4 reasons why sunrise photo walks are worth the effort


The hill behind my apartment offers one of the best views of the sunrise over the San Francisco bay. I'm lucky to live a couple minutes walk from such a scenic peak. Winter mornings make the steep walk well worth it. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The hill behind my apartment offers one of the best views of the sunrise over the San Francisco bay. I'm lucky to live a couple minutes walk from such a scenic peak. Winter mornings make the steep walk well worth it. © Jaymi Heimbuch


There are two reasons I love the winter for photography. One, the sunrises are more spectacular. That's not just me saying so, either. Science says so too. And two, you don't have drag yourself out of bed at 5 am to be able to enjoy them. In fact, I barely have to drag myself out of bed at 6:00 to have plenty of time to get dressed, make a cup of coffee and head out the door. That hour can be a luxury, even for those of us who love mornings.

I've always been a morning person, wide awake before the birds start chirping. If I slept past sunrise, I felt like I'd wasted part of the day. Indeed it is as if the whole day speeds by faster when I get up after the sun. As I've gotten older, that bright-eyed-bushy-tailed part of me is slipping away just a little. It's more work to get up in the cold, dark morning. I require more inspiration and reward. Fortunately, the sunrises themselves usually offer both in spades. Even just running up the hill behind my apartment with my dog in tow to watch the sun hit the water of the bay and bounce off millions of windows is a treat for which I am grateful.

What makes sunrises so invigorating and rewarding? Here are my four best reasons for crawling out of the warm covers and into a cold pair of jeans and hiking boots, leashing up my dog and walking into the chill of the morning, camera in hand.

Even my always-energetic dog needs a little time to get the sleep out of his system on some days. But we both love running around in the lavender light of pre-dawn too much to stay in bed. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Even my always-energetic dog needs a little time to get the sleep out of his system on some days. But we both love running around in the lavender light of pre-dawn too much to stay in bed. © Jaymi Heimbuch

An appreciation of brevity

Light is the lifeblood of photography. Capturing a moment brief and unrepeatable is its purpose. No matter what you are aiming at, you capture both at sunrise because of the rapid change in quality of light.

The variety of light -- the color, how it shifts, how it surges with vibrancy and diminishes into mute tones, the brief appearance of each hue and the mood it creates -- lasts only seconds. Ephemeral is a word that runs through my head often as I stand, staring, wondering if I can notice the gradual shift as it happens if I look carefully enough.

These twilight times underscore how a photo is a single moment never to be seen again. If you ever want to feel just how rapidly time slips by us, watch a sunrise with mindfulness. Sunsets often offer the same drama of light, but the world wakes up much faster than it settles down. A hushed and dark morning shifts to a bustling day in a snap, but a warm afternoon slips into a night that is still buzzing with activity and, in a city, still plenty of light. Time itself, the passing of it, is felt more easily felt at sunrise.

Being part of and recording pieces of a sunrise is a beautiful exercise in remembering the power of photography to use light and time to encapsulate emotion. You have a just a second or two, and then that orange, that pink, that violet is gone.

The only thing I regret about this particular morning is not setting up a time-lapse to capture how much the sky changed as the sun came up. The clouds turned more colors than I could count, each lasting just long enough for an admiring look and a sigh before changing yet again. © Jaymi Heimbuch.

The only thing I regret about this particular morning is not setting up a time-lapse to capture how much the sky changed as the sun came up. The clouds turned more colors than I could count, each lasting just long enough for an admiring look and a sigh before changing yet again. © Jaymi Heimbuch.

I love to use my dog as my model on sunrise hikes (obviously), and it is truly amazing the difference in mood based on oh-so-soft pre-dawn purple light, the pinks and oranges as the sun inches level with the horizon, and the gold that spills out over the landscape as it rises in the sky. All are equally beautiful in amazingly different ways.

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Play Time With Just Us

The area where I live is very dog-friendly. So dog-friendly that it's hard to find some wide-open space where it can be just my dog and me, with no worries of running into other folks and their off-leash dogs. Dawn is just about the only time we can get out and be assured an hour or two where we're just focused on each other.

We will get to the beach while it's still too dark to see the tennis ball and walk until there's enough light to let the neon-green ball fly. He will do sprints over and over while I keep an eye out for sand dollars.

Having that time alone is precious. I have a feeling I'm not the only introvert animal photographer. It's much more comfortable to be the only human around for awhile, and your companions are creatures of other species whose language is spoken through the wag of a tail, or the twitch of an ear, or the flit of a wing. It feels good to speak in body language. There is far less translating of subtext to have to do, and far less energy that has to be put into your end of the conversation.

Though sunrise is of course not the only time of day when you can be alone in the company of animals, it does feel, for me, the best time for me to bond with my dog, to get on the same page as him, to take a long deep sigh and smile as I see his eyes light up with the sheer joy of running free on the beach at low tide.

Plenty of people are willing to postpone dinner to catch the sunset. Far fewer are willing to wake up early and postpone breakfast to catch the sunrise. And we are deeply grateful for that fact.

Whether you have a companion animal to spend the morning with or not, getting out for that in-between quiet time where the vocal chords aren't necessary is a great way to recharge the batteries and refresh your skills in reading the language of the animals with whom you're sharing space.

We are lucky to live near a beach that is wide, has soft sand and is miles long. We go while it's still dark and play until the sun comes up and other people begin showing up. It's darn cold, but that's what jackets and a fur coat is for! © Jaymi Heimbuch

We are lucky to live near a beach that is wide, has soft sand and is miles long. We go while it's still dark and play until the sun comes up and other people begin showing up. It's darn cold, but that's what jackets and a fur coat is for! © Jaymi Heimbuch

Fetch is the game of choice for sunrises. It's great that tennis balls come in neon green as it makes them much easier to spot in dim light! © Jaymi Heimbuch

Fetch is the game of choice for sunrises. It's great that tennis balls come in neon green as it makes them much easier to spot in dim light! © Jaymi Heimbuch

There is always time for a game of stalk-and-zoom! There seems to be boundless energy when you're enjoying your favorite time of day. © Jaymi Heimbuch

There is always time for a game of stalk-and-zoom! There seems to be boundless energy when you're enjoying your favorite time of day. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Grandeur Without Pressure

I've found that when I get out for sunrise often enough, I sink into a comfortable place where the incredible beauty of a day unfurling is a familiar comfort. I lose (at least to a degree) that feeling of urgency that I need to be in a perfect spot with camera, tripod, filters, and whatever else to frantically capture every second before it disappears.

Rather, I begin to get a feeling that I am not there to record the landscape, but simply to be part of it. It is during these stretches that, should something particularly pretty happen, my iPhone is good enough. I can pull that out from my back pocket and use it to calm that "must click shutter!" urge when the scene is just that amazing.

But overall, it becomes less essential to make a beautiful image. It becomes more essential to just witness it all, to smell damp leaves, to feel cold air, to hear the crunch of dirt underfoot as we walk. 

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That transition might not seem particularly helpful for photography. At least not at first. Transitioning from carrying a camera with purpose to whipping out an iPhone on a whim isn't exactly great practice. But it is great process. When I am lucky enough to have a small stretch of sunrise hikes on the same trails, I recognize more about the location -- where the light hits when, and how to predict what the light will do based on cloud cover and haze. I've used that a few times to be able to go out for a hike and hit spot after spot after spot at the right time to get amazing light for photos.

In the meantime, I've enjoyed quite a few stress-free mornings with absolute splendor laid out in front of me (and more than a few blurry iPhone photos to remember, "Oh yeah, that was really was one special morning..."):

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Quiet Moments

After quality of light, the most noticeable thing to me about sunrises is the opportunity for quiet.

Granted, if you're trying to practice mindfulness, then there isn't a time of day that lacks opportunity for meditative moments. But I'm not exactly someone who is good at sitting still, nor hushing my brain. Nor am I someone who is likely to put effort into the practice. But at sunrise...I don't know if it's the changing of the light, the softness of it, the beginning of birdsong, the air warming up... I don't know what it is about this transitional time from night to day but there's something special about it that allows for moments of calm without effort, without having to consciously say, "I'm going to have a mindful moment now... aaaaand start!"

It just happens.

I'll look up at the clouds and realize that they were the only thing in my brain for a full ten seconds. (Ten seconds is a long time to think about one thing, by the way.) Or I'll find myself just watching my dog wander around smelling the rocks and shrubs and realize that for a couple minutes, there was nothing going on in my head except watching him.  And it will feel refreshing.

Just this is worth getting up early every day, heading out at twilight, and walking along a trail. Just for those moments of quiet.

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Those are my four main points that I'd use in any conversation trying to convince a sleeps-in person that they should give sunrise a try. But if that doesn't convince them, I'd fall back on one nearly fail-proof argument: Look at all the pretty colors!

Blue

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Red

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Purple

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Green

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Silver

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Gold

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Tell me, are you a sunrise or a sunset person? What's your reason?

High fives for early risers!

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Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.