Sunrise Time Lapse Into the Sun Tutorial

Time lapses of sunrise are not easy but are great fun. I will show how to shoot them against the sun with fixed exposure, while other methods involve ramping the exposure. This method is totally seamless, without abrupt changes in exposure values. The downside is the extreme dynamic range, which makes it hard to find the correct exposure

Why Time Lapses of Sunrise Are Challenging

Time lapses of sunsets are very hard to achieve properly due to the extreme dynamic range and because the intensity and the color of light change constantly during the process

In the case of sunrises, things are even harder for two reasons

  • We have to get up very early, I always wonder why they don’t do them at a more civilized time. Carpe diem!
  • The exposure must be set at the beginning not knowing what the light conditions will be at the end of the process

When setting the exposure values, it will be very dark, so focusing and framing will be hard. I suggest setting focus and framing the day before in daylight and having it ready. There is certainly some trial and error involved and even a bit of luck 

It is crucial to get the correct exposure of the brightest moment to avoid burning the highlights, but at the same time, we don’t want to underexpose either, as the shadows would be way too dark

The extreme dynamic range might cause a slight amount of noise and some flicker. I use the excellent denoiser Neat Video, please check my article for more details

In sunset or sunrise time lapse artificial light help exposure

If a scene contains a good amount of artificial light things will be much easier, as the darkest part will not be too underexposed. In other words, the electric lights act as a fade light, reducing the dynamic range during the process

Settings for Sunrise Time Lapses

Interval Between Photos

Sunsets and sunrises are much longer further North

In Northern Europe for sunsets or sunrises, I use an interval of 6 to 10 seconds. In Iceland, I even went for an interval of 12 seconds

But here in Southern Europe, they are much faster. After taking a sunset timelapse in Malta I got strong banding and shift of color in the sky due to the interval of 6 seconds between each photo. The change in luminosity and in color was too fast to be reproduced correctly

Sunsets are much faster in Southern Europe

Here in Sicily, the interval to use for sunsets or sunrises is 4 or 5 seconds. For our American friends, we are at the same latitude as North Carolina

How many Photos to Take

In general, for time lapses I take 300 photos which result in about 12.5 seconds of footage. But in the case of sunsets or sunrises, I prefer to take 900 shots to cover the entire process, this way I get about 30 seconds of footage and I can trim the beginning or the end for parts too dark or too bright

The shooting time will be about an hour, which is plenty for sunrise at this latitude

Exposure Values

I will be shooting the time lapse at a fixed exposure, with no ramping, so the initial part will be very dark and we must rely on the ability of the camera to recover shadows. I am using a Nikon D850, a full-frame camera with a very extended dynamic range. The benefit of maintaining constant exposure is to get a seamless result, without any jump cuts

The correct value for shutter speed is crucial if the scene contains moving parts

There are three values to select for exposure

  • Shutter Speed: in time lapses, if I am using an interval of 4 seconds, I like to set it to 2 seconds for the correct amount of motion blur. In this case, it is not crucial to stick to this exact shutter speed value, since there are no moving parts like cars, boats, or people, but I would not use a value faster than ½ second to maintain smooth movement in the clouds
  • ISO: the Nikon D850 has a very low minimum value of 31 and I know I can easily go to at least 800 ISO without introducing too much noise. So, for ISO value there is plenty of room to play with
  • Aperture: there is a bit of room here, but if it varies too much, some issues with depth of field can be introduced. Also, I would prefer to keep a small aperture once the sun is visible, in order to get a better shape, a value between f9 and f11

I don’t analyze here the most important factor for time lapses, motion blur. Please refer to my specific article: Motion blur, the crucial element for time lapses

I suggest watching my in-depth article Timelapse vs Hyperlapse tutorial which explains the differences between the two techniques and contains plenty of very interesting examples

How To Do a Sunrise Time Lapse

First Test

We are now ready to start. It is pitch dark outside and we have to guess the right exposure for the brightest part of the timelapse

For the first test, I prefer to start with settings that will lead to overexposure so that I can point out some issues. I am not using ND filters and the settings are

  • Shutter Speed = 1”
  • ISO = 31
  • Aperture = f7.1
  • Interval between photos = 5 seconds

I expect the exposure to be correct for the first part, the dark one, while the second part will be severely overexposed, but it will be a stepping stone toward finding the optimal exposure

The first test is overexposed in the second part

Let’s see the result: the first part is very well exposed and the colors at the first light of aurora are nice, with a little cast of blue shadows which is to be expected and can be corrected by adjusting the white balance, but after the midpoint, we start to lose detail in the sky, well before the sun appears

A bit further on the sky is totally blown out and a couple of seconds later the same happens to the sea. We also notice that the color of the sky goes from blue to grey vertically, from bottom to top. This is certainly wrong and it is in part due to the frequency of shots

The luminosity changes too fast, so I will set the interval to 4 seconds for the next try. The images in the last part of the timeline are obviously extremely overexposed, but in the editing program, it is possible to estimate how to compensate. We are at least five stops overexposed, maybe six

Interval of 3seconds

The next day I tried another one, to test the interval of three seconds, but the result is too slow and we cannot fit the entire sunrise in 30 seconds of footage, so the interval will be maintained at four seconds

Using ND Filters

The next day enters the magic ND filter. I use an ND 500 to reduce the luminosity by nine stops. ND filters are absolutely needed for time lapses and hyperlapses, for more details on how and when to use ND filters please check my specific article

I want to lower the exposure by six stops compared to the first test. Since the filter reduces it by nine, I have to increase the values by three stops, so the values are

  • Shutter Speed: 1 second
  • ISO: 100
  • Aperture: f 5.6
  • Interval between photos: 4 seconds

The weather conditions are excellent with lovely clouds. Ideally, I would prefer to have a couple of small ones partially covering the sun to reduce the dynamic range

I like the result: the colors are nice, with just a hint of a green cast, easy to fix in editing. There is a tiny dot of flare to the left of the sun, I will try to get rid of it by slightly modifying the angle between the lens and the sun

Star-Shaped Sun

It is possible to improve the shape of the sun: by selecting a smaller aperture, we should get more of a star-like shape. I know the sun is a star, but you get what I mean…

The next day I set the aperture at f16. I generally avoid such a small value, as we most lenses there is a loss of sharpness due to diffraction, but in this case, it might be worth it to improve the shape of the sun

By modifying the aperture from f5.6 to f16, I am reducing three stops of light. I can compensate with a slower shutter speed from 1 to 2 seconds and raising the ISO value from 100 to 400

Nice rays around the sun, thanks to the smaller aperture

The conditions are not exactly what I was hoping for, as there are no clouds at all, but the result is decent. The shape of the sun is in my opinion more interesting, thanks to the smaller aperture. The inner part of the sun is slightly burnt, maybe next time I will reduce exposure by half a stop if no clouds are expected. The tiny flare spot has gone, so moving the camera did the trick

A Nice One

Then we have an interesting one: there are some clouds in the upper part of the sky and a good amount of haze just above the sea so that the sun cannot shine completely, as if it was behind a thin veil. I like this one!

One of the most interesting things about sunrises is the element of surprise. They are different from each other. The ones I have shown here have just very basic editing and they can be massively improved with post-processing

Related Articles

More Info and Examples in This Video


I am Vittorio Caramazza, aka Vicvideopic, the founder of this website and author of all the posts. I am a videographer and photographer contributing to several stock agencies. I am an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop and Lightroom. I have 10 years of experience with dron videography and photography. I was struck by drone syndrome in 2013. I have owned and tested in depth the following drones: Phantom 3, Phantom 4, Phantom 4 Pro, Mavic 2 Zoom, Mavic 2 Pro, Mavic Mini, Mini 2, Air 2, Air 2s, Autel Evo Nano Plus, Mavic 3, Mini 3 Pro, Mini 3. My home has turned into a breeding ground for drones. I am the owner of two YouTube channels specializing in Videography and Photography, with a focus on drones My main channel is VicVideopic (in English): My other channel is Drone Mitico, the Italian version.: I am currently based in Sicily (Southern Italy), but I tend to move quite often. After all, this is one of the main benefits of being a digital nomad…

Recent Posts