Capturing my first 'professional' sunrise (as in I was being paid for it) was daunting.  I'd been asked to get a shot of the sunrise on the South East coast of England and having done all my research, location scouting online and weather checks, I awoke at 1am to drive over and set up my camera.

I only had one shot at this as it was fairly time-specific with various foreground artefacts that were required in-shot, so to do it again would have been pretty much impossible.  I'd shot many sunrises before but when it changes from hobby to work, there's an air of nervousness as you want to get the shot perfect.  As I started the camera shooting in complete darkness, the nerves kicked in which reminded me of the first time I did a live studio shoot, but kind of in slow motion! 

On the first day in my new job as a studio camera operator, I'll never forget that first time of the director's countdown in my cans of '5-4-3-2-1' and the red tally light appearing on my camera.  Those last few seconds felt like an eternity as I lifted the camera up on it's pedestal and moved into position in front of the presenter to shoot the opening sequence.  Five minutes in and everything felt fine and all my training had paid off.  The trouble is with timelapse, I wouldn't know if I'd got my settings right until I'd stopped the camera and reviewed the pictures which would be, at the time of shooting, about two hours later!

A lucky guess with a brief test I'd done the day before, I'd managed to nail the exposure and the shot turned out great  From that point on I practised as many times as possible to get good at it and secondly, save my nerves! Fast forward ten years and I've seen and shot more sunrises than I've probably had hot dinners!

So to help anybody who's just starting out, or might need a bit more info, here's my definitive guide to filming a timelapse of the sunrise!


Top of my list because in the long run it will save you hassle, and in my experience, a lot of hassle!  You need to plan.  There are circumstances when you can just turn up and shoot a sunrise or even, when you have to just turn up and shoot a sunrise but if you've got the time and the tools, it's always best to plan ahead.

If I can do a recce of a location, I'll go and have a look but if not, it's down to google maps and the good old reliable Photographer's Ephemeris. Based on the fact that you're probably going to be on your own to do this with no director on board, you'll first need to find the location and find out the angle of the sunrise.  For this example, I've picked a random bit of the east coast in England.

You'll need to look as best as you can at google maps to see if there are any obstructions in the way of your shot (trees, buildings, mountains) and then find your location on the Photographer's Ephemeris. 

Once you've done this it will give you a view of the map with a few lines on it - Light orange (Sunrise), Dark Orange (Sunset), Light Blue (Moonrise) and Dark Blue (Moonset).  You could print this section of the map off and try and orientate your printout to north once you arrive on location but the best way to do it is with a compass. 

On the app (or the online app) you'll see a few boxes labelled with the details of when the sun will rise and also at what angle.  In this example, it's 101.4 degrees.  Unless you're shooting on a 500mm lens with a 5x extender on it, I wouldn't worry about the .4 of a degree!

I'd always recommend you carry a compass.  My iPhone has a built-in compass app but if I run out of battery or there's significant interference, I'll always turn to my magic bit of magnetic genius which for a very small sum, has never let me down!

The Shoot

So - you'll need to be up bright and early, and as you might well have guessed, the sunrise time will change depending on season and location in the world!  I always like to arrive at least two to three hours before the sun rises just to set up and for peace of mind.  I've managed to almost miss them in the past due to not doing much planning and running around looking for locations so get there early!

Once at the location, if you've not done a recce before, have a look around and find your best spot - it's always worth a walk around and taking some long-exposure test shots to get an idea of framing and foreground features. Once you've got a rough idea, it's time to get that compass out!

Firstly, turn the dial so you've got roughly 101 degrees on the compass.  You now need to turn the compass until the north arrow lines up with your north arrow on the dial.  The direction at which the compass is pointing is now 101 degrees and that's the sunrise.  Just to re-iterate, that's for this example only - you'll need to set it to what you've just looked up on the Ephemeris for your shot!

Turn the outer dial to line up on 101 degrees or as close as you an get it!

Orientate your compass (spin round) until the two 'North' arrows line up.

I've made a little clip that holds the compass on to the hotshoe of my camera so I can accurately pan it into the right location but you can just hold it or lay it on your camera plate if there's room. Now you have your camera pointing in the direction, it's time to set the exposure. 

Exposure settings

You might as well ask me what the lottery numbers are going to be next week as to what exposure you'll need on the camera.  It's really something that comes with practice.  I can say for shooting into direct sunlight, without any filters, you'll need to set your camera into Manual mode at 1/125th shutter speed, f9 and 100 ISO but if there's haze, fog, a thin layer of high-altitude cloud or some thick cumulonimbus clouds in the distance, you'll need to change your settings accordingly. 

Your best chance of 'saving' a shot gone wrong would be to shoot in raw and adjust your exposure later.  Not a guaranteed method but you can pull back some under or overexposed parts of the images.  If you're in a panic and all hell has broken loose with high winds and two different layers of clouds moving in two different directions, your best bet would be to bracket three photos at the same time at two-stop differences.  This way, you've got a choice of three shots to pick from when compiling your final edit and at the very least, one of the three shots will be roughly exposed correctly. 

Practice is key and as much agony as it is getting up pre-dawn, it's worth it to get used to varying cloud cover.


Assuming this isn't your first ever timelapse (if it is, good luck!) then you'll be able to calculate what interval you require.  Again, this depends where you are in the world but for most part of the UK, there's approximately 1.5hrs between that first sparkle of light and the actual sunrise itself (again, seasonal dependant but there's a lot of info on the ephemeris!).  Now in a direct sun shot, with minimal cloud and my chosen exposure settings, I know that I can probably get away with starting to shoot about 40 minutes before the sun rises.  This will give me a few fully dark frames at the start of the shot and enough for the editor to cut into.  In the UK, we currently output at 25fps for TV so I'll try and calculate at least three seconds worth of black frames into it before anything starts to happen.  I usually go with an interval of 8-12 seconds but this also changes on a per-shoot basis.

So for a 20 second shot, I'll shoot 500 frames at 12 second intervals for 100 minutes but you can shoot for as long as you require.  Some of my shots are just pre-sunrise where I'll capture the changing colours in the clouds before the sun rises and for this I'll normally use a shorter interval. This is a bit easier to do as you can already see what exposure you'll need!  I then reset my camera for the actual sun rising above the horizon.

Top Tips

  • If you're in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun will move left to right.  The further south you move, the higher the arc.  Once you get to the equator, it will rise directly up, above and over your head!  In the Southern Hemisphere, it rises and moves from right to left.
  • Learn the different types of clouds and what they might do - very useful when trying to predict what's going to happen.
  • Wear some warm clothes and try and take something hot to drink.  Most places, even hot ones are cold at night!
  • Try and invest in a lens heater as at certain points of the year and especially in damp countries, dew will build up on the lens and ruin your shot.
  • The sun moves at approximately one degree every four minutes which may help plan your shot.
  • There's not an easy way to avoid lens flare when you're pointing directly at the sun so experiment with different lenses to get the look you want.
  • If you've forgotten your compass, dropped your iPhone down the cliff then don't panic.  If you're at the location pre-twilight and there's not much cloud cover the first bit of light over the horizon will form a small arc of light.  Try and pinpoint the centre of this and this is roughly where the sun will rise.  Failing that, if the moon is out and it's not full, draw an imaginary line from the two pointy ends and take a 90 degree line through the middle of that - that's where the sun is.

Hopefully that covers everything but if you do have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below!