5 Tips For Photographing A Disney Sunrise

By Tom Bricker on February 22nd, 2012   |    Posted in:  Disney Photo Tips   |    4 Comments

Sunrise over Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom

If you’re visiting Walt Disney World or Disneyland for the 24-hour “One More Disney Day” event on Leap Day, you have the rare opportunity to be in the park before the sun rises. For photographers, this means one thing: SUNRISE PHOTOS!!!

Here are some helpful tips to assist you in photographing the sunrise at Walt Disney World or Disneyland.

1. Scout Your Locations

Since not every location in the park will have the same view of the sunrise, you need to know where the sun will rise in relation to your chosen subjects, and you also need to know how the sunrise will likely appear around those subjects. Obviously you won’t have the chance to see a sunrise in the parks prior to the day of the event, but if possible, get an idea of the high and low points around your chosen photo subjects so you have at least a rough idea of where you should set up. If you want to shoot from the Treehouse or another specific location, get an idea what the sight lines are from that spot to your subject.

2. Strategize Your Morning

From start to end, you may only have a few minutes to shoot the sunrise. You thus need to determine whether you’re going to set up your tripod (and potentially draw the ire of security, missing ALL shots) and go for one really incredible shot, or if you want to run around like a madman grabbing as many shots as you can. I plan on approaching the shoot from the latter perspective. The sun is (obviously) present in a sunrise, so shooting handheld is feasible. Obviously you can get a better shot with a tripod, but the cost in time in using a tripod is too great for me. My strategy is to fire a few shots in one spot, quickly move to the next spot, and repeat. I plan on using this approach from the second I enter the park at 6 am until around 9 am when the good light disappears.

3. Bracket (Almost) Everything

I rarely process my photos as HDR, but I frequently bracket my exposures when I’m shooting under time sensitive constraints. On top of that, when shooting a sunrise, you have a huge amount of dynamic rang in the sky, much of which cannot be captured in a single exposure. Memory cards are cheap-enough that you’re better off taking 100 photos with 99 that you will never use than missing one photo because you only took two photos to conserve memory card space. This is a time sensitive mission. By virtue of shooting a large quantity, you’re giving yourself a larger safety net. This is not to say you should go for quantity over quality, but you should err on the side of taking too many photos because, otherwise, you will undoubtedly find you ended up with a few shots that aren’t usable because the hot-spot of the sun is too bright or the shadows of your subject are too deep.

4. Work with Silhouettes

The current trend in Disney photography is towards a semi-realistic even exposure through HDR or exposure fusion. This may not work for the sunrise. If you try to introduce too much fill light on some subjects, you’ll wind up with a decidedly unnatural looking photo. A good sunrise photo shouldn’t merely have a pretty sky and a subject as well-illuminated as it would be at noon. When you see a situation where the light is such that it will lend itself to a nice silhouette, embrace the silhouette! You can still fire off a series of bracketed exposures “just in case,” but compose with the silhouette in mind. If it seems like the silhouette will make a compelling and dramatic shot, go with it. Not every shot should be HDR!

5. Be Mindful of Your Settings

There are many different choices you can make when photographing the sunrise to give your photo a different look. Before we even get to that, make sure you’re shooting in a raw format if possible. Shooting in raw allows you to shoot with Auto White Balance enabled without worrying that the chosen white balance will produce a neutral looking photo (because you can adjust it later). If you shoot in JPEG, you’ll need to choose a white balance for each shot that showcases the dramatic colors. Shooting the sunrise in JPEG is not only time consuming, but limiting from the perspective of dynamic range, especially if dealing with single exposures. Beyond raw, you want to think about what aperture, shutter speed, and ISO you want to use. The park will still be somewhat dark during the sunrise, so shooting at f/14 will mean you either have to lower your shutter speed or raise your ISO–or both. Keep this in mind. My preference for shooting sunrise and sunsets is to shoot around f/11 for maximum sharpness and depth of field, while also keeping my ISO low. This means I need to drop my shutter speed. With an ultra wide angle or fisheye lens, this isn’t a huge deal. I routinely take crisp handheld images at 1/8th of a second shutter speeds. The same would not be possible with a 70-200. If you do lower your shutter speed or raise your ISO, make sure to fire off many shots of the same scene so that you can select the sharpest ones and/or merge the photos together in post processing to reduce noise.

With these tips as a starting point, you should be able to develop a pretty good plan of attack for the “One More Disney Day” event. Now, let’s just hope we have exceptional sunrises on both coasts so that we can put these tips to use! (Knock on wood!)

Tom will be at Disneyland for “One More Disney Day.” He and his wife will be live-blogging from the event on the Disney Tourist Blog Facebook Page. Check it out to see live photos from Disneyland throughout the 24-hour event! 


  1. Cory Disbrow   |   Feb 22, 2012

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  2. Heather   |   Feb 22, 2012

    Unfortunately our plane does not arrive until dinnertime on the 29th, so I plan to get kicked out of the MK on March 1. What are my chances of getting any decent pics with a semi-decent sunrise, or at the least pre-dawn light?

  3. Todd Hurley   |   Feb 22, 2012

    Seriously guys, use The Photographer’s Ephemeris app to help plan your shots. It overlays onto Google Earth and you’ll be able to see sun positions at any point during the day (will also give you the sun/moon rise and set azimuth). It’s such a time savor and takes a lot of the guess work out on where you need to be and when (assuming you have the general idea of where you want to shoot nailed down). For an app, it’s a little pricey (for the iPhone it’s about $7, I think), but it’s so worth it. There’s also a free PC version.

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