Rise & Shine

Having trouble getting up early to go and hit the trail, for that morning sunrise glow? Well I don’t, but rather than just bragging, why don’t I?

I think the main reason is that I’ve spent such a long time planning, sunk a bunch of money and used up a large amount of my PTO (paid-time-off), to take one of many sunrise shots during my trip, that I feel more than just obligated but compelled to wake up and hit that creepy trail in the dark and catch sunrise.

When I plan a trip, the trip is centered around sunrise and sunset shots. I don’t plan a trip and shot on the fly; the priority is on the sunrise/sunset not on relaxing, or spending time with the family on vacation. I know the common objections to this; what kind of vacation is that, it’s not just my vacation but my family's, I don’t have the time to plan, etc.

They are valid objections but if your goal is for a killer sunrise shot, then you’ve got to accept it’s probably not going to happen. That doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun on your trip taking travel snapshots or just lounging by the beach.

One of things I hate about taking photographs during sunrise and sunset is that I don’t really get to enjoy a spectacular location with the perfect light. I’m fussing with my camera, thinking if that focal length is perfect, if I need to bracket, if I want to take a panorama...... blah blah blah. With that being said I’m going to purposely miss a sunrise/sunset or two and go running at a normal hour or just relax at the hotel.

I’m going to take a page from everyone else and have a touch of a normal vacation, so see you at the beach!

Why I Hate Gear Reviews

So I need to buy a backup camera having sold my D7000. Let’s do some research then.

Several hours of research and a week later …………….


How the hell have I not made a decision and worse, how am I more uncertain now than before?

It started with a firm belief I was going to get a Sony a6000. That morphed into a Sony A7r, then a Sony A7s, then a Sony rx100 iii, then a Fuji X-T1 and then finally, screw it, how about a Nikon D810 as a backup to a D600????

Why all the indecisiveness? Well, going to dpreview previewing all the high iso comparison pictures, then going to dxo mark and comparing sensor dynamic ranges, then going to camerasize.com and comparing the size and weight of the cameras and then watching endless marathons of youtube camera reviews, I came to the resolute conclusion, that I needed to change to a different conculsion and watch some more reviews and then come to another conclusion and so on and so forth.

You know what the endless crap show of camera reviews online doesn’t tell you? It’s that there is sample variation to various degrees in all these cameras and lenses (well lensrental.com does tell - good for them!), not to mention the inherent bias in the all the reviews out there.

I wasted a week and I’m pretty sure I’m buying a Sony rx100 iii, and you know what, choice-supportive bias will mean it’s the best back-up camera in the world.

Shooting Into The Sun

I learnt this lesson pretty late. Since I’ve never really read anything explicitly about it, I thought I’ll share it. When is it OK to shot into the sun? Seems like an extremely important question if you want to take landscapes right? Well it’s best to separate it into two separate times. Golden hour (1-2 hours before the sun sets or after the sun rises) and sunset/sunrise plus civic twilight (20-30 minutes after or before the sun leaves or enters the horizon).

First, let’s look at the sunset/sunrise plus civic twilight (S+CT). The sun here would be very close to the horizon or just below it. At this point the sun isn’t partially strong as the light from it is being scattered quite a bit by the atmosphere. The light from the sun at civic twilight hasn’t quite disappeared; the sun’s just dropped or risen below the horizon, but as the earth is curved, the light is still reaching us, it just has to travel through more of the atmosphere. This scattering (Rayleigh scattering) causes the orange/red color at sunset/sunrise and particularly at civic twilight.

Oh the colors.

Oh the colors.

At S+CT it is best to shoot directly where the sun is rising or setting. The most color is going to come from that direction and it best to plan for a shot at a time where the sun will rise or set in the direction you plan to shot.


Now golden hour is something that’s really puzzled me. I always approached golden hour the same why I approached a sunset/sunrise, which has led to some pretty bad pictures. I have until recently just shrugged it off, as most of time I plan for the sunset/sunrise and anything at golden hour is just a bonus.

Washed out picture at golden hour, shooting directly into the sun.

Washed out picture at golden hour, shooting directly into the sun.

As you can see the above looks washed out. The sun just overpowers the picture and the colors and highlights look drab and lacking depth. The solution? It’s really simple and I feel kind of stupid not figuring it out earlier: don’t shot into the sun at golden hour. Why? Well the sun is higher up in the sky and more powerful, so aim for a front-lit, or more preferably side-lit subject (your camera pointed perpendicular or in the opposite direction of the sun).

I should now come away with a few more keepers, though I wish I had my head screwed on right and figured it out sooner.

Photographing Sand Dunes

I thought I might bring up some of my experiences shooting the sand dunes in Death Valley National Park. I am by no means an expert (I have only shot two dunes) but I have a couple of tips that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere.

You can make out the Panamint Dunes in the middle of the frame, left of the butte.

There are five main sand dunes in Death Valley; Eureka Dunes, Mesquite Dunes, Ibex Dunes, Panamint Dunes and Hidden Dunes. Eureka is the highest, Mesquite the busiest and the others rarely visited. I don’t really think Panamint or Ibex are all that difficult to get to but they don't get a lot of foot traffic, so if you want to go to a pristine dune field those are you're best bets.

For better or worse, I think Mesquite is the most photogenic, due to the more golden color and the longer length they cover, giving the impression they go on forever. Mesquite has one big drawback and that’s the footprints. The tallest parts will always have footprints, as everyone wants to get to the top. The areas that require at least a 1-2 mile hike from the parking lot though should have few to no footprints.

As with all landscape photography, but especially dune photography, you’re going to have to get to the dunes at the very least one hour before sunrise/sunset. I think there are three distinctive periods during sunset/sunrise to shot. I’ll use sunrise as an example; pre-sunrise glow (civil twilight), sun at the horizon (dawn) and finally golden hour.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes - You can see the amount of footprints on the highest dune and of course there will probably be photographers there at nearly all hours. I wanted the two you see above in the frame and had to race to get to the back of them and high enough to get them and the pre-sunrise glow all in one shot.

In the pre-sunrise glow period you generally either want to be high up so you can get the most of the glow, which emanates from the horizon line, or far back from the dunes taking a wider shot.

You’ll generally be looking at strong silhouettes being cast due to the large dynamitic range, so make sure you bracket, even if you have a D810/A7R. It is worth mentioning that if you do climb up high on the dunes at this time, you’ll leave footprints for any pictures after sunrise (this doesn't have to be a bad thing as you can use them to create leading lines).





Eureka Dunes, about twenty minutes after sunrise.

Next, you have the sunrise, with the sun actually at the horizon and visible. Rather than looking for side-lighting shadows here I would recommend using the sun in the composition. Sun-stars are the obvious choice but there’s also using the dunes to create leading lines towards the sun. Again, the dynamic range here is going to be a lot (even more than civil twilight).

If you haven’t started climbing the sand dunes yet, you’re in luck as the path leading up to the peaks of the sand dunes are perfect spots for sun stars. Make sure you get low if you’re close to the peak and be ready to focus stack if you get really low.


Finally, there’s golden hour. Really you have more like an hour and half after sunrise to look for shadow interplay in the dunes. The sun should be low, so you should be able to find areas that have both strong shadows and fully illuminated parts.

Mesquite Dunes, with some shadow inter-play and some nice, light cloud cover giving a softly lit sun.

Eureka Dunes, well after sunrise. Standing about half way up the highest ridge, looking down on some of the smaller dunes further to the south.

While a lot of people will tell you that photographing sand dunes is difficult, I would disagree. You have to move around a lot and think about your next shot while say you’re camera is firing off bracketed shots, but you’re come away with a lot of good pictures, rather than just the usual one or two. Make sure you plan ahead; check for cloud cover, how high the clouds are likely to be, the wind speed and of course the direction the sun will set or rise. Oh yeah, one more thing, make sure have some fun, if photographing this way isn’t you’re idea of fun do whatever gives you a blast!


Cocoa Beach Sunrise

Staying in Orlando, I couldn't pass up the opportunity at shooting a beach with a pier, which I missed out on when I went to Miami. The two big beaches near Orlando are Cocoa Beach and Daytona Beach. I chose Cocoa Beach, hoping it would be less busy, though I did have to go on the toll frenzied Highway 528.

I went for a shot with the pier cutting across the frame and into the sunrise, rather than one down the pier or one with sunrise coming through the pier piling. There were a lot of people taking pictures around the pier, where I think they were hoping for a sun-star from one of the pier pilings, that never materialized. 

I got a little lucky that there was any color at sunrise at all. The weather reports were mixed for the morning, with showers in the afternoon. With the rain coming, I got some nice dramatic clouds and the bonus pre-sunrise glow, though no actual sun.

I tried a couple of longer exposures; trying to get a shot with a lot more motion in the clouds. Unfortunately not having a 10 stop nd-filter (I tired taking numerous 30 second exposure, hoping to stack them in Photoshop) and with the clouds moving left to right rather than forwards and backwards, the picture turned out so-so.

The above is one 30 second exposure. I tried stacking a couple of 30 second ones in Photoshop but it turned out not looking so good, guess I can't get around buying a 10 stop ND filter.