Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Chasing sunrises

Despite the dark and dreary weather at present, one of the compensations of this time of year is that, sunrises occur at a reasonable hour and when they do occur they can be spectacular.

As a part-time hobbyist photographer, actually getting out and taking sunrise photos presents some challenges.

 Firstly this can generally only be done at weekends and even then I have to work around the family commitments. The weather unfortunately rarely kind enough to meet with your schedule, so you can get into the frustrating situation of driving to work through fantastic sunsets, only to find them disappear once the weekends have arrived.

As a consequence I spend a lot of the week studying weather forecasts hoping  that the weekend weather will be good. However even if weather does look OK on the Friday night, there is no guarantee that this will result in a decent  sunrise. Over the Christmas holidays I made a special effort to get out to a sunrise. I examined the forecast, and it seemed promising therefore I rose early, crept out the house, climbed a hill in the dark and setup my camera and tripod.

The best I got for getting up on a cold December morning
However the sunrise never came. I could see the clouds clearing to the west, but by the time the sun started rising they were still covering the sun, so I got very little apart from cold hands.

Predicting a sunrise is an art form that so far I have failed to master. The 1st issue is predicting exactly what the weather will be at sunrise. This sounds straight forward, but most weather forecasts are incredible imprecise in this regard. You want to know what the sky will be like within that short sunrise period, but generally forecasts are only given within a 2 hour period. In the UK you can fit a lot of weather in 2 hours.

Secondly the actual weather is not the only variable you have to factor in. The quality of the sunrise is very dependent on the cloud layer and how high it is. The best sunrise picture have some cloud of them that reflect the morning sun. However you want broken cloud, otherwise the sun will never break through. Your general weather forecasts provide little info in that regard. They will say if it is sunny or cloudy and that's it.

In truth the best method to predict a good sunrise image is to get up about an hour before dawn and peer into the night sky and try and work out what is up there. This is easier said than done in the dark but normally you can see if any stars are showing.

Even then you can never be sure what you are going to get. Take yesterday for example.

The previous nights web weather forecast was unpromising showing cloud.  The local TV one more promising, but annoyingly imprecise, showing clouds maybe moving away just before sunset.  In the morning things did not look promising, but after staring at the sky for a while, I noticed the cloud had some breaks in it.

In fact it was what is called a mackerel sky, which is actually a fantastic cloud for sunrises.

Unfortunately that left me with a dilemma and with sunrise approaching in 45 minutes little time to do much about it.

Since day was a work day in theory I should be making my way down the motorway at this time, but fortunately I have flexible working hours so I can adjust when I start. Even so, it is not something I do lightly. But things seemed to good to miss. So while there was a chance I decided to go for it and i set off to a spot I had staked out a few weeks earlier (only to return 5 minutes later when i realised I had not packed my tripod)

One of the other issues with sunrises and sunsets is where to see them best. Obviously sunrises happen everywhere, but to see them at their best you somewhere with few obstructions like buildings or trees.  Being high up is good, but if there are no hills around you want somewhere flat. I personally think the best sunrises are where there is water to reflect off. Unfortunately being as far away from the coast as is possible in the UK,  the sea is generally out, so instead I look for lakes, ponds, rivers or canals. You also want the water to be flat and calm on the day.

You also need to work out where the sun will appear. If you are going to a river or canal obviously you want the sun to appear up or downstream top get the best reflections. There are quite a few apps that allow you to predict when and where the sun will come up, however I like to use a website called suncalc to try and work out where best to stand.

Like I said I already had a spot in mind. There has been some extensive flooding recently, and where  the canal meets the river had caused local flooding with wide stretches of flat standing water which was in the perfect place to catch the sunrise.

Or so I hoped. In truth I had not been back for 2 weeks, and there was every chance that the water had drained off, which was why I was so desperate to get down there.

Also there was the little matter of getting there. This involved driving to the nearest car park, putting on my wellies(much better and quicker than boots for this kind of thing) and walking the 1/4 a mile or so to the spot. Obviously sunrises do not wait for anyone so it was a rush to get there and setup. It also meant I had little time to find a good spot and setup the kit

But in the end it was all worth it. The sunset was a stunner, I got some good shots and even managed to get some pictures of a group of Goosanders for a bonus

The sunrise in all it's glory

The added bonus of a group of surprised Goodsander's hiding on the canal

So what have i learned...

Well firstly always make sure your camera kit is set to it's default state (Exp Comp 0, Focus Mode, Exposure Mode etc) that the battery is charged and lens are clean. When you are on a time schedule you don't want to be thinking about this while setting up. As it was my 1st few shorts were using spot metering which meant they were darker than they should of been.

Secondly never assume from the previous night weather forecast that a sunrise will good or bad. You sometimes need to take a hunch or chance. Sometime it won't come off, but when it does it will be worth it.

As an addendum, I must heartily recommend local photographers Steve Cole website. He is taking pictures to the standard I would love to get too. He is also proving my adage that you don't have go 100's of miles to take stunning images.

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