As sure as the sun will rise, it is infinitely better to capture your travel landscapes at exactly that moment—sunrise.
Without any doubt, sunrise is the perfect time to be in position and photographing the landmarks that you find on your travels. There has been a lot of discussion, debate, and even heated argument through the years about whether sunrise or sunset will offer you the better shot, and I feel it's important to try and put the matter to rest.
I do believe that anyone who argues that sunset is better enjoys their sleep and doesn’t want to get out of bed so early. I always say: “Real travel photographers get out of bed at 3:00 a.m. Professionals do so on a Monday.”
It’s not just about doing something that no one else is doing (though that is a part of it), it’s about capturing something pretty spectacular.
Everything is brand new at sunrise, possibilities are infinite, and there is magic in the air, which is something you are able to capture with a camera. Let’s break it down into five key areas: light, color, time, mood, and the all-important point of difference.
We should all know by now that light travels extremely slowly. One of the main reasons that sunrise is by far superior to sunset is that of an evening, light can take a very long time to leave the sky. We are left with the harsh brightness of the sun rather than the soft beginning of light. The sun, taking its merry time to finally sink below the horizon, tends to diminish the other elements, especially color, that we look for in our golden-hour photographs.
By burning brightly at sunset, it detracts and distracts from the color and mood we could achieve, whereas at sunrise, the sky is dark by default and the emerging light provides a far richer opportunity for color and mood.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t amazing sunset photos with an abundance of color, but 9 times out of 10, your sunrise images will be far greater than your sunset images.
The all-important purples, blues, reds, pinks, and oranges generally come out to play before the world is awake. As I wrote above, the sky has been dark by default and the richness of these colors will jump out at your image sensor and have far greater impact in the morning.
Once the sun is up, however, you have a bright sky and when the color starts creeping in it is overwhelmingly difficult to get the same vibrancy and depth from the sky.
This one is pretty simple and it should be self-explanatory. The longer your shutter is open (within the correct exposure range) the more vibrant the photograph, the richer the color, the more reflective the water, and the more vibrant the light.
When the sun is first breaching the horizon at 4:00 a.m., generally an hour and a half before sunrise, two-minute shutter speeds are possible and the richness will be seen in your photographs. The same sky may be possible at sunset, but the results in your photography won’t generally be as good, as your shutter speed will be faster to compensate for more light in your frame and the sun being higher at that point in time.
For me it’s partly that no one else is there. It is meditative, serene, and peaceful. I don’t have 1,000 tourists scrambling in front of my camera, and that peace and ambience really does reflect in the photos I take first thing in the morning.
I remember once, while photographing Sydney Harbor in Australia, I searched and hunted for the perfect sunset vantage point. When I found it, I discovered I was but one of 200 photographers there to capture the moment.
The following morning, I crossed to the other side of the harbor for the sunrise shot and there was only one other photographer in position by the time the sun rose. We recognized each other from the previous evening and smiled knowingly that 198 other photographers missed this perfect photograph.
If you’re the only person there, then you’re getting a photograph nobody else is taking. That isn’t to say that other people haven’t been there before you, or won’t be there after you—but as long as people resist setting the alarm for 3:00 a.m., the photographs you take will be something that a lot fewer people have.
Believe me, if I thought I could convince the world to get out of bed at 3:00 a.m., my company, Remember Forever, would be running a weekly sunrise workshop rather than the sunset or night workshops we currently enjoy.
Wherever I travel in the world, no matter my destination or assignment, I ensure that my favorite or the most spectacular landmark at my destination is photographed with the rising of the sun.
Below are some examples of what is possible at sunrise—all but one of these were taken in Montauk, Long Island, not too long ago. The other photo is from Sydney Harbor. (Can you tell which one that is?)
I don’t want you to just take my word for it. Set your alarm. Pack a thermos of coffee. Grab your tripod, cable/shutter release and the best landscape lens you have, ISO 100, f/8, and set your shutter for as long as you possibly can and enjoy the morning, because as the new day starts, the possibilities are infinite.
Besides being a travel photographer, Australian-born Luke Ballard has been a travel documentary producer, travel agent, travel writer, wandering traveler and stand-up comedian. For more than 20 years, Ballard has been pushing the limits of sensible travel and exploration while photographing every step of the journey. He has visited six continents and almost 100 countries, always looking for that one photo that can do each experience justice.
Several years ago, Ballard founded Remember Forever Photography, a company offering more than 15 different workshops, each focused on specific techniques including landscape photography, night landscapes, events, people and portraits, sports, macro photography, and animals. Remember Forever is Australia-wide and covers the east cost of the USA, including New York City, with plans to open across America over the next twelve months.