How to predict and photograph the perfect sunrise
“Red skies in the morning, seaman’s warning.” The saying is often true. And if you can predict that red sky, you can be ready to capture a beautiful view.
As dust particles and moisture in the atmosphere scatter the sunlight, the clouds glow with colorful lights — reds, yellows and magentas — for 20 to 40 minutes until the sun rises higher.
Still, many sunrises are far from such stellar scenes. When storm clouds obscure the view at sunrise, the sky changes shades of gray without a clearing.
In the following I will explain how you can predict and photograph the perfect sunrise.
Forecast of a colorful sunrise
If you want to watch or photograph colorful sunrises, but prefer to avoid the gray and monotonous sunrises, there are tools available to predict when color will appear in the morning sky. Infrared (IR) satellite imagery shows the location of clouds and clear skies needed to produce the color, and computer weather models can predict future cloud cover and visibility.
When planning a sunrise photoshoot, I check IR satellite imagery the evening before the shoot and again in the morning before sunrise. If the satellite imagery shows cloud cover with clear skies nearby to the east, there’s an excellent chance the sunrise will be colorful. Only a small opening in the clouds to the east is required to produce beautiful tones.
But if the satellite imagery shows widespread cloud cover stretching hundreds of miles east of the area, direct sunlight will be blocked and the sunrise will be gray.
To increase my chances of success, I usually target approaching storms for my sunrise photo shoots, as there will be plenty of clouds in the sky that will glow in color assuming there’s a gap of clear skies to the east. My rule of thumb is that this gap needs to be 100 miles away or less.
Of course, colorful sunrises can occur without storms approaching. Patches of mid to high cloud can create scenic dawns. Cirrus and altocumulus clouds show subtle and mottled color patterns.
We can also review satellite imagery to find scattered clouds to predict sunrise color. Cloud patches can be fleeting, however, so there is often a factor of luck associated with the timing and location of patchy clouds at dawn. When I make an effort to get up early and head into the district for a sunrise shoot, I usually aim for approaching storms rather than patchy clouds to increase my chances of success.
Forecast for a clear sky sunrise
I photograph sunrises under clear skies, when cherry blossoms are in bloom, or when the sun is aligned with a monument or memorial. These sunrises are less colorful than cloud-filled ones, but the scene is impressive when the sun is positioned with blossoms or a recognizable landmark.
Clear sky sunrises are easily predicted by checking IR satellite imagery. If there is no cloud for 100 miles or more in any direction, the sunrise will be clear and bright.
And on clear skies, you might be able to create starburst effects in photos with the sun by using a high f-number (f/16 to f/22) for your camera’s aperture setting. The starburst is created by sunlight diffracted into uniform rays on the camera’s sensor. It helps when an object like a building, tree, or flower partially blocks the sunlight to reduce the brightness. See an example below.
Common disruptive factors for a good sunrise are low clouds and fog. Low clouds are not usually visible on IR satellite images because their tops are often almost the same temperature as the ground. So I check Windy.com to look for low clouds. I don’t photograph sunrises under low cloud cover as they block direct sunlight.
When it’s foggy, it’s best to just look out the window and check weather reports from nearby weather stations. I avoid photographing sunrises when visibility is poor due to fog.
Another disruptive factor to a good sunrise is unwanted objects in the foreground. For example, when the Reflecting Pool at the Washington Monument is drained, the reflections of sunrise on the water are replaced with an unattractive view of an empty concrete pool. The same is true when cranes and construction equipment are parked next to a memorial or monument – the beauty of the scene is diminished. It’s good to have a backup plan when photographing a sunrise.
Sunrise and sunset forecast apps
If you don’t want to use IR satellite imagery to track clouds, there are apps available to help you predict colorful sunrises and sunsets. Popular ones are Alpenglow, Skyfire, SkyCandy and MySunset. App reviews are generally good, but results vary.
During a recent cherry blossom sunrise photo shoot, a photographer next to me complained that their sunrise app predicted a colorful scene, but the sky was clear and blue. I mentioned that the IR satellite imagery didn’t show any clouds within 100 miles of our location, so I knew we’d have clear skies without much color.
There is also an IR satellite imagery app for tracking clouds on a smartphone.
Tips for photographing a sunrise:
- Check the sunrise time. Plan to be in position 45 minutes beforehand, as the best sky color is often 20 to 30 minutes before sunrise.
- Always use a tripod and a wired or wireless remote shutter release to avoid camera movement.
- Various apps can be used to plan where the sun will rise on a specific day. Popular ones are PhotoPills and Photo Ephemeris.
- Insert a famous landmark in a sunrise photo to make the scene more interesting. DC, of course, is full of it.
- Plan a shoot with a large body of water in the foreground to reflect the colors. Nearby options include the Tidal Basin, the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, the Capitol Reflecting Pool, and the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.
- Disable autofocus and fix focus on objects on the horizon. Otherwise the auto focus may jump around during the photo shoot.
- I find that predicting the color of the sunrise makes watching the sunrise more fascinating because it puts my skills to the test. It’s fun to see if my prediction is correct.
- Sunrises on the edge of storms make for colorful scenes, but the closer the storm gets, the higher the risk of gray skies due to the abundance of clouds and humidity.
- In the DC region, winter sunrises are generally more colorful than summer sunrises. Less pollution allows for better winter visibility, which is needed for clear, vibrant colors. In summer, however, haze and humidity can affect visibility and muted colors.
- When watching sunrises, do not stare at the sun after it has risen above the horizon to avoid eye damage. It seems like common sense, but it’s a recurring problem for photographers. Instead, I direct my gaze to the LCD on my camera.
The tools and tips I mentioned should increase your chances of observing and photographing colorful, brilliant sunrises. And I hope that the challenge of predicting colors in the sky makes your quest for an amazing sunrise more interesting and enjoyable.