In The Sunshine Of Your Love…
I don’t know if I can recommend what I did for Memorial Day to a normal person, but I enjoyed the adventure so I’ll share. It was crazy, but fun and something I’ve been wanting to do for a long while. The wife and I got invited by an old friend to go up into the mountains at the unfathomable hour of 4:00 a.m. to take some sunrise photos. Of course I have the very fortunate side effect of being nocturnal working graveyard shifts. I’m wide awake every day at 4:00 a.m. so I felt pretty bad for my significant other who does not enjoy that benefit. She was a trooper though to go with me.
Now if you’re going to do sunrise photos that’s the unfortunate side effect, being awake when every sane person is asleep. To get the shots you want you need to get to your spot in advance and scout out the perfect location. If you’re arriving when the sun is coming up you’re unfortunately too late. We had to hike in the snow for about half an hour to find our final spot that had a nice open clearing and good view of the eastern sky. That’s how they get all those amazing shots in magazines and posters that you see, getting there insanely early. It’s not easy being a nature photographer 🙂
Photographing sunrises (and sunsets for that matter) is a very dynamic experience. The fun and exciting part is that the view literally changes every minute. Colors ebb and flow and no two photos that you take during the sunrise are the same. The display that unfolds climaxes to an eventual breathtaking display…hopefully. Sunrises are crapshoots and I’m sure Forrest Gump would have something to say about them. Something about chocolates or what not. There’s nothing worse than getting up so early, driving to some exotic location and then getting a lackluster sunrise. Just consider the potential for disappointment part of the excitement. But once it starts you need to be set up and ready. There isn’t much time to waste and you’ll get maybe 10-15 good minutes when the colors are at their peak. That’s why it’s so important to get there before the show starts so you have everything all set to just take pictures. There’s nothing worse than having this amazing light display going on and you’re still parking the car or finding a nice spot without power lines in the way.
As far as setup goes you’ll need a tripod. It’s not fun hauling it up into the mountains, but it makes all the difference. Light is scarce and you’ll have to shoot with some long exposure times. You’ll want to have a small aperture so that you can get most of the scene in focus. Something around f16 should work well which makes the tripod an absolute necessity with shutter speeds of around a few seconds. Another useful tool for shooting long exposures is a remote shutter release. When your camera is on a tripod with a long shutter speed, pressing the shutter button can cause some camera shake and make the photo blurry. With a remote shutter release cable you can stand safely from afar leaving your camera in perfect blur free isolation. If you don’t have a way of taking a photo without touching the camera try using the timer. Just like my favorite infomercial you can just set it and forget it! You can use the timer to take the photo and you’ll have no camera shake from physically pressing the shutter. If you are still having problems with camera shake look to see if your camera has what’s called mirror lock up and enable it. When the camera takes a picture it lifts up the mirror inside to expose the sensor which can cause some camera shake. Mirror lock up mode makes opening the mirror and taking the photo two separate steps. This way you can avoid any movement caused by the mirror moving up.
If hauling around a tripod, getting up before human beings responsibly should and trying to capture a fleeting moment haven’t stopped you then you’re ready for the hard part…the exposure. The basic problem is the sky is very bright and everything else is not so bright. Unfortunately your camera isn’t capable of taking the photo as you see it. Either the sky will be just right with everything else greatly underexposed or the sky will be blown out with the surroundings exposed properly. The latter just defeats the whole purpose of photographing sunrises if all the colors are washed out and overexposed. If you have an interesting subject to make a nice silhouette you can take advantage of that by exposing for the sky and leaving the silhouetted shape underexposed. This can make for a nice photo. However what do you do if you want both the sunrise and surroundings properly exposed? Three little letters…HDR. HDR is a technique that takes multiple exposures of the same photo and combines them into a magical concoction of proper exposures (check out my little tutorial on it here https://rickthestickphoto.wordpress.com/2010/06/22/hdr-you-make-my-dreams-come-true/). It’s a technique that can transform an impossible situation into a beautiful photo.
The photos I have up here are HDR photos and really help the colors pop and shows the scene as I saw it with human eyes. Luckily we got some good color in the sky and the sunrise didn’t disappoint. It was a worthwhile trip and something I hope to do again in the future. I’ve got a few ideas kicking around and hopefully I’ll get around to shooting at 4:00 a.m. soon. I just hope when I make the effort in the early morning darkness that the sunrise cooperates again 🙂