The Weekend Post – How to find the perfect Sunrise Spot

Soft light in Nyhavn

I shot “Soft light in Nyhavn” in Copenhagen in Denmark.

Timing and location can be a game changer for a photo and sometimes you have to option to plan for something special. At other times, you just have to accept what it is, good or bad. But you can help yourself, if you have the right tools. More about that later, first a story about how I learned a lesson or two.

When I shot this photo on a very early morning, I didn’t realize that I had a gem in my hand.

This location is a place in Copenhagen called Nyhavn and it is a very famous location. And as any other famous location, it has been shot to death.

However, this morning, I captured something special, and I only have shot two shots of it. This is the second. When I published the first one, some local photographers called it ‘the best shot of Nyhavn ever seen’. Wow! The bad part is, that I didn’t see what I shot when I shot it.

This is shot very close to midsummer, and my clock radio had been on at 3 AM, and this photo is shot at 4 AM. But, what was on my mind, was something completely different. I was afraid that I was going to miss the moment when the Sun rose behind The Opera House all the way down in the other end.

I had misjudged the timing and been delayed by a couple of drunk Polish guys looking for a ferry to Poland. I was so focused on my target, that I didn’t see this one. I just made two quick shots and moved on.

Had I seen what I had, I would have made a whole series from this location. The colors and the light were just fantastic, but I didn’t see that. The lines formed by the clouds are fantastic, but I didn’t see that.

The only thing, that was on my mind, was getting the sunrise behind the Opera House.

The photo is a 5 shot HDR, but I had put a 3 stop ND filter on the lens. I rarely do that, but I wanted the water to be more smooth. The water did have small ripples this morning, and by putting on a Neutral Density filter, I could make longer exposure times to smooth out the water.

The longest exposure is 20 seconds.

A Neutral Density (ND) filter is like a pair of sunglasses put on the lens. It darkens the lens. Getting a 100% color neutral ND filter is almost impossible, however a 3-stop filter like this one, has less colorcast than a 10-stop filter.

Thinking about it right now as I am writing this blogpost, it might just be the ND-filter that has added that tiny bit of fantastic bluish colors, that makes this light very special.

After having shot my two shots I hasted down to the main harbor, at the far end of this canal.

The Sun always rises in the East… NOT!

I know this area so well, I didn’t think much about it. The canal of Nyhavn is going from East to West and because the main harbor at the end is perpendicular it goes from North to South. And the Sun rises in the East, no big deal!

I hadn’t done my homework.

Get a Sundial App

The Canal of Nyhavn does not go from East to West. It goes from South East to North West, more east than South, but absolutely NOT East to West.

The Canal of Nyhavn does not go from East to West. It goes from South East to North West, more East than South, but absolutely not East to West. This fact combined with another fact flunked my intended shot completely.

“The Sun rises in the East”, and in the summer slightly to the North, and in the winter, slightly to the South. Only, it’s not ‘slightly’. But, in Copenhagen it is not just a little to the North, it is a quite a lot!

The Sun rose so far north, that even if I had used an extreme wide angle lens, I still wouldn’t have had it within the frame.

Had I done my homework, I would not only have looked at a map. I would have used an app, to let me know exactly when and where the Sun would get up.

I now use a Sundial app on my iPhone to plan when and where to shoot. It uses the GPS and calculates when the sun rises and sets. You can even set the date, and a location, so you can plan where to shoot the sunset or sunrise.

Had I used the app ‘Photo Sundial‘ (it costs $1.99), I would have seen, that the project that I had in mind, was not at all possible, at this time of the year.

A sundial app

Even an extreme wideangle lens, would hardly have included the Sun.

I use the ‘Photo Sundial’ quite a lot, but I also use the ‘Sun Seeker‘ (it’s more expensive it costs $9.99) quite a lot. I found the expensive one first, and I got comfortable with that before I found the cheaper one.

The ‘Sun Seeker’ is way more advanced, and has augmented reality, which I don’t use, but you could use it.

If I went to The Opera House, I could use the augmented reality viewer, to find the exact date and time to get the Sun rising EXACTLY in the middle of The Opera House. Maybe one day I will do that.

A Sundial app like either of these two is ‘a must haves’ for any photographer. I couldn’t live without them today, and they are an integrated part of my photo planning. Sometimes it means, that I don’t go to a particular location, at rather to another.

Gold behind the Opera House

The Opera House in Copenhagen. A few minutes later the Sun rises far to the left, way out of the frame. The water is not as smooth as I had hoped. I only used the 3-stop ND filter

The best thing I could have done on this morning was to stay in Nyhavn, and kept shooting as the light changed. The clouds were fantastic seen from there, and I would have gotten a lot of great photos.

I did go back to The Opera House later when I had consulted one of my Sundial apps. And at the end of September, it looked about right.

I went on the 27th of September, coordinated with the weather forecast, and the Sundial looked like this on that day:

A sundial app - the right time

The Sun rises slightly to the left of The Opera House, seen from the other side.

It was not very important that it was precisely behind The Opera House, but just within the frame.

The Sunrise that never came

A few minutes before the Sun rises behind The Opera House.

Lessons learned

I learned quite a bit on this summer morning, and I have not covered everything. It is from making mistakes you learn. You have to be critical of your work to be able to see your mistakes and learn from them.

Nobody is perfect, but if you learn to see your mistakes, you grow closer to being perfect step by step.

So what did I learn this morning?

  • I have to plan when to shoot a sunset and a sunrise if I have a certain location and scene in mind.
  • I can’t smooth water at sunrise using a 3 stop ND filter. I need to bring a 6 stop or a 10 stop ND filter.
  • Look at my photos as I shoot. If I have something magic, I must reconsider and adapt my plan. A sunrise is dynamic; I should be too.
  • My Nikon D600 had a severe dust problem. Don’t bother shooting when there are so many dust spots. At least not on f/32. The sky had hundreds of dust spots. I ended up using the “Dust and Scratches” filter in Photoshop. It also took all texture from the clouds.

Dust spots - sundial

The dust issue from the Nikon D600 was a total nightmare the first year. But it seems to be solved pretty well now, and I have got life time free sensor cleaning.

So I learned a lot this morning, the hard way.

You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. I post photos daily.

–Jacob Surland


2 thoughts on “The Weekend Post – How to find the perfect Sunrise Spot

  1. Jacob, I think that sometimes the best way to learn is the hard way. Considering what you’ve gone through, your future shots will simply show more of your individuality and that “layer” added to the captured moment is not available in any photo editing program. Thank you for your story. It was worth reading it!

    • Hi Marieta,
      Thanks a lot for the great input, and I tend to agree. The hard way makes you remember it better, but I find that there is a balance too. Because you can’t learn everything the hard way, there is not time enough in your life for that.


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