How To Shoot A Sunrise Engagement Session

How To Shoot A Sunrise Engagement Session

As a wedding photographer, the engagement session is probably one of the best ways to get to know your clients before spending 8 or more hours with them on their wedding day. These sessions are about the two of them as a couple and how they fell in love. Most of my sessions are held about 2 hours before the sun sets, but what about when you have a couple that wants to shoot at sunrise? I have to admit, I hardly ever get up any earlier than 9 AM most days, so the thought of being functional at 6 AM was terrifying. But the results? The light was beautiful and completely worth it.

Shooting a sunrise engagement session is not much different then how I would shoot a couple during sunset. There is one simple rule that I always tell myself while I'm shooting: "you want to expose for the background." For those of you who already know what I mean, feel free to keep scrolling, but if this is brand new to you then pay attention. What I mean is you want to set the exposure for the background correctly in camera, and then if you're using off-camera flash - use your flash to compensate the exposure of your subject. It's a pretty basic rule, but the amazing results from following this rule can sometimes surprise you.  Don't get me wrong, natural light can be just as beautiful, but considering the couple requested to have the sunrise in the background of their photos, using flash for this was necessary. Now we all know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but specific locations can be tricky. I find it best to not take any chances. The first thing I do to prepare is to pull up my LightTrac app and figure out where the sun will rise based on the location they requested. For $5.00, this app will tell you exactly how high and where the sun is positioned at any time that you choose.

When I get to the location, I make sure all of my gear is ready to go. Normally for an engagement session, I'll bring two Nikon D800's, one Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and my trusty Nikon 85mm f/1.4 lens which forces me to get closer. I also recommend bringing an assistant. It's definitely not a requirement, but when working with a rising sun you have to be able to work fast and smart. I have my assistant holding a Manfrotto monopod with an Nikon SB-910 flash inside a my small rectangular Photoflex soft box.



ISO 500 | f 3.5 | 1/200 sec | off-camera flash power 1/4

TIP: A lot of times I'll ask the couple to walk towards me. Every photographer I know does it differently but I've found what works for me is to increase my aperture (sometimes up to f/4) and shoot in AF-C or continuous mode. Just don't forget to change the camera off continuous mode when they're done walking.


ISO 250 | f 2.8 | 1/125 sec | off-camera flash power  1/4


ISO 250 | f 2.8 | 1/125 sec | off-camera flash power  1/4


ISO 160 | f 2.8 | 1/200 sec | off-camera flash power  1/2


ISO 160 | f 2.8 | 1/125 sec | off-camera flash power  1/2

As the sun kept rising, I kept lowering my ISO. I knew the sun was going to be very bright right when it hit the horizon, so I needed to compensate for my now lower ISO by increasing the flash power. In this case I increased the flash to 1/2.

Each engagement and wedding is completely different and with its own challenges. If you've never shot a sunrise session, then step out of your comfort zone and try it. The best thing about our job is that we are constantly testing our boundaries and improving our techniques. Even though I wasn't happy about waking up as early as I did, I was over the moon with the results. Have any techniques you'd like to share? Or maybe you've shot a sunrise session. If so, share it with us in the comments below!

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Great results! However sunrise sounds pretty…early to me. I'm not sure how my bed would cope without me.

On the plus side, working at sunrise means shooting until there is more light. If I could wake up early enough, I wouldn't have to beat the sunset until there is no light lol

Here is a natural sunrise I shot in the fall.

I like the composition and the color, great job! Just kinda wish she was just a few inches taller cause the sun is a tad bit distracting haha!

Great article. Also important to mention it can be very helpful to Gel your strobe, unless intentionally wanting that look, the sun comes out way warmer than if shooting broad daylight, and your usual flash fill might look harsh, fake or tint the subjects in an unintended way, same as with balancing the light to the sunrise, balancing the light temperature operates here as well. Regards.

Tony Carter's picture

Great pictures!! However, I kept wondering why something seemed a bit off, took me about 6 minutes to figure it out...would be good to also use a CTO gel for your flash to make it match the orange sunrise. Otherwise, the couple can look out of place with their surrounding. Great tips and pics, nonetheless!

Good shots but lack dimension and warmth, the flash should be barely noticeable but here it is quite obvious. IMO, the photos could use a little help from a CTO gel on the off-camera flash.

Thats how I make sunrise photos in Latvia :)

In Latvia, sunrise photos make you.

My brain: same joke. Scroll - you beat me. Well played, sir!

Great post and very nice pictures. I experimented myself this technique a few weeks ago, and I found it very fun to do. Here is one of the shot I made. I used a CTO gel on the flash head to balance the warm tones of the scene.

I had the same this past weekend... But went for a little more natural light look... My flash was a little softer...

Domagoj Borscak's picture

A little bit overexposed for my taste...

Love some of these shots! I think a reflector would've gave it a better tone (using the gold side), but there may not have been enough light to reflect.

Can i ask silly quesion, when you compose and meter, do you meter for the dark background then refocus to the subjects? Sorry if this is very basic info.

Tony Carter's picture

yes, that's how it's normally done. In Manual mode, keep your flash off, set your shutter speed to get the background to where you want it, turn on your flash, then set the aperture to how you'd want your subject to be lit. ISO should be as low as possible but still be "bright" enough.

Beautiful example photos used in the article!

Here is a day after session I did 2 weeks ago on Driftwood Beach:

It's nice... but unnatural.

This is a great picture! The only thing you could of done different, imho, would be add an Orange gel to that light. It would of blended better.