Timing the Sunrise

Since childhood, I have always been an early riser, just like the rest of my immediate family. That habit came in handy once I became a photographer. My best photo opportunities were at sunrise rather than sunset. Mostly because I do not encounter as many people at that time of the day. No crowds to shoot around. As a morning person and a photographer, sunrise is the best part of my day. It is a time of quiet reflection when everything is still.

Just After Sunrise in the Blue Ridge Mountains

I lived most of my life within 15 minutes of a Great Lake, either Lake Superior or Lake Michigan. For most places that I visited in the Midwest states, I could count on knowing when the sun would come up over the horizon, and I would be at the site an hour before that, at first light. That meant getting up incredibly early. In Southeast Wisconsin in early July, first light is at around 4:45 a.m. and sunrise is about 35 minutes later at 5:20 a.m.

In Wisconsin, if I got a late start out of the house, I was going to miss my best shots if I wanted to be there before sunrise. Like missing an airplane flight. That plane is going to leave without you if you are not there on time, just as the sun is going to rise and the light will change even if you are not there to capture it.

November Sunrise on Lake Michigan.

Now, living in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I have a little bit more time to shoot before the sun comes up over the mountains. I can take advantage of the blue hour after the sun comes up over the horizon on the other side of the mountain. But I can also take advantage of the changing light, colors, and shadows in the time that it takes the sun to come over the top of the mountain.

First Light on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

First light in early July here is at 5:32 a.m. with sunrise at 6:03 a.m. 

Depending on where I am shooting the sunrise from, it will be another 30 to 60 minutes before the sun comes up over the mountain.

It has been interesting to learn the timing and where I can go to capture the sunrise (or twilight) at various points on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I typically avoid shooting straight into the sun after it comes up over the horizon (or mountain), though there are exceptions to that rule. 

It would turn out to be a beautiful blue-sky late winter day in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Shooting sunrises in the mountains is easier than shooting on a Great Lake shoreline because there are other objects that I can shoot through or behind to get a few silhouette shots. Once that sun comes up over the expanse of water, it blows out the colors in the sky unless you have a bit of cloud cover to add drama. I cannot tell you how many times I looked at the weather on my phone the night before, hoping for partly cloudy skies at sunrise. Too much cloud cover, and you cannot see the sun rise above the horizon.

Foggy Sunrise in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

When you are standing on a lake shore or seashore, there are not many obstacles between you and the rising sun, so you must turn and photograph whatever the sun is shining on.

Winter Sunrise on Lake Michigan.

Unless you are fortunate to witness a sunrise (or sunset!) with dramatic cloud cover.


Deb is a landscape photographer living in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The story behind the photographs are found here at Beautiful Sun Adventures. Her galleries can be found at Beautiful Sun Photography. Prints are available as wall art and home décor for your home, office, or business. Or as the perfect gift for someone special!

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Steve Heap says:

    Lovely illustrations of sunrises here! It’s definitely hard getting up in time for a sunrise, especially if you have to travel to it. Love the colors in the Lake Michigan image and the one with the clouds in the valley, although I would have been tempted to crop some of the black from the foreground perhaps?

    1. Thank you for your comments, Steve! It didn’t occur to me to crop out some of the black from the foreground because the image portrays what I actually saw. I felt like the eyes would be drawn to the colors in the valley. I do know that I couldn’t shift the composition up because the upper branches of the tree were very distracting from the valley below.

  2. kmgunnart says:

    I do love a pretty cloudscape at either sunrise or sunset!

    1. Me, too! The colors with cloud cover are always different.

  3. jim hughes says:

    I’m not a morning guy – so I’ll probably never get beautiful blue-toned photos like these. I’d have to pitch a tent out there to be up in time. 🙂

    1. I’m still kind of laughing over your comment, Jim. I have family and friends where it wouldn’t make a difference to pitch the tent nearby. They’d still sleep thru it all. I’d love it, though. It can be challenging to drive on the Parkway before the sun comes up as there are huge herds of deer the whole way to destination.

  4. Bob Decker says:

    Lovely work Deb. Thoroughly enjoyed the story. I used to be an early riser. For whatever reason lately I’ve turned into a night owl. I did make it up early a few days ago. Very, very early! My goal was not the sunrise but to catch the Milky Way as it rose over Core Sound in eastern North Carolina. As I moved further and further “downeast” looking for additional Milky Way compositions I realized that sunrise was quickly approaching. As such I simply moved on down to Cedar Island, NC to capture some sunrise photos as well. I have a couple more ideas for capturing the full arch of the Milky Way, which means another early morning or two for me soon. There just might be another sunrise or two in it for me as well.

    1. That sounds fantastic, Bob! I’ve never attempted to shoot the Milky Way. When I first started shooting, we lived in Milwaukee and even way out at Wind Point on Lake Michigan, there was far too much city light. I’ve heard of some dark sky parks but I have yet to visit them.

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