Story and photography by Viktoria Haack
The first thing I consider when preparing to shoot a sunrise is what the weather will likely be doing. I often use an app on my phone for this. Depending on what I’m trying to achieve, I usually hope for some cloud that will catch the colour from the rising sun, but not so dense and thick that it will prevent the light from getting through. Once I’m satisfied there’s a chance to catch some light I try to figure out what location I’d like to shoot and whether that location is the right choice for the kind of weather that’s predicted. Sometimes I can get away with a cloudless sky if I’m shooting mountains that are likely to catch alpenglow, but more often than not I’m hoping for some cloud cover to add mood and trap the sunrise colour. The next step in my preparation is to check the sunrise time for the location I’ve chosen. Again, I generally rely on an app such as ‘The Photographer’s Ephemeris’ or ‘Rise’ for this information. Having established the time, I then figure out approximately how long I need at the location to scout my set-up and find a decent composition. If possible, it’s always good to scout areas in the daylight when you can assess safety of ice or other possible hazards and can generally see a little better, but this isn’t always possible, so I like to allow myself at least 30 minutes to an hour at a location before the sun is due to rise. Also, pre-sunset light can sometimes actually be more interesting than the sunrise itself, so allowing plenty of time is generally my preference. Once I’ve figured out the time I need to be at my location, I work out my travel time and am then ready to start organizing my photo equipment. I prepare by charging camera and remote shutter release batteries, formatting memory cards, cleaning filters and lenses and generally organizing my bag, making sure I have a cleaning cloth and dust blower included in my kit. I like to shoot with more than one camera body and usually bring along a wide 17-35 f/2.8, all purpose 24-70mm and a medium telephoto 70-200 f/2.8 lens so that I can shoot details and different compositions as they arise.
I prepare my own personal gear by considering what kind of footwear will be appropriate. Usually warmth and water resistance are my main considerations as I often find myself standing in bodies of water. Even if I’m warm when I first arrive at a location I know that after I’ve stood waiting for light, often in windy conditions or damp, chilly ones, my body temperature drops and I rarely regret wearing too many layers. As well as weather-appropriate clothing, I like to be prepared with bear spray, a headlamp or flashlight (usually 100 lumens or more), snacks and a drink. I also use my cell phone to time long exposures when I’m shooting in bulb mode so I like to make sure it’s fully charged, and I have it with me as an additional safety feature. I’ve been caught out on many occasions by not having enough fuel in my car and find gas stations are closed when I’m driving to locations pre-dawn. Nowadays I make sure my vehicle has enough fuel the day before. Finally, as another safety precaution, I let someone know where I’m intending to go.
When I arrive at my chosen location, my first consideration is what elements of the scene I would like my image to contain and which are the most important. With this in mind, I scout the area for some interesting foreground details or elements that will lead the eye into the frame. I also consider which direction the light will be coming from. Phone apps can help predict the direction of the rising sun, but light is notoriously unpredictable and I regularly set up a shot, then find myself having to make changes as Mother Nature puts on her sunrise display! For me, one of the joys of landscape photography is the unpredictable nature of light and the challenge it presents to recompose the shot, often with limited time as light displays alter. This forces me to find new compositions or possible focal points with just minutes to capture the peak of the best light.
I generally try to keep the lightest areas of the scene towards the centre of the image so that the bright details don’t lead the eye out of the frame. I love to use rocks, ice patterns or foliage to point the viewer into the scene and try to hold them there with the brightest details, textures and colours. The moody blues of pre-dawn light can be great for images, and I love to shoot at this time as it helps me refine my compositions and figure out exposures. As the light increases with dawn I often start to add graduated filters or neutral density filters to my shots to smooth out water or clouds.
While I’m shooting I always keeping in mind how I’ll process my RAW files. If I’m shooting textures that are physically close to my camera and I want to keep things in focus from the front to the back of the scene, I’ll often shoot with different points of focus that I can later focus stack using Adobe Photoshop CC to combine the images into one and keep a large depth-of-field running through the scene. I also try to capture my images with a full dynamic range of light; I do this in camera as much as possible by using graduated filters.
Often when shooting a sunrise, the light isn’t what we’re expecting or hoping for, but each time I shoot at a location it helps me build a library of information about how the light works at that spot and the kinds of ice/vegetation, etc. that can be found there.
Shooting sunrises can be extremely rewarding. When I work through a sunrise checklist before I set out, it really helps me feel fully prepared and able to concentrate on capturing the scene when I’m in the field.