Photo Tips | Chasing Sunrises
I love taking photos of the sunrise. I enjoy the anticipation of what the sunrise will look like from the moment I wake up earlier than any sane person should to the beginning of blue hour. It's like nature is slowly unwrapping a present that we've been eager to receive. As I have mentioned before, photographing sunrises require a ton of persistence because there's no guarantee that the sunrise will be a burst of vibrant color, especially in the Pacific Northwest. It isn't a complete crapshoot however. There are a few easy indicators and resources that can help increase the chances of a great sunrise. I'll share the things that I usually check for before deciding if I should commit to waking up early for a sunrise photoshoot.
Clouds: Any Weather App
The best sunrises in my opinion will always have some clouds to provide some depth and character. The best clouds to hope for are cirrus clouds, which are light and wispy. They'll provide the opportunity for the sunlight to reflect, diffract, and disperse and create those vibrant colors. Check the hourly forecast in your local area for partly cloudy, partly sunny, and mostly sunny skies the hour before sunrise. Even mostly cloudy conditions can provide gorgeous sunrises if the clouds are high enough. If you have a particular backdrop in mind be sure to check the forecast for that area in addition to your local forecast. For example, if I want to photograph the sunrise from the Pittock Mansion viewpoint I will always check the forecast around Mt. Hood as well to make sure that it will make an appearance. The best resource for seeing what the cloud conditions will be like is your local news weather reports or even weather.com if you can handle their bombardment of advertisements. The weather app on your phone also works. Again, always check the hourly forecast instead of the daily forecasts. It also doesn't hurt to observe the clouds the night before.
Atmospheric Transparency: Clear Dark Sky
In addition to the traditional cloud coverage in the sky, another important aspect is the atmospheric transparency. This will determine the quality of the scenery for the sunrise more than anything else especially if you're hoping a far away object such as Mt. Hood will be visible. For this I usually check the astrophotography reference, cleardarksky.com. Their Clear Sky Chart provides a lot of great information such as cloud coverage as well as how transparent the air will be and how clearly you can see objects. The clearer the better, but I've often found that even a below average rating seems to be good enough for a great sunrise sometimes. After all, this site is geared towards photographing objects that are much further out in space. I would only really worry if the air transparency or seeing quality is poor.
Sun Location: SunCalc
Now that the conditions are likely to produce a great sunrise, the next step in the process is to find where the sun will actually be rising to help with framing the photo and even help determine which location to shoot from. There are a few websites that can help you with this: suncalc.net, suncalc.org, timeanddate.com. Suncalc.net is a nice and clean graphical website of where the sun position is at any given time. It doesn't provide too much data outside of the basics to go along with the map and graphic overlay. Time and Date is really good for planning ahead with more numbers, but doesn't have as useful graphics as far as telling you where the sun will be rising from. You'll have to figure that out for yourself with the solar azimuth angle. Suncalc.org is a hybrid of the nice graphics and the more in-depth numbers, but its interface is a bit obnoxious with the giant advertisement bar taking up a quarter of the screen.
Second Opinion: SunsetWx
After I have looked into all of the different resources, I like to head over to sunsetwx.com and check to see how their forecast turned out. This is a fun little website with sunset and sunrise forecasting. It's not a guarantee of what the sunrise quality would be like, but it does give a decent general idea for how it will turn out. I would say that most of the time it lines up with what I anticipate which is a positive sign. There are some things that it will miss and that are the local conditions that it never accounts for such as forest fires causing smoke to fill the air or locations that are often enveloped in fog etc.
"The separation is in the preparation" as Russell Wilson often says. Make sure all of your gear is ready to go the night before. Charge up the batteries, find the quick release plate for the tripod, pack your gloves, pack some snacks, pack some memory cards, pack the clothes you're going to wear, etc. You want to do all of this the night before because the brain most likely won't be firing on all cylinders at such an early morning. Set multiple alarm clocks. I always like to set an alarm half an hour before I need to get out of bed to get ready. I set another alarm at the time I need to get out of bed to get ready. And then I set a third alarm clock for when I need to get out of the door. Every once in a while I don't get out of bed until that third alarm. This is when preparing everything the night before comes into play and can save your sunrise shoot.
NOTE: If you are too drowsy to drive safely when you wake up, do not drive. It is not worth it.
And that's pretty much it. The final thing to do is to hope that the forecasters were right and that the clouds in the sky cooperate with the wind. Most importantly, don't forget to take some time and enjoy the sunrise while you are photographing it. It's this memory and feeling that you will try to recall when you process the RAW photos. Most likely the photos the camera captures will not be able to fully present the dynamistic properties of the sunrise like our eyes do without some post processing. If properly exposed or bracketed, the information will be there in the RAW file, it just needs to be brought out to the forefront of the image and presented for all to enjoy.
Good luck chasing the sunrises.