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How to predict a good sunrise

“There's a sunrise and a sunset every single day, and they're absolutely free. Don't miss so many of them.”

If you’re reading this, you’ll know I love a good sunrise! Getting up early and going outdoors to watch the sun come up with a brew is literally my favourite way to start the day. There’s nothing better than being sat somewhere along the North East coast with a cuppa and a camera, taking in the new day (and hopefully getting some good photos along the way).

But, those early rises can be disappointing if you set your alarm and head out, only to be greeted with a sky full of underwhelming grey clouds and not a hint of colour in sight. When I first got into photography, I used to use my iPhone weather app, see when there was no cloud and just hope for the best. Because I was going out so often I did get some great sunrises, but there were plenty of super grey (and cold) mornings too.

Since then I’ve tried to get my pretty-sky sunrise predictions a little more accurate. I get asked how to tell if it's going to be a good one all the time, so here are my top tips. Disclaimer - I’m in no way an expert and I don’t know the science behind what makes a good sunrise, this is simply how I try to catch a good one and it seems to work okay for me - most of the time, anyway!

1. Check the cloud coverage for an hour before and after sunrise

I use an app called Clear Outside which tells you total, low, medium, and high cloud coverage (amongst other things). Typically the best sunrises are when the low cloud is a low number - you want the horizon mostly clear so you can see the sun. Then, the medium and high clouds should be higher (not more than 60% for high cloud, or it may be too thick for the sun to penetrate). You want nice fluffy clouds and then hopefully they’ll be lit up by the sun! I check an hour before and after sunrise.

When you download the app, you can pop in the location and then view the forecast for the next 7 days:

A screen shot of the Clear Skies app showing the cloud forecast for 17th October.
Screen shot from the Clear Skies app on iPhone

Based on the above numbers, the low cloud is 73 when the sun is rising, so I'd probably give it a miss.

Steetley Pier during a dramatic sunrise
Steetley Pier

The shot on the left was taken on a morning with a very small amount of low cloud, mid-range amount of medium and high cloud. The colours were gorgeous - lovely vibrant yellows and oranges on the horizon, pinks and purples and then big moody clouds.

2. Find out what time the sun rises, and get to your location around half an hour before the actual sunrise

You can use Clear Outside for this too, or your phone’s weather app will also tell you the time the sun breaks the horizon. Like I said, I don’t know the science behind it, but I find the skies are usually prettiest/most colourful 30-45 minutes before the sun comes up. I always try to get to my location and set up for shooting at least half an hour beforehand. The colours can change throughout the sunrise, so plenty of shots to be taken!

Both of the shots below were taken on the same morning. The image on the left was taken shortly after sunrise, and the one on the right was taken around 30 minutes before sunrise.

The slope beach at Seaham during sunrise. The golden sky is reflection on the sand as the tide recedes. The sun behind the wall has created a sunburst effect.

The slope beach, Seaham, half an hour before sunrise. The clouds have been lit up by the sun below the horizon and have peachy pink highlights.

3. Plan your location

Living in the North East, we’re lucky to have so many beaches to watch the sunrise. If you’re going somewhere you’ve never been before, make sure you allow enough time to get there so you can still get to your location half an hour before sunrise. If you’re driving, find out where you can park and if you need to pay etc. If I’m shooting somewhere new, I’ll usually scout the location a few days beforehand to make sure I know where I’m going.

4. Check *where* the sun will rise

The sun rises in the East, but it moves along the horizon slightly throughout the year. So, as well as Clear Skies, I also use an app called It tells you the time and the place the sun rises for each location. In the app, you can move a dial around to see where you’ll need to be if you’re wanting a specific photo i.e. a sun rising behind a lighthouse or other landmark.

A screen shot of the app with the dial over Roker Pier, to tell the exact point of sunrise
Screen shot of app on iPhone

In the shot below, I used to tell what time the sun would be behind the lighthouse, so I could get this shot:

Roker Pier at sunrise with the sun exactly behind the top of the lighthouse. The photo is red and there's a bird flying above the lighthouse.
Roker Pier

5. Check the weather

The rest of the weather will be useful, too. Low humidity, low fog etc is better, as well as no rain (rain = clouds). In my experience if it’s been a rainy day, and then the sky is clear at night, as long as rain isn’t forecast for the next morning, it’ll probably be good!

To sum up...

These are my tips based on how I try to tell if the sunrise is going to be photo-worthy, and worth an early morning trip out - I'm definitely by no means an expert!

My final bit of advice is just to be prepared for the Great British weather - even if all the conditions look perfect, you might just get a bad morning, the weather could change overnight, or the coast might be full of fret when you get there! I can’t count the times I’ve thought to myself, yep tomorrow’s gonna be a good one, and then it’s been a let down. It's all part of the fun of photography.

Likewise, it might not look like it’s going to be any good and then you might open your curtains to a super pretty sky. I do find that starting the day at the beach, even if I don't get any good snaps, sets me up for the day anyways - especially if I can get a delish breakfast on the way home. Let me know in the comments if these tips work for you or if you have any other suggestions!

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