3 Mistakes to Avoid When Shooting a Sunrise: The Story Behind the Shot

The morning started when my alarm went off at 4:45. Naturally, I hit the snooze button and I would’ve drifted back to sleep if it hadn’t been for the pesky voice inside my head, “Wake the eff up, you have two more hours in this town before you have to get to the airport. The sun is about to rise. PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER!”

The night before I’d laid out my camera gear and tennis shoes so I hauled myself out of bed and scrambled around in the dark. As it turns out, 4:45 was about 45 minutes too late. I ran to the hotel lobby and asked for the bike they’d promised me. It took them what seemed like forever to find me the bike. Soon I was frantically speeding down the country road towards the mountain range. I’d missed the sunrise. I’d missed the colorful sky-it was already starting to fade. FML.

Even more frustrating, however, was the fact that all three of my camera lenses (my point and shoot Canon, my trusty iPhone5 and my Nikkor 24-70) refused to de-fog. Any trace of color in the sky was impossible to capture thanks to my de-fogging negligence. (Note-give your camera at least 15 minutes of adjusting to the outside temperature to avoid this problem. I.E. wake up at 3:45 A.M. next time!)

I now had only 45 minutes left before having to return so I decided to put my cameras away and just enjoy the bike ride. I quickly realized how lucky I was to be in such an insanely beautiful place and forgave myself for sleeping in.

Not three minutes after I’d resolved to ditch the cameras, however, I spotted something in the distant tall lotus stems. I slowed down and squinted. It was a person! In the swamp?! He kept disappearing so I decided to continue biking. A small trail appeared down the road and I again spotted this man in the water. Naturally, I ditched my bike, trusting the moral compass of the friendly local farmers. The trail led along through the swamp so I took off my shoes and “forded the river.” I was slowly but surely getting closer to this man on his tiny boat.

“Xin chào!” I called out. He either couldn’t hear me or chose to ignore me because he kept weaving around the reeds. I kept wading through the swampy water in his direction, hoping to eventually intercept him. Finally, he turned the corner and was crawling in my direction, stopping to pick lotus pods along the way. I pretended to snap photos of the surrounding mountains so as not to alarm him or creep him out.

“Xin chào,” he finally said as he approached. I immediately regretted not knowing any more Vietnamese. I smiled and introduced myself, putting my camera away temporarily. He pulled out a lotus flower and offered it to me. He then took out a pod and cracked it open, handing me some seeds. He ate one himself to show me they were edible and I followed suit. We nibbled in silence and grinned at each other. I didn’t want to push my luck, but I’d come so far. I took out my camera and showed him some of my landscape photos from the day before. By now the lens had de-fogged. I managed to use body language to ask him to allow me to take his photo and he graciously agreed.

I waved farewell and we parted ways, him along the river gathering more seeds to sell and me back to my bike. I returned to the hotel in less than an hour and was out in time to embark for the airport.

I learned never to give up hope on an adventure: nothing is lost because the original “photo opp was wasted.” I realized no opportunity is too far of a stretch.

Huge mistakes to avoid when shooting sunrise:

  • Scout out location in advance-use phone apps to pinpoint where the sun will rise.
  • Wake up at least one hour before sunrise and give yourself enough travel time to reach your ideal spot.
  • Give your camera 15 min to adjust to the outside temperature. Place the camera body and its lenses outside while you're getting ready or put in locked car trunk the night before.

My tried and true formula for capturing locals:

Portrait
  • Explore foreign countries on a bike when possible-you can cover more ground and appear less “intimidating” among the local people.
  • Introduce yourself to the subject and spend at least five minutes interacting before introducing your camera.
  • Invite them to view old photos.
  • Politely ask/motion to take their portrait.
  • Make sure your settings were roughly preset so you can act quickly without wasting their time.
  • Focus on their eyes and make sure your depth of field is appropriate for the surroundings.
  • Always show them the finished shot and thank them profusely for their cooperation.

And lastly: 

NEVER GIVE UP! Ford the swamp and get your shot!

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