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The joy of early morning photography for landscapes

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Sunrise versus sunset, which is best for landscape photography? It depends. However, in general, I prefer the early morning sunrise for numerous reasons.

Beautiful morning light

Something both sunrise and sunset landscape photography have going for them is the potential for excellent light. Before sunrise, and after sunset, you can get excellent blue hour light. If the conditions cooperate, sunrise can produce many excellent colors and beautiful conditions. The atmosphere is more likely to be thicker at sunset, which can result in more colors, but that is not to say that sunrise doesn’t have the potential for a colorful sky.

Like the sunset, sunrise can be vibrant and warm.

While sunrise can certainly offer a variety of warm colors, it also frequently can offer displays of cooler light. Especially when shooting with either a polarizing filter and/or a graduated neutral density filter, you can capture deep blues in your sunrise images. Particularly in the summer months, when the air is hazier, sunrise typically offers deeper hues than sunset.

morning light and landscape
But other times, and more often than sunset, it’s a bit cooler in color.

Fewer people

While there will always be exceptions, it has been my experience over the last decade that there are fewer people around during sunrise than sunset. This applies to non-photographers and photographers alike. Even in popular locations, it’s not unusual to arrive before sunrise and see nobody around.

At sunset, this is much less likely to be the case. With fewer people around, it’s much easier to work. If you do encounter other people at sunrise, it’s likely that they’re fellow photographers who have mutual appreciation and respect for both the area and other photographers.

A great example of that is these images of Bass Harbor Light in Acadia National Park. This location works well at sunrise (left) and sunset (right), although I prefer the direction of light at sunrise.

The sunrise image was captured during the tourist season. Despite that, I was totally alone. Several weeks later, I revisited Bass Harbor to shoot at sunset, and there were dozens of people around. In this location and many others along the coast, it can be challenging to work when there are people constantly coming and going.

Early risers have more opportunities

Sometimes the conditions before and during sunrise simply don’t work out. Until there’s some foolproof forecast for great photography conditions, striking out is just a part of the process.

However, a bad sunrise doesn’t always mean bad morning photography. There have been many times when a sunrise was underwhelmed but the rest of the morning presented interesting photographic opportunities.

If sunset is bad, you’re out of luck unless you’re up for night photography. Some locations can work well at sunrise and sunset, so you can get a second chance at stunning shots later that same day.

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I woke up very early to go to the coast to photograph at sunrise. Good conditions never materialized at sunrise, but since I was already out, I visited a local garden before heading home. I ended up capturing this image, which remains one of my favorite shots. Had I not been out early that morning for sunrise, I would never have been able to capture this image. This same situation has happened many times over the years.

Another advantage of being out for sunrise is that afterward, you can scout the location in brighter light to see if there might be other opportunities for another trip. By the time it’s a couple of hours past sunrise, hopefully, you’ve already had a productive day. You get to go home with photos and useful scouting information if you’re fortunate. After a sunrise photo adventure, you have the rest of the day ahead of you.

Different weather in the morning

There can, of course, be very windy mornings. There can also be hazy mornings. However, compared to sunset, in my experience, wind and haze are much less likely during sunrise. If you spend a lot of time photographing scenes with water, calm conditions can produce wonderful reflections.

Further, if you want a bit of atmosphere in your images, you’re more likely to witness fog in the morning.

morning landscape Maine
The ocean is rarely calm along the coast of Maine. However, it was calm on this particular morning.

Some locations are better at sunrise

With more people photographing at sunset than sunrise, sometimes great sunrise locations fly somewhat under the radar. It’s also possible that a location you like at sunset is a location you’d love at sunrise. My point is simple — some spots provide more opportunity with the light coming from the east.

Sunrise morning at Sandy Stream Pond
This is Sandy Stream Pond in Baxter State Park in Maine. It’s a location I have visited many times, including sometimes at sunset. It only works well at sunrise, which means getting up very early.

Sunset is great too, of course

Some locations are better at sunset than sunrise. Sunset has other advantages as well. The most obvious one is that it doesn’t require waking up early. Especially in the summer months, it’s not easy getting up early to travel and get set up for sunrise photography. Even when I’m excited to capture photos, it can be extremely challenging to wake up at 2 a.m. to be at a location before the sun comes up at 5 a.m. After all, if it were easy, locations would be as busy at sunrise as they are at sunset.

If you need reasons to get out in the morning

I really enjoy sunrise photography for several reasons:

  1. I prefer the light and colors at sunrise.
  2. In almost every case, there are far fewer people around, which makes for much easier and more relaxed photography.
  3. If the conditions at sunrise aren’t good, I still have the entire day ahead of me to try for better images or at least scout locations for future images in daytime light.
  4. Mornings are typically less windy. Further, you’re more likely to get nice fog (although sometimes too much fog) in the mornings.
  5. If a location doesn’t work well at sunset, it’s worth considering if it might be better at sunrise.

In addition to the photographic advantages I find at sunrise, there is also something to be said about being outdoors and being active early in the day. Regardless of the outcome in terms of my images, it’s relaxing and peaceful to watch the sunrise. There’s no better way to start the day.

Peaceful fall morning landscape
Being out for a peaceful morning of photography is a great way to start any day.

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