Westwood Photography | Tips on Photographing a Beach Sunrise

Tips on Photographing a Beach Sunrise

October 07, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

I guess a lot of us have gotten up early in the dark cold hours well before anyone else is thinking of rising, hoping to see a fantastic sunrise, only to be disappointed by grey featureless skies.

Rossiter Bay Sunset PhotographRossiter Bay Sunrise

Fortunately, on the coast of Western Australia you have a much greater probability of being greeted by spectacular sunrises than almost anywhere else. It was on one of these mornings that I was fortunate enough to be driving out to Rossiters Bay in Cape Le Grand National Park, near Esperance on the south coast, hoping to see something special. For anyone who has visited this area of coast, it has some of the most impressive and isolated beaches in the world. White sands commonly greet clear pristine aquamarine waters.

When we arrived at the beach that early morning, the predawn sky looked very promising, with clear skies and some scattered cloud beginning to show in the pale landscape.  When we reached the beach however, it was rather disappointing to see that seaweed was the main feature on what would have been a white sandy beach.

Hoping to salvage something of this promising sky but rather featureless beach, my friend and I scrambled up and over rocks to discover what was a small hidden sandy bay that you see in the photograph above. After coming across the main beach full of seaweed, we couldn't believe our luck. The bay was facing east towards the rising sun, with scattered rocks across the water adding interest. As we set up, the dawn sky lit up and rewarded us for our efforts. When faced with situations such as this, it is imperative that you work quickly and with a purpose. You really need to know your equipment backwards so that you're not fiddling or fussing over controls that you are not familiar with. Although the landscape is not going anywhere, the light changes very quickly. At around this time of day and in the evening, the best light is frequently over within 2 minutes. As I often shoot at f-22 with a polarising filter, the exposure can easily be 30 seconds to a minute around dawn and dusk, so you can see that you have very few opportunities for many exposures.

The steps I follow when capturing images like this are:

1. Unpack: Place the camera bag somewhere high out of reach of the high tide and set up a tripod with camera on top. It is important to watch out for treacherous waves, especially if the tide is coming in. I use an app for my phone (Tide Prediction) to tell me tide times which gives me an indication as to what to expect in this regard. An added bonus of low tide at sunrise, if you can time it that way, is that the wet sand produces nice reflections and textures, and there is a chance low tidal pools will be available to add foreground interest.

2. Composition:  Move around the scene looking through the viewfinder to find the composition you want. I have another application called the Photographers Ephemeris to tell me the time of sunrise or sunset and the angle or location of the sun on the horizon. You can then use a compass to predict the position of sunrise and place it in the scene as desired. In this image, I wanted the sun to rise over a small rock in the bay, and this required precise positioning.  It is important to check the camera is level at this stage, using a built in spirit level (or a hotshot mounted one). An alternative is to use gridlines if your viewfinder has them.

It's also a good idea to think about the placement of the horizon. Try not to place the horizon in the centre of the frame, unless that is what you want. The one third- two thirds placement usually works best. If the sky is really great, don't be afraid to place the horizon in the lower third. Here I chose to position the horizon centrally as there is equal interest in the foreground and sky, and the horizon is broken by the outlying islands in the bay.

3. Focus: Once the composition is sorted, it is time to consider the focus and f stop. I know this may sound like an unnecessary step in this age of autofocus technology, but it is important everything is in sharp focus. As I use a fully manual camera, I use hyperfocal focussing usually at f 22. Through trial and error tests, I know everything from 3 metres to infinity will be in focus. I would suggest also using manual focus on fully automatic cameras. By focussing about one third into the scene and using hyperfocal distance settings (details for various lens can be found online at Depth of Field Master) you can ensure that near to infinity elements are in focus. Bias should be placed on the elements closest to the camera. It is OK if the horizon is not pin sharp, but it is crucial that the foreground is in focus.

4. Meter: Take light meter readings through the polarizing filter if using one. I use a handheld spot meter, and so have to attach a separate filter to it. Take note of the highlights and shadows, as you will need to allow for this dynamic range in the final composition.

5. Filter: Although polarization is often minimal when shooting into the sun, it is worth viewing the scene through a polarization filter as it often has wonderful effects on clouds and water when they are lit by the rays of the sun. It is also useful to attach a graduated neutral density filter to bring the sky down to within one stop of the foreground key tone. For this image I used a 3 stop hard edged Lee filter (Lee calls this 0.9 ND). If using digital you could plan several exposures and blend them later in post processing, but as I use scanned film images never seem to line up accurately.

6. Lock & Shoot: When everything is set, take the photo by first locking the mirror up if using an SLR, then release the shutter using a cable release to reduce vibration.

7. Bracket: I always bracket images 1 stop over and 1 stop under to safeguard against misjudged highlights, for example highlight reflections off sand or water. I think deep shadows are OK if they are not too large or in areas of key interest, but even a small area of blown highlights can ruin an image. When shooting into the sun, I take a spot meter reading 15-20 degrees from the sun, placing this bight sky tone 1 stop over the key sky tone.


Well, that's it. Time for lunch and a quick prayer that I didn't goof up, like leave the lens cap on or something, before posting the film off for processing. I hope this helps to inform and motivate you the next time you are near the coast and think, ''Should I get up: It just might be a fine clear morning."


F22 and be there.


Richard Tonkin

Westwood photography


No comments posted.

January February March April May June July August September October (1) November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March (1) April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December