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How to Photograph Seascapes at Sunrise

Follow a few tips to make those early morning wake-up calls worth it.

By: Jennifer Carr + Save to a List

Photographing the sun rising over the ocean is definitely in the top 5 of my favorite things to do. The beach is frequently empty and I find myself alone in the quiet. The only sounds are from the waves lapping the shoreline and the squawking of shorebirds. These mornings are where I find peace, where I reset my mind and breathe deeply.

Here are a few best practices that I follow during my sunrise seascape outings.

Set your alarm

Sunrise happens early and fast and there is nothing worse than getting to the beach after the sun has crested the horizon. When I know that I’m shooting early, I pack my camera bag the night before, program the coffee pot, and set the alarm. I always arrive at least 30 minutes prior to sunrise so that I can find my location and get set up. I also love to shoot the colors in the sky prior to the sun actually coming over the horizon.

Use a tripod

As first light turns into sunrise, you’ll be gaining light. However, those first minutes before the sun actually rises, you’ll likely be using a slower shutter speed and will need the stability of a tripod to allow for long exposures. You’ll also want to use a remote shutter release or your camera’s self-timer to prevent shake from pressing the shutter release button.

Determine how you want to expose the scene

Are there subjects in the scene that you want to depict as silhouettes or would you prefer to have light in your shadows? Thankfully, today’s cameras have an incredible dynamic range and allow for shadows to be significantly lifted to easily preserve the strong highlights you encounter at sunrise. Do you want to show motion in the water or use a long exposure to blur the movement of the sea?

Include visual interest in your compositions

Fishing piers, docks, or jetties make fantastic visual elements for your sunrise compositions. In the absence of those look for dunes, birds, surfers, clouds, or patterns in the sand. The use of additional elements will help make your photograph more interesting and visually appealing.

Recommended Settings for Sunrise Seascape Photography

While there is no one answer to what your exposure settings should be during a sunrise shoot, here are a few starting points. You should always use your live view or electronic viewfinder and histogram to help determine whether you need to increase or decrease your exposure.

  • Up to 30 minutes before sunrise: shutter speed @ 10 seconds, aperture @ f5.6, ISO @ 400
  • During sunrise: shutter speed @ 1/200 seconds, aperture @ f11, ISO @ 50-100
  • 30 minutes or more after sunrise- shutter speed @ 1/400, aperture @ f11, ISO @ 50-100

Photographing seascapes at sunrise should be fun and relaxing. Embrace the unexpected obstacles that Mother Nature throws at you, sip your coffee, and marvel at the beauty of a new day dawning.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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