Capturing Australian tropical sunrises

As a follow up to Where Sunrises Rule The World I will take you back to Hawk Dreaming and the edge of the crocodile and mosquito rich river. I will share my sunrise shooting experience with two new panoramas from this morning.

I am back in Hawk Dreaming on the edge of the river. I have arrived early to capture the dawn light and greet the mosquitoes. I have chosen my composition, setup my gear and applied a full can of mossie repellent. It is an astoundingly beautiful morning; it is already more than 25 degrees but the air still has a crisp and fresh morning feel and smell. As the very first dawn light appears I capture the first panorama while it is still quite dark:

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

East Alligator River at Dawn
© Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Ten minutes later and it is already close to daylight and the light has warmed considerably. I make small adjustments to the composition and exposure and shoot our second panorama in this series:

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

East Alligator River at Sunrise
© Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

I could have wished for a few more clouds (the appeared later as seen here) and a stronger composition. But the colours and the light are gorgeous and a true representation of sunrise at this river, and at large size you can see the lovely thick layer of mist on the floodplains. Let us examine in detail how to capture this light and these colours.

Shooting the tropical sun rising

Walk softly and always carry mosquito repellent! The composition in these panoramas is dictated by the mosquitoes. Ideally I would have been lower and closer to the water; making the river (a finger of the East Alligator River) seem bigger with more colour reflection in the water. No go mate. I have never experienced a wall of a million mosquitoes quite like this! There was no choice but to step back 7-8 meters from the edge of the river and still I was getting eaten. Without mossie repellent you won’t get these shots so arm yourself. This is Where Mosquitoes Rule The World!

Be prepared; be quick! Coming from a cold dark non-tropical place you will be surprised by how quickly the sun rises in the tropics. You have very little time to work in before the sun basically jumps to the top of the sky and is at full force. So be prepared, arrive early and find your composition before the light show begins. The very best light is usually at dawn so no sleeping in! You should basically be setting up in complete darkness.

Use ND graduated filters! I used a Cokin 2-stop ND grad filter to even out the exposure between sky and ground but learned that this is nowhere near enough to tame the tropical sun rising. I needed a 4-stop and even a 6-stop in my kit as the difference in light level especially at dawn is incredible. Still a 2-stop is better than nothing and without an ND grad filter you would either blow out the sky or capture a pitch black foreground.

Do not blow the red channel! The red channel will be at least a couple of stops brighter than the other channels, so do not trust the luminance histogram on your camera. A blown red channel will ruin a tropical sunrise or sunset, creating ugly yellows and greens where there should be orange and red! Study your RGB histogram carefully if you have one, or bracket your exposures.

Finally…enjoy! Do not get so caught up in shooting, checking histograms, looking through the viewfinder, levelling the tripod, setting exposure, focus and aperture etc. that you completely forget to enjoy the spectacle! Step back once in a while and take it all in. We shoot landscapes because we love nature so don’t let the camera get in the way all the time. Enjoy!

24 Comments on “Capturing Australian tropical sunrises”

  1. I really like the overall feel to this image. It is so still and peaceful. Although you are getting ravaged by mosquito's it doesn't show though in the shot.
    I would say the best thing about being into the whole landscape photography thing is being out early morning trying to capture shots like this. Even if you come back with nothing, it is still a great way to start the day. It is without doubt the best time of the day.

  2. Luke, thanks very much. It is definitely the best time of the day in the tropics. Up here in Scandinavia the sunsets are usually the best time of the day though, better light.

    Christian, thanks mate, yeah NT sunrises are so bloody nice!

  3. Hi Richard and thanks! I love the Top End, I would not mind living in Darwin, would not mind that at all!

    Dylan, cheers mate glad you like 'em and my "little" post (was up all night writing this for my dear readers but nevermind!) 😀

  4. Always interesting to see comparison shots of a dawn/dusk to see how the colours and exposure develops over time. I prefer the shadows in the warmer one.
    Its also an interesting point about the different qualities, if any, of dawn and dusk- I've not yet really appreciated the differences in Scotland. But I am sure there are. So far, dawn and dusk for me has been mostly about what direction the light is coming from!
    And the red channel issue- well worth pointing out!
    Great post once again Flemming.

  5. Thanks very much Steve! This is not dawn and dusk though. This is dawn and sunrise, there is about 10 minutes between the 2 shots.

    I find a huge difference between dawn and dusk though, the colours, the light, the colour temperature etc. is very different.

  6. Sorry, I wasn't very clear there!- I realise they were both dawn shots.
    The dawn/dusk difference is interesting though. I've read that dusk tends to be slightly softer due to the build-up of dust particles by winds during the day, and possibly also moisture from evaporative heating during midday.

  7. Well it varies a lot depending on weather, seasons, clouds etc. Dusk and Dawn is almost reversed from Copenhagen to Australia (makes sense, country of upside-downers!). But again they're reversed here from Summer to Winter. As a very general rule of thumb, sunsets are better than sunrises here in Copenhagen. In tropical Australia it's often the opposite. And sometimes not 🙂

  8. Yeah them mossies are bad i renember being at Bunker bay early one morning being etean alive by them still managed to stay out and get the shot of the sunrise but .
    Great shots mate as Luke said have a real peacefull look to them
    Mornings are deffinatly the best time to shot

  9. I have only shot in Darwin once and I found it a hard place to find interesting compositions. The beaches arn't exactly appealing. But Nightcliff Beach has some nice rocky outcrops and then there is the lighting storms you get in Decemeber that are amazing. People only have to follow your Peter Javer link to see.

    I second your comment on the Red Channel. There are a few tips and tricks to understanding and controlling it and how it works and is represented in your cameras histogram.

    With your Cokin ND grads be careful of the colour cast they give off. Brent Pearson has a blog entry on the subject.

    I know cokin are a cheaper alternative to say filters made by Lee but the benefit of have filters that don't have a cast are worth their weight in gold.

  10. Kirk, thanks very much!

    Matt, yeah I agree that Darwin ifself doesn't offer many good spots for shooting – but Kakadu National Park certainly does! Peter Jarvers thunderstorm shots are fantastic and if you can cath Mindil Beach at sunset with the tide out it's pretty good.

    I want to get Lee filters but no one stocks them in Denmark, so for the moment it's Cokin and colour cast unfortunately. May order some Lee filters from the UK or US before my next trip.

    Elizabeth, thanks very much I am glad you like the photos and welcome to the blog!

  11. Once you get over the cost of the Lee FIlters it will be a purchase you wont regret. I have the soft grad ND's and will have the hard grads as well soon. Just waiting for stock.

  12. Yeah I will get them for the next trip. It's not the cost anyway, as a professional I need the proper tools, I just couldn't get Lee filters anywhere here when I bought the Cokin sometime back.

  13. Hi Thomas and thanks very much !! (dunno why your comments went to spam queue?)

    The graduated filter in Lightroom works amazing, it is really cool. There is no substituting the real thing though! When you do it in post you're either lower the exposure on pixels that are much too bright (details and contrast will be missing) or you up the exposure on pixels that are much too dark (bringing out a lot of shadow noise with no detail). Only by using actual grad filters in the field when shooting can you even out the exposure!

  14. I like the first image the best for some reason Flemming – the clarity perhaps ?
    Interesting reading your synopsis on the top-end light and it certainly is nice shooting dawns in just shorts and t-shirts (where ever you are!).
    One must remember that Jarver's thunderstorm collection was accumulated over about 20yrs. Darwin does get a high number of thunderdays – but not all are photogenic or accessible…I won't ellaborate further here on this topic though. 🙂

  15. Just read the last 4 or 5 post of your flem, great reading and some nice images to go with each post, I think your caling should be a book of australia's north with a number of images through it.

  16. Tony, you should blog about all your weather photos, you've captured some magnificient storms!

    Neal, thanks very much mate! You're right, a book is a great idea and something I'd love to do, I'll have to try and look into that in details!

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