How I shoot in the surf at sunrise

Everyone knows that sunrise or sunset is the best time to take photos. This is especially true around the ocean. The ocean and the golden light provided by the sun just makes magic.  When I am down at the beach at Sunrise, and its an especially beautiful sunrise, almost everyone on the beach just stops in their tracks - even the serious runners , as  they just take in the beautiful sight (which quite often involves pulling out their phone to take a photo).


Sunrise waverider

sunrise surfgirl silhouette

Slow shutter

Sunrise is my favourite time to shoot in the ocean.  There is just something so special of being in the water, whist the sun slowly starts peeping over the horizon.  The golden  light on the water, and lighting up the surfers and waves is always mesmerising. Its quite challenging shooting at this time because light is either low, or if you are shooting into the sun super bright.  I will usually shoot in Tv mode at this time.  I put the ISO as low as I can (less than 500 if ideally), and the shutter speed as high as I can.  Depending on the camera / lens - around 200 - 640 is a good speed. ( 200 if you have image stabilisation ) .  when you are shooting into the sun, even if the sun is not super bright, cameras can struggle to deal working out the exposure.  Thus may be a good reason to shoot in manual mode. 

When you get surfers coming from the side - with sunlight on the side of them. , you can get really nice clear shots, especially beautiful when they have golden light on them  ( see shot of Billy and Faz below) .  Sometimes if a wave is coming from the front, I will sink into the water so that I am shooting from the shade of the wave. The camera is able to expose better as it does not have to deal with super bright light coming into the lens. 


If I am shooting in TV or AV mode (which is ONLY in low light and fast action ), I always set my exposure to 1/2 stop under exposed. In fact even when shooting manually I usually aim for slightly underexposed.  With todays cameras is easy to bring out the shadows using the shadows slider in lightroom.  If you overexpose , you cant save anything. 

In automode, setting exposure to slightly under middle, means that if your shutter speed is 800, it will give you more depth with AV. 


Never shoot in auto ISO. Especially when light is low. You will always be disappointed. You cant save much when ISO is high and its grainy. 


Editing sunrise can also be challenging. Silhouette photos are probably my favourite sunrise picks. They always get great engagement, and they are images you can sell. For these I usually drop the shadows  (in lightroom), add some contrast, add some noise reduction and dehaze , and then I use the WB or the colour sliders to adjust the colours of the image to something that matches what I saw with my eye on the morning.  Cameras don’t usually deal with the golden light very well. I find too much yellow.  People can also be tempted to add clarify, but I find reducing clarify yields a better photo.  Clarity makes the edges too harsh. 


Generally speaking, if I am shooting more than one person and in the surf at sunrise, I will always shoot with a wider lens.  ie 35mm or 50mm. Anything wider and you just cannot get close enough.  If I am shooting one person, I would choose a 50mm or 85mm.  

Billie - Side on

Faz - you can notice the slow shutter here


For this shoot , I met my friends Faz, Billie, Andy and Matt.  It was a Faz’s birthday and we decided to start the day with a sunrise surf. ( Happy birthday Faz!!!!) Autumn is in full swing here in Sydney and it was pretty mad of Faz to brave the conditions in a one piece ( provided by oNeills womens) . I dont like shooing people in wetsuits.  I think the photos where you can see more of the person ie ( their skin)  just work so much better than a wetsuit.  You can probably link this to the colour grading technique used in cinema where teal/orange are used as strong colours (ocean/skin colour).  As a general rule - I dont shoot people in wetsuits unless its in epic surf conditions where the waves and conditions are the focus of the image.  ( blog on this coming soon) 











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