No Clouds at Sunrise? Turn your Back

Almost every sunrise and sunset photo published has clouds, fog or something of interest in the sky. But for those of us graced with months of dry weather stretching hundreds of miles—like that found in much of California for much of the Spring through Fall—what do you do when you get to your favorite scene bright and early before the Sun only to see the makings of a gorgeous but frankly boring blue sky. Read on to find one solutions (we’ll give you a hint, the answer is not to go back to bed!)…

The key to working with a situation like this where the sky doesn’t really help you out is to use the warm, even light of the sunrise to light a subject and background but not try to capture the sunrise itself. So literally turn your back on the sunrise and look for what it lights up. Today’s showcase image was one I took this morning in Joshua Tree National Park. The dawn was beautiful as was the blue sky, but unlike nearly every photo of Joshua Tree I’ve seen I had no clouds to work with.

Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park at Sunrise
Nikon D700, Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 Lens, ISO 200

After first trying to capture the large rock piles in the early light I instead starting looking at individual trees. As you might expect the most striking feature of Joshua Tree National Park is indeed the Joshua Tree. These odd cactus-like trees (actually related to the lily) contain an endless variety of funky shapes and are capped by sets of spiky leaves.

During the day Joshua Trees can look flat and dull, but the raking sidelight of dawn was bringing out some great depth in these. They are striking against the sky but it is hard to make an entire image from just one of these trees and a blank sky. So I moved around to find a place where a nearby rockpile provided a contrasting background.

What makes the image work in addition to the subject and the background are the line of trees connecting the two and the “rim” light on the top of the rock pile that help define its extent and provide a nice division between the rockpile and the sky.

So the next time you’re bummed you don’t have the atmospherics you want don’t go back to bed, just get to work!

Joined: 2004-12-02
On sunrises...

Here on the coast of the Atlantic, I enjoy shooting my favorite lighthouses at sunrise - but because we're facing east, the sun is coming up behind the lighthouse and turning your back isn't an option - at least not if you want the lighthouse in the shot.

On a cloudless morning, there's still lots of color to be had if you arrive early enough

I often teach small classes where we do this shoot and students are surprised when I ask them to arrive 45 minutes *before* sunrise - which is actually the moment that the disk of the sun breaks the horizon.  The very best color is in the 15 minutes before sunrise, and it's really something to see as the quality and color of the light change every 15 seconds.  And as the sun breaks the horizon, the light instantly snaps from soft to hard.  VERY hard.

I've been shooting since 1973, but I still feel like I'm getting an education in lighting with every sunrise I shoot.

Charlie MacPherson

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