Travel Photographers: Don’t Make This “Shooting at Sunrise” Mistake

I think a lot of photographers these days are taking the old adage about “Shooting at Sunrise” too literally, and because of it, they’re missing out on a lot of great shots.

Here’s what I mean: The best light, and amazing skies, and empty streets, and tourist-free areas — the dream of travel photographers everywhere, all happen well before sunrise. The sunrise itself is silently signaling “Here comes the end of your shoot — time for breakfast!” But unfortunately, that seems to be when all the photographers start showing up — right after all the good stuff just ended.

Just before sunrise. Beautiful light and you’re all alone. (photo by Erik Kuna)

Erik Kuna (Rocket-photographers and my co-host on ‘The Grid’) and I were in downtown Chicago a few weeks ago leading a local photo walk as part of my annual Worldwide Photo Walk. During the walk, we went through Millennium Park, and its most famous feature, the giant chrome-covered “Bean” sculpture (it’s actually named the ‘Cloud Gate sculpture,’ but I’ve yet to hear anyone call it anything other than “The Bean”). Anyway, around 70,000 people visit The Bean each day — it’s absolutely packed with people from morning to night. But Erik decided to get up really early to shoot it. Ya know how many people Erik found when he went to The Bean well before sunrise? Just one.

Look in the reflection – there’s nobody there. (photo by Erik Kuna)

Not only were there no tourists. There were no photographers. All this beautiful light. Great clouds. No tourists, and not a single photographer in sight. As soon as the great light is gone, and the harsh sun is coming up, here come the photographers, streaming into the park right along with the first groups of tourists. What they wind up getting is kind of crappy light and a bunch of tourists milling around. They missed the great light and tourist-free scene by about 20 to 30 minutes.

Right at sunrise, the light isn’t nearly as nice, and the photographers and tourists arrive (seen in reflections). (photo by Erik Kuna)
A little while later; everybody’s there, and it’ll be like this until late, late at night. (photo by Erik Kuna)

The same thing happened this week in New York

The Vessel. We went the day before this was taken. There were tourists, photographers, and instragrammers everywhere. Right before dawn? Nobody. (Photo by Erik Kuna)

Erik experienced this same phenomenon this past week in New York City (we were up there for the Photo Plus Expo). He got up early and walked over to “Vessel” in Hudson Yard (it’s part public modern art piece, part spiral staircase [with its 150+ interconnected staircases], and part observatory. It’s free to enter [you get tickets online] and you can walk-up inside it when it’s open). When Erik got there — sure enough, lots of beautiful light, no tourists, and most notably — no photographers, even though there is a major photography tradeshow being held right across the street at the Javitz Center.

That Dumbo location well before sunrise – nobody’s there at all. (photo by Erik Kuna)
Right before sunrise, still nobody there and nice light. BTW: These NYC shots were taken by Erik with his iPhone 11.
Sun’s up – here come the photographers and Instagrammers.

He also got up early on the 2nd day; went out to that famous shooting location in the Dumbo park area of Brooklyn (you know the one), and ya know what? Same thing — great light; no tourists, and still no photographers. Once the sun came up, with it came the photographers, the tourists, and the Instagrammers with selfie sticks.

This is an easy mistake to avoid

All the good stuff happens well before sunrise. In that 30 minutes before the sun comes up — you need to be out there, in place, on a tripod, ready to capture the tourist-free scenes in beautiful light. Once the sun comes up, you have just a few more minutes where the light is still good — the color is warm, and the sun is touching the edges of things as it rises, but 15 or so minutes after that, the light generally turns pretty bad, and that’s the way it stays, getting worse and worse all day until about an hour or so before sunset.

Just get up a little bit earlier. Don’t time your morning to get there at sunrise. Get there at least 30 minutes early, and the difference in your images will be amazing, you’ll have your choice of spots, no tourists, and you’ll see for yourself why it pays big time to set your alarm clock a bit earlier.

Here’s wishing you a tourist-free, great light week of shooting wherever you are. :)


P.S. I’m off to San Francisco next week for my “Ultimate Photography Crash Course” full-day seminar out there on November 6th. Hope you can join me — you’ll super dig it. Tickets and info here.

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