to determine
if any exposure compensation is necessary and apply it
accordingly. The advantage of this is that the scene may
be exposed to your liking so you don't need to take
further action. The disadvantage is that the results may
not always be predictable as the camera is using it's
own intelligence. It is all about understanding how your
meter works. For those who want the alternate control
may want to use centre weighted metering. This does not
offer the sophistication of evaluative metering but the
metering results are more predictable. Whether using
evaluative or centre weighted metering, exposure
bracketing will help to ensure that you have got the
exposure. However keep on mind that if shooting in RAW a fair degree of exposure adjustment can be achieved in post processing with image editing software (but it is always best to get the exposure right in camera).
The white balance setting of choice is no doubt Daylight. Using Cloudy or Shade will lead to overly warm rendition of the scene due to their higher colour temperature setting. Setting Auto White Balance may try and remove the orange / red colour cast from the rising sun though some auto WB try to recognize a sunrise / sunset scene.
The rest is down to the imagination of the photographer. Interesting images can be captured during a sunrise and the challenge to the photographer is to produce a photo that matches his/her vision and yet have a character that sets it apart from the typical sunrise photo.