Golden Hour Photography: Tips for Making Magical Landscapes at Dawn

Dawn is one of the golden hours for photographers, and in this quick guide you’ll find our best golden hour photography tips for making dawn landscapes that sparkle.
Golden Hour Photography: tips for making magical landscapes at dawn
All images by Mark Hamblin
The light of dawn is special. At first it’s a cool blue as darkness retreats to reveal a new day. Then, oddly, as sunrise is imminent, the light is flat and almost colourless.
But just as the sun breaks the horizon the landscape is bathed in the most wonderful light, illuminating everything it strikes in hues of red and orange. For this brief period of the day the landscape is a magical place – full of atmosphere and a real tonic for those who witness it.
It is these transient moments of light, this explosion of colour and this unfolding drama that makes dawn an event not to be missed.
There’s no doubt that great dawn light will make your images extra special, but are you prepared to head out in the gloom in the hope of capturing that magic?
It’s a risk. It might be cloudy. You might get cold. You might be tired. You might not get there in time.
There are lots of reasons not to go, not to get out of bed at 3am, not to walk for an hour in the dark. But the reality is that to get the images you crave, you have to. You have to push yourself. You have to make the effort.
Shooting golden hour photography in the dawn hours is more of a physiological challenge than a photographic one. It helps a lot if you team up with someone, as you are almost certain to make the effort if you have arranged to meet a friend. You must also plan well and be prepared.
This is key because you need to be clear where you are heading, how long it’s going to take you to get there, and be confident that you can find the right spot.
A pre-visit in good light is the best way to determine this, and is useful for scouting the location for suitable viewpoints. Take a GPS with you, if you have one, to mark favoured spots.
Some landscape views may only work well at certain times of the year, depending on the position of the sun. You can determine where this will be by using a sun compass or an app that shows you where the sun will rise each day.
From this you can then work out exactly where you need to aim your camera, and also which parts of the landscape are going to be illuminated in golden light.
When shooting at dawn before the sun is up, the best colour is usually in the eastern sky. Try to find a focal point to set against this.
Perhaps a silhouette of a tree or building. Alternatively use calm water to reflect the sunrise. A reed fringed lake or one surrounded by trees works well. As the colours intensify, keep shooting as the light changes, and reframe your shots to capture a range of images.
To shoot the sun as it breaks the horizon, set the aperture to f/16 to get the optimum sunburst effect. It also helps if you partially hide the sun behind a tree or rock to reduce the intensity of light and overcome problems with flare.
Once the sun gets too bright to usefully work with, turn around and shoot in the opposite direction to catch the warm light on the landscape. Any surface that is angled towards the sun will catch the light.
This contrasts really well with any shadow areas, and gives the landscape depth. Choose your position carefully though to avoid your own shadow creeping into the picture!

Two Techniques for Controlling Light at Dawn

Two techniques for controlling light at dawn
Shooting at sunrise involves some tricky lighting conditions. Generally, if you expose for the bright sky, the foreground will come out much too dark and lack detail.
The easiest way to resolve this is to use a neutral density graduated filter (for instance an 0.9ND grad) to reduce the exposure for the sky while keeping the exposure for the foreground the same.
Before fitting the filter, take a meter reading from the foreground (excluding the sky) and set this exposure in Manual mode.
Then recompose and fit the filter so that the darker part covers the sky and take the shot.
Alternatively, take one shot with the exposure set for the foreground and a second exposed for the sky, then blend the two images in Photoshop.

3 Ways to Give Your Golden Hour Photography an Advantage

Three ways to give your golden hour photography an advantage: step 1

Be the Early Bird

Aim to reach your destination in good time. The best colour in the sky is often 15- 30 minutes before sunrise, so you need to be set up and ready to shoot to capture the quickly changing light.

Three ways to give your golden hour photography an advantage: step 2

Ensure Sharp Shots

Dawn photography means shooting in low light, so take steps to make sure your images are pin sharp. Set up a tripod on a solid base, or push the legs into soft ground to add stability. Use a remote release in combination with mirror-lock up to prevent internal camera vibrations.

Three ways to give your golden hour photography an advantage: step 3

Control the Exposure

The lighting can be variable at dawn, causing major differences between the exposure for the sky and land. Using Manual metering take a reading from a mid-tone in the foreground and then fit a neutral density graduated filter to reduce the exposure for the sky to balance the shot.

Tips to Remember When Shooting Golden Hour Photography

Tips to remember when shooting golden hour photography
Stay dry

One disadvantage to shooting early in the morning, especially in the summer, is the dew. So it’s a good idea to wear waterproof trousers and boots in order to avoid getting wet and uncomfortable. A plastic sheet will also help keep your camera bag dry.
Seek out mist

Keep an eye on the weather forecast and look out for high pressure with cold clear nights and little or no wind. Mist often appears over rivers, lakes and damp ground, so it’s always worth visiting such locations to increase your chances of successful shots.
Shoot long exposures

Pre-dawn light is an ideal time to shoot creative long exposures of moving water or clouds. Set the lowest ISO and the aperture to f/16 or f/22 for the slowest shutter speed. For even longer exposures, you’ll need to fit a polarizer filter or neutral density filter.
Take a hike

Don’t restrict yourself to low level shooting. If you’re visiting hilly locations, the valleys will be cast in deep shadow until well after the sun is up – so head for the hilltops instead to catch the first rays of sunrise.