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The Glory Of Morning
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 cozy 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 fewer 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 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 the reverse of each other. So, with that in mind, from here on in, I will only give reference to sunrises.
Some of the photographic composition rules (guidelines) and essentials needed for both landscape and sunrise photography
The following are a few, 'so-called' rules (I prefer to call them guidelines) of composition that should be mentioned, for general sunrise landscape or seascape imagery. especially if the intention is for entering them into photographic 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, practice them and then make a conscious decision regarding their application.
Composition rules were originally put in place by classic artists for psychological and aesthetic reasons but also 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.
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 the 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 compose 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 either 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.
Let's 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 don't 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 a 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 a 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 other objects running vertically through the scene. This will then take much of the emphasis away from the horizon line. Water reflections can be exempted from this rule.
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 to the eye of the person viewing the completed image.
2. The level horizon rule
Unless it is for aesthetic reasons, there is also the rule that insists on a level horizon line.
3. The less is more rule
Keep it simple! When you view an image and it is too busy or cluttered, that is where it becomes difficult for the eye to settle on any particular spot, so you soon become bored and disinterested with it.
Landscape composition should be constructed like that of a book – with a beginning, a middle section and a great ending or background. This can also create a good strong sense of depth or give a third-dimensional effect to the image, but it should also have a simple storyline, with one major player and just a couple of subordinate players.
Keeping this in mind, along with the 'rule of thirds', 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 can help you get things into perspective.
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 and when you must amputate, try to do it halfway 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 or at your viewing screen and you 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
A good landscape vista image should be clear, sharp from the immediate foreground, right 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 will set a small aperture (large setting number), anywhere from between f-8 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 to infinity (if you have one, it's the little emblem that resembles a figure 8 laying on its side) and while in aperture priority, set the reading to about f-11 and the camera will automatically set a 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 'minimalist' image, try to fill the frame with your scene. A zoom lens is ideal for getting in close 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 style. 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 from within the scene, at the viewpoint 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 or part of it 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
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 because that colour and light will not 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. Whereas, 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.
Some of these unwanted elements could be obvious ones like bright colours or shiny reflections, but they may also be parts of that intrude 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!
The framing referred to here is that composition element we might find within the scene to frame subjects with. Things like tree branches, doorways, arches, bridges, pipes, tunnels, 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 but we have to be very careful that it does not dominate the scene.
Composition elements to help create 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; just as classic artists, musicians and famous novel writers did.
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 as you become more and more proficient you will become an individual and as you find your own wings, you will also develop your own 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.
I mentioned earlier about developing an individual style. Well, 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 are truly in the eyes of the beholder and that same strong emotion that aroused us to create what we consider to be a photographic masterpiece, 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.
The following should help build that emotional factor or to 'convey a story' into an image.
The simple use of 'shapes' can stir up psychological and emotive feelings subconsciously in the eyes and minds of those who view our images.
Shapes, such as squares, circles, or triangles, flat lines, vertical or angular. In fact, circles or squares are really just lines joined at both ends. These elements can often be found in parts of churches or buildings or steeples, windows, doorways, etc., triangular sails on boats, even letters of the alphabet like the A's and H's, found in bridge construction.
In landscape photography, we have many of these emotive elements at our fingertips.
It was mentioned earlier about taking the shot vertically (portrait style) or horizontally (landscape style). Landscapes are best seen in a 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 drawn from that are of restfulness, peace or serenity. This is what is generally conveyed in sunrise images and we can even increase those emotive values by using elements like boats lying 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 style 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, water run-offs perhaps that meander down to the ebbing tide line. This meandering line may even be used to draw the eye of the viewer into the scene or perhaps the tide line itself could also be used. In all of this, we are only limited by the extent of our own imaginations - and knowledge of course.
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 a sense 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 the ideal composition, especially where we need to provide a sense of scale 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 view our images?
There are also places where you would expect to find people and it can be emotionally disturbing if they are not there.
You can conjure up feelings of desertion and/or 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 sunbathing 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.
As newer model compact cameras come onto the market these days they do not have all the bells and whistles that DSLR cameras can offer but some of them do allow for manual or at least semi-manual operation; including options of manual focusing or manual 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. As from the time you press the shutter until it closes again.
For these long exposures, you will also need to stabilise your camera and for that I recommend a good, sturdy tripod because, at these low shutter speeds, the slightest movement the resulting image is likely to be blurred and even if you have a built-in anti-shake facility, it will not help under these extreme conditions. A remote shutter release is best on these occasions as it will help to eliminate camera movement. 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' can also assist in this case.
What can also be a problem, is if you have your tripod is standing on soft terrain such as wet boggy sand. During long exposures, the tripod will slowly begin to sink and you will probably 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.
Most sunrise photos tend to be taken on the spur of the moment, in the heat of the excitement, with very little planning involved. In anything you do, you simply cannot expect to get a good result without prior planning and it is just as important with sunrise photography, as it is with any other sort of photography.
Ther 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 in the days leading up 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.
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 part of the image will be lacking somewhat and remember, it will still be reasonably dark when you arrive on scene and even with the best planning you still 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
It is mainly the clouds or the light which is reflected from them, that provide 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 on a lot on where in the world you are at the time. However, 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, be aware that it will be constantly changing throughout that time, so time is of the essence.
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 foreground interest 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, the ideas are endless really, but it has to be right. This is what will make or break sunrise images!
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 how it will appear 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 these items 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 than looking at silhouettes in a photo and being unable to ascertain what the shapes might be.
Once you have found the ideal foreground feature and you are happy with how you imagine it will look, make 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 accordingly. A good start is about f-11. Although, you may have to alter settings as you go during the shoot.
With a DSLR, pack any lenses deemed necessary for the shoot 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 them fitted to the camera yet, but wait till the morning light improves a little after you have arrived on site.
Ensure that your tripod is fully functional and be sure to pack your remote shutter release – if you have one. A pair of rubber boots and a plastic ground sheet is 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 all will be 'okay on the day' and you will not get halfway to the site and realise you have forgotten something and have to go back, thus missing out on half the action.
The next morning, everything should be going nicely and according to plan. It should still be 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 simply stop off places for the eye when viewing the resulting images.
Remember plan B 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-11, 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 settings (a higher ISO possibly) or it may include altering your viewpoint - a simple matter of moving slightly to the right or left or shooting from a higher or lower angle.
Remembering the 'rule of thirds', you should determine whether or not it is worth including the sky in your shot. Is the horizon line level?
If detail in the foreground feature/s is required, whilst pressing the shutter button shining your flashlight 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 (fill-flash) on them.
With the composition of your foreground features, and again observing the 'Rule of thirds', try to place the one showing the most interest, about 1/3 of the way in from the side of the frame and the still yet to come sunrise on the other side and at this stage, if 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.
Be aware of what you are including in your shot as your foreground content is just as important as your background.
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 very much 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 and 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 on the texture of their surfaces.
As the golden hour passes, the sun will have well and truly risen, as it starts its slow journey across the sky, if not before, the breeze is probably now prevalent and the light has become much whiter now, so it is generally about this time when I think about starting to pack up and make for home, wondering at the same time, how tomorrow morning might be.