When is the best time to photograph a sunrise?

hr_Z4A0305A friend asked me a little while ago what time he should go out to photograph the sunrise?  My rather simplistic answer was ‘Well it depends!’, but I didn’t leave it there!

No doubt there are times that you’ve been busy working, driving or otherwise occupied when you see the sky light up like its on fire and you wish you could stop what you’re doing to capture it on your camera or phone!  But whenever you’re out and able to take a picture the sunrise or sunset is nothing to shout about.

So how can you stack the odds in your favour?  There are some things you can control and some you can’t.  All you can do is load the dice!

Having a camera with room on the card and batteries fully charged are the main things that are totally within your control.  A tripod, a remote release and some graduated filters are useful additions but not essential.

So how can you load the dice?  Knowing the time of sunrise is perhaps obvious and knowing the likely weather is important too.  If you’re going to the coast then the state of the tide will influence what you’ll find when you get there.

The time that the sun rises is easy to find.  Many weather websites will show the times that the sun rises and sets for a location as well as those for the moon.  You could always spend a few pounds on an app like The Photographer’s Ephemeris (for both Android and iOS) which will give you times as well as the direction in which the sun or moon will appear overlaid on a map.

Now you know when the sun will peak above the horizon, but if you get to your location at the exact time you’re likely to miss the best part of the show.  It’s not just having the time to get your camera ready but also knowing that the the sky can light up in colour around half an hour before the sun actually appears.  It’s best to arrive up to an hour before the actual sunrise to get in position and ready to shoot!  Similarly don’t pack up as soon as the sun disappears at sunset.  You might miss the main event in the following 30 minutes!

What about the weather?  The times of sunrise and sunset can be worked out years in advance but predicting the weather even the next day is not so easy!  Thin or broken cloud is likely to be best for a colourful sky as it’s likely to let the colours created by the sun and the earth’s atmosphere through where thick cloud won’t.  With a little trial and error you can learn to interpret the weather forecast from whichever site you check.  It may take a little time but it’s worth it in the end.  Even if the sun doesn’t appear you’re still likely to have a lovely soft light, it may appear dull but that doesn’t meant your images will be dull!


If you are on the coast there are apps which will give you the times of high and low tides but you can get it for nothing on the BBC’s website buried in the weather pages.  I tend to look out for a falling tide which reveals new things at it ebbs away, whereas a rising tide can catch you out.  You might just end up with wet feet but far worse you could get cut off and stranded with no where to go and putting your life in danger.

So now that you’re armed with a little more information you’ll hopefully be able to plan for the best chance of a good sunrise shoot.  It’s not science but a case of improving your chances.  If you wait for the prefect combination on paper then you may miss some great opportunities so get out there when the odds look good, enjoy the great outdoors and hopefully get some fantastic images in to the bargain.  However, if all your planning doesn’t pay off?  Well you tried, hopefully enjoyed being in the great outdoors and maybe have a few ideas to improve your chances next time!

Jeremy Hennell James is a professional photographer based in East Anglia specialising in portrait and landscape photography.  He also runs workshops aimed at helping you get the best from your camera!