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How to Get That Perfect Sunrise Photo

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

Winter is well on it's way here in Dunedin, New Zealand. I personally can't stand the cold, however as a photographer/videographer I do appreciate how much easier it is to get great photos and film. The sun is lower in the sky which means we can cheat golden hour for longer, the sky is cloudier so light in general is softer and there's less contrast with shadows etc and sunrise is later so I don't have to get up before 7am if I want some photos of a beautiful purple/pink sky.

Sunrise photography is what we're focusing on (get it?) this week, and here at Media Melt, we've done a bit of it. Last winter I went through a phase of going to the Esplanade every morning before sunrise and just taking lots of photos, seeing what works and what doesn't work. While this is a great way to find out what works for you and your camera, I could have saved myself some time by reading a list like this. So here we go, our tips for getting that perfect sunrise photo.


The equipment needed is fairly basic and standard. At the very least you'll need a camera. At the very very least a phone with a camera, but I think we're all a little better than that, so lets start with a DSLR. You will also need a memory card and a charged battery (personal experience, don't haul yourself out of bed if you're going to get to your location and find out your camera's actually dead).

Going a step further you may want to bring a tripod and a remote shutter, there's often very little light before sunrise (funnily enough) which means you want the ISO pretty low. You may also think about bring a torch or headlight, and maybe a snack? It's early and you deserve one for getting out of bed. Pro tip: Get it packed and ready the night before so you can sleep an extra 10 minutes then grab and go.

Also maybe don't bring your best tripod if your shooting at the beach, sand can get everywhere, no matter how careful you are!


Scout the location, you want a location that’s away from foot traffic so you wont be disturbed. anything off the beaten track will work. Go during daylight and make sure the view of the horizon isn’t obstructed. Decide what hot spots you want to hit and write them down so you can find them again easily, you won't want to waste any time when the sunrise is happening so be as organised as you can be. Figure out what direction the sun is actually rising from at your location so you can be ready for it. Check the weather, but don’t let bad weather be a deterrent. Clouds give a lot of depth and drama to the photo but you do want to know if it will be wet or windy so you can dress appropriately.


Get to your location early, you need time to set up so don’t arrive right as the sun is rising. Google what time sunrise is at your location and get there at least an hour before that. You want to be set up and ready to go as soon as the colours in the sky appear, and if you're doing long exposures, you don't want to be rushing it. Give yourself plenty of time to drive to the location, find the shot and set up the shot, including the camera settings.


Make sure your camera is set to a medium to low ISO, before sunrise there's very little light so you want to let as much light through the sensor as possible. You want a high aperture to try and get everything in focus, unless of course you want to get arty with it and put a subject in the foreground and keep the background out of focus, I don't know what you want from your photo!

Keep in mind that a low shutter requires a tripod and remote to reduce camera movement. The less the camera moves while the shutter is open, the better. If you can, leave it on the tripod and use the remote shutter, that way the camera doesn't need to be touched at all. Try to use manual focus in low light, your camera will probably struggle to focus on anything automatically. Lastly, shoot in raw to get the most out of your edit.


Keep in mind the basic rules of photography, rule of thirds, leading lines, horizons parallel to top and bottom of frame and either hitting the 1st third or second third. Make sure your lens is clean. You can use cloudy or daylight white balance over auto white balance to get more golden hues, however these can be boosted in editing too so don't worry about it too much.


The time has come, you're ready to go and now you need to be patient. Take lots of photos, we're not using actual film here, well I'm not anyway. You can take hundreds or even thousands of photos on a digital camera and edit them when you get home so just keep shooting. Don't be afraid to change your location and subject if things aren't working, or if something else sparks your interest. Make sure you stay as long as you can, you might think the sky is all out of cool colours and then you see something beautiful in your rear view mirror on the way hope and think "Crap, I should have stayed an extra ten minutes". Give yourself time to see the sunrise through to make the most of the trip.


Chuck your photos into Lightroom and make sure the sky is exposed properly, or just under exposed. Play around with contrast, colour and clarity until your happy with the image, photo editing is such a personal thing that it's hard for me to tell you what you like best. Just play until you're happy!

So there we have it, Media Melt's tips for taking that perfect sunrise photo. What did you think? Did you like the photos of the Dunedin Esplanade and Harbour? There's plenty of great photography spots for Dunedin. Check out our other blog post for more inspo:


Media Melt is a Video Production Company based in Dunedin, New Zealand. If you have any enquires, feel free to contact us here


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