Travel Photography – The Brilliance of Sunrise
Sunrise and sunset are often accorded the same reverence in literature and song, but on Instagram it’s a different story. A quick search of the #sunset tag shows 79 million posts and a search of the #sunrise tag shows 1/4 that many. The reason: far more people are awake for the sunset than sunrise.
My advice: don’t sleep in! When you’re traveling, get up at daybreak and head out – and not only when you’re jet-lagged.
What you will find:
- Amazing light for photography, with soft shadows and red/orange hues. Plus the light is coming from a different direction than the sunset light, so your photos won’t look the same as everyone else’s.
- Fewer tourists.
- A sense of peace.
- A unique view of a destination coming alive.
Of course there are exceptions – those places that everyone wants to see at sunrise, like Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal. Get up early there as well! But make an effort to find a unique vantage point away from the crowds.
Some of my favorite sunrise experiences around the world:
I’ve spent several nights on different trips camping in the desert in India, near Jaisalmer and Pushkar. It’s magical waking up early, heading away from camp and photographing the sunrise. Although I’ve typically travelled to Rajasthan for festivals, it’s the solitude in the desert that will keep drawing me back.
Every morning that I was in Havana I headed out early and explored a different part of the city. One morning when it was still dark I came across a man getting out of old American car, perfectly lit, and I won Conde Nast Traveler’s Photo of the Year award for the shot. But my favorite Havana morning shot is this one – a man in a pedicab kissing his girlfriend (or possibly wife) good night as he was dropping her off at 6am.
Lloret de Mar, Spain
Lloret de Mar is a beach destination for European tourists. It’s pretty, but not overly interesting. So when I was in town for a travel conference, I arranged with the tourist board to meet up with a local photographer for the sunrise. The photographer, a helicopter pilot who had the day off, picked me up in the dark and drove me to the public beach. We parked and hiked around the bay to this spot – Cala Dels Frares. As my luggage was delayed, I was still wearing the same clothes I had worn on the flight over, and I didn’t have my tripod. But none of that mattered once we settled in and watched the sky slowly get lighter. I put my camera on a rock to take some longer exposure shots, including this one, but really I just enjoyed the moment. How often do you get to hang out at sunrise with a Spanish pilot in a secluded bay?
Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)
I had originally wanted to see the sun rise over the temples of Bagan from a hot air balloon, but the flights that morning were cancelled due to weather. Sitting atop Shwesandaw Pagoda wasn’t a bad backup option at all. It was just as magical and spectacular as it looks like in photos.
There were over a hundred people in front of me waiting in the dark to enter the Taj Mahal. But you don’t have to be first – just the fastest. I moved quickly through the gate and took several photos of the famous view/reflection without anyone else in them. Then, once others caught up, I went around to the mosque and photographed inside and out as the sun came up. The only other person around was this caretaker, adding a perfect human element to the hard stone and soft light.
Crested Butte, Colorado
My family spends a week in Crested Butte every other year between Christmas and New Years. Despite its isolated location, the town still fills up with skiers, especially around the holidays. The best way to have it to yourself? Head out for coffee right as the sun rises. Although it would be easy enough to make our own coffee, we enjoy (really!) getting bundled up and walking in the -20 degree temperatures down to Camp4Coffee. Very few others are out and the light is beautiful, glistening off the surrounding mountains and illuminating the colorful wooden buildings of Elk Avenue.
Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar)
I photographed the fishermen on Inle Lake at sunset and then again the next morning at sunrise. I loved the sunrise shoot – the lake was incredibly calm, there was no one else around, and the fishermen started the day by lighting small fires in their boats to stay warm – amazing to see from a distance as I was rowing towards them in the dark.
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
I only spent one night on a junk in Ha Long Bay, so it would have been a shame to sleep in. I set my alarm and went up on deck just as the first light was hitting the bay. This photo was taken half an hour before the sun appeared. It was magical, sitting back in a deckchair and watching the colors slowly change until the sun was well above the horizon.
Arba Minch, Ethiopia
The Paradise Lodge in Arba Minch has an amazing view of the Great Rift Valley, Lake Chamo and Lake Abaya (pictured). It was gorgeous at sunset, so I set my alarm and walked around at sunrise. The only other person awake? This security guard, who moved right after I took the picture so that the rest of my photos would be people-free. Yet it was the shot with him in it that I liked best.
Iguazu Falls, Argentina
Usually when I’m traveling one-on-one with my kids, I don’t try to head out at sunrise. I made an exception at Iguazu Falls. My six-year-old and I were staying at the Sheraton inside the park. The best thing about staying at the Sheraton, other than this view of the waterfalls from our room, was having full access to the falls before and after the day-tripping visitors were there. We headed out right after I took this photo, a little before sunrise, and went straight for Salto Bossetti, where we could get up close and soaking wet with no one else around. It was one of the highlights of our trip, and it was far more memorable than being in the same spot the day before surrounded by tourists.
Technically there’s no sunrise or sunset below the Antarctic Circle in the summer, but there’s still amazing light early and late in the day. This was at 6:38am inside the Lemaire Channel. I loved heading up on deck as soon as I woke up every day to soak in the amazing surroundings. After all, how often do you find yourself in Antarctica?
Varanasi is India’s spiritual capital, and it’s impossible to spend time there without being moved. I sat with the pilgrims coming to the Ganges to cleanse themselves. I watched as people carried the bodies of their loved ones to ghats and placed them onto large fires, sending the bodies back to the earth. And everywhere I went, I saw the Hindu holy men known as Sadhus. While it’s perfectly acceptable to speak with them during the day, spending time with them at sunrise was a far more spiritual experience.
St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada
I traveled to St. John’s at least once a year for over a decade for work. Even when I was jet lagged, my favorite thing to do was to head out of my hotel very early, walk around St. John’s Harbor and hike up Signal Hill to watch the sunrise. It was always beautiful, and the crisp air helped to wake me up!
Several times now I’ve watched the sunrise at Gadsisar Lake in Jaisalmer. While it’s a beautiful location, with the surrounding temples reflected in the late, I’ve never loved my photos. They’re lacking…life. I far prefer to walk the short distance into town to see the locals and cows starting to funnel into the streets. Jaisalmer fills up during the day with visitors, so it’s special to be able to experience it without another tourist in sight.
I could just as easily have posted a photo of Florence here. Venice and Florence are similar in that they are packed with tourists during the day, especially during the summer. By far the best way to truly experience them, and get a feel for the history and architecture, is to walk around before sunrise.
So wake up early and explore! I promise you’ll be rewarded with a more intimate connection to your destination.
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