October 03, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

Me.... Shooting Sunrise?!

Anyone who has been following my photography has probably heard me say that I don't "go shooting" nearly as much as I did in my first few years as a photographer. These days, I hardly ever get up for sunrise or go to a particular destination looking for a preconceived composition. I actually don't really leave the house to just go shoot anymore. That's just the way that my interest in photography has evolved: I seem to prefer to "bring the camera along" on the things that I enjoy doing - hiking, boating, camping - and, if something catches my attention, then take the time to photograph it. It may not always be like that, I'm sure at times I will become more immersed in photography again and start pursuing images more actively, but currently, I am not interested in what, at times, feels like forcing it.

Last month, over Labor Day weekend, we went camping with family at one of the many wonderful Minnesota State Parks. On the second night there, I went down to the river to capture the night sky (image still unedited!). Since I hadn't done much photography this summer, it was fun and energizing to be doing it again. Then something surprising happened: I woke up the next morning, without an alarm, a good hour before sunrise, feeling inclined to go check out the river at dawn. It's probably the first time I get up for a sunrise in years, so I rolled with the opportunity and drove down to the same location where I had been shooting the stars the night before. 

Evolving Light Offers Many Compositions

Upon parking, I immediately noticed the dead tree, sitting in the middle of the river, shrouded in the river mist. It was still fairly dark and the tree seemed like a great subject to isolate before the sun came up. This tree had been a secondary element in my composition the night before, but now I decided to give it the opportunity to star in its own picture. A long exposure allowed for the softening of the water around it, enhancing the mood.  

Mist on the RiverMist on the RiverA dead tree sits in the mist of the St Croix river as the water flows past it.

After capturing this image, I found what I thought was going to be my one other composition for the morning, and set up my tripod for it. It was a view looking upriver, towards the direction of sunrise, and I looked forward to seeing the light come up behind the leaning tree. I stood and waited... But nothing happened... And, while I eventually came back to that composition (4th image in this blog), I had to release myself from it as I started spotting other images taking shape around me. 

About fifteen minutes after shooting the photo above, the sky across the river turned intensely orange and magenta, and I temporarily gave up on my other composition to frame the one below. I decided to still use the tree as a central element, letting the colors of the sunrise wrap around it in both the sky and its reflection. The skies had been clear and were forecasted to remain so, so the color was an unexpected surprise. This is a textbook wide-angle shot of the kind that I used to do all the time, and it was fun to revisit this type of image. 

River SunriseRiver SunriseA warm sunrise on the misty St. Croix river. So what did I do after shooting the image above? I carefully set up my tripod again for the upriver view, expecting the light to shine through at any moment. And I waited... Another 35 minutes passed, and now it was quite a bit past sunrise, yet the sunlight had not been able to shine on the river, likely blocked by distant clouds that I couldn't see. Once again, I spotted another composition, this one downriver (opposite sunrise), where some really beautiful color was developing along the water, as a cloud of mist veiled the rest of the riverbanks beyond. So, I relented and picked up my tripod again, changed lenses, and turned around 180 degrees to frame this telephoto composition. 

Vanishing BanksVanishing BanksMorning mist clouds the banks of the St. Croix River. ...And Finally...

At this point I was confident I had at least one or two "keepers" and I debated going back to camp, as I was getting hungry and wondering if others were up. But, I still had that original composition in my head, and was expecting the sun to win the battle with clouds and fog any second, and shoot some magical light down the river. Plus, it was really a wonderful and peaceful morning, and I had the river all to myself! So, I waited. And then I waited some more... Many times I wondered just HOW the sun wasn't quite shining through, even a full hour after sunrise with full blue skies over my head! I wondered if by the time it happened, the sun would be too high and I would not get the effect I was hoping for. And then, boom! A full hour and 45 minutes after I had originally framed this shot, the light came through! And while the sun was pretty high at this point, I still got a nice glow behind the tree, with some mist still present in the water. 

I came back to camp energized from a surprisingly productive morning of unplanned photography. My experience on the river showed me yet again that it's all about being in the moment - focusing on the experience, and capturing what is given to you. Not focusing solely on the composition that I recognized right away allowed me to see more things, bring home more images, and have a fuller experience. And, by being patient, I was still able to still get "the image" anyway. 

Saint Croix SteamSaint Croix SteamMorning river mist burns off as the sun rises on the St. Croix River. Technical Details

The first image, "Mist on the River", was captured at 59mm with the Canon EF 24-70 f/2.8L II USM lens, at f/8, 3.2 seconds, and ISO 640. This combination allowed for some nice sharpness on the log to contrast the softness around it. I toyed with lowering the ISO further (I try to use the lower setting that yields good results) but longer exposures resulted in losing the definition of the fog. 

The second image, "River Sunrise", was captured with the same lens but at 24mm, an optimal ISO of 100 (there was light now!), f/8 aperture, and a 2-second exposure.

The third image, "Vanishing Banks", was framed at 135mm with the Canon EF70-300 f/4-5.6L IS USM lens. It was also shot at ISO 100, using a 1/60 second exposure at f/8. 

The last image, "Saint Croix Steam", was framed on the Canon EF 24-70 f/2.8L II USM lens at 38mm. It was shot using ISO 100 and f/8, and bracketed (using shutter speed as the variable) to capture the full dynamic range. The base exposure was done at 1/320 second, with over and underexposed images created at 1/100 and 1/1000 second respectively. These complementary exposures were used in post processing to ensure no loss of detail in the final image. To read more about this process, please visit the Process page on this website. 

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