Sunrise Light Explained

For landscape photography, one of the most beautiful times to get out and take pictures is during a sunrise. This article will explain the different qualities of sunrise light in Banff using Moraine Lake as an example.


Definition of sunrise

Sunrise is defined when the sun starts to appear over the horizon. On the right side of the chart below; the horizon is considered to be at an angle of 0°. The official time of sunrise is when the sun breaches the horizon at 0°.

But in Banff and any area where the horizon is obscured by mountains, it is useful to have a  broader definition of what sunrise is in order for it to be meaningful to the photographer.

For me, knowing when the sun is on the horizon doesn’t necessarily give me an idea of what type of light to expect because of the mountains blocking the horizon. What I want to know most are these three things:

  1. Will the sun light up the mountains?
  2. If the sun will light up the mountains, at what time?
  3. When will the sun give me some wonderfully pink clouds?

To answer these three questions, we need to dive in a bit further into the direction and different qualities of sunlight in the morning.



Sunrise Chart


Will the sun light up the mountain?

If you are looking to photograph a grand landscape where the sunrise is directly hitting the mountain tops you need to consider which direction the light will be coming from in relation to what direction you are photographing.

Front light:

Front light refers to when the mountain receives direct light from the sun from your viewpoint. Front light gives you the potential to have the peaks of the mountains light up with that really nice pink sunrise light. It also indirectly illuminates the mountains allowing for more visible detail before the sun hits the peaks.

There are a few factors that will determine if you will get direct sunrise sunlight on the mountains:

  • If the mountain you wish to photograph is in the shadow of a taller mountain, sunlight may not reach the peak at all or it may happen past official sunrise.
  • If there is too much cloud cover to the east, it may be a perfect blue sky day from your viewpoint, but you may not get any sunrise light because the clouds are blocking the sunlight to get through.
  • The sun rises at a different angle from a fixed perspective throughout the year quite drastically in Banff due to our rather high latitude. You may have direct sunlight at one time of year and not another because of mountain peaks blocking the sunlight from the mountain you are photographing.


Backlit refers to when the mountain receives light from behind your viewpoint so the mountains will not be directly lit from the sun. In order to still get a really nice sunrise in a backlit situation depends on the cloud structure. In general, you want a sky with clouds that have a defined structure with empty sky separating them. The higher the clouds are in the atmosphere, the earlier they will start to capture the pink sunlight. The lower they are, the more likely they will reflect that pink light down onto your landscape giving an overall pink quality to the landscape.



To preplan and know what direction the sun will be rising in regards to the direction you are photographing, I use these apps:

Google Earth:

I use Google Earth Pro, when I’m at home and wont be at the location the day before to know what to expect for light. When you using the desktop version of Google Earth Pro, you can turn on the little sun icon and it will not only give you the position of the sun at a chosen time and date, but it will also give you a rough idea of the shading of light.

Download Google Earth Pro


PhotoPills is the photographer’s go-to app for almost all of your shoot planning. It gives you the time for sunrise based on your location all the different times for the light phases.  All of my calculations for Rocky Mountain Photo Adventures are based on this app. I highly recommend getting it. It will be the best $9.99 you can invest in landscape photography!

One of the functions I use the most is the AR capabilities in the sun app. It uses AR to overlay the path of the sun using the camera on your phone. This allows you to see what time and the position the sun will be if you are at the location you want to photograph.

Download PhotoPills

What time will the sun start to light up the mountain peaks?

Through my experience of photographing sunrises in Banff National Park over the years and in different seasons, I have found that the sun generally will first strike front lit mountains fairly close to official sunrise times as published by the PhotoPills app when using an exact GPS location. But as in the example used in this article of Moraine Lake, you will see a discrepancy of a few minutes earlier. It has varied by up to 10 minutes at different locations and time of year. This is most likely due to the height and relative distances of other mountains blocking the sun. So to be sure, it is always wise to show up much earlier.

When will the sun light up the clouds with that wonderful pink colour?

For Moraine Lake and Banff National Park, depending on how high the clouds are in the atmosphere, you should expect the clouds to start reflecting the suns light about 20 minutes before official sunrise. This time is often referred to as golden hour. Golden hour is a theoretical time span of about an hour that starts during civil twilight at about -4° and extends to about 6° past official sunrise as shown in the sunrise diagram above. Photopills gives out the theoretical golden hour times.

Phases of Twilight

Throughout the course of 24 hours, there are distinct phases of light from nighttime to daytime. Each phase has a visual characteristic about it. Below is a chart explaining the different phases of light based on what angle the sun is in comparison to the horizon. for sunrise, we are most concerned with civil twilight which encompasses golden hour and blue hour.

Using Moraine Lake in Banff National Park as an example we will dive into the qualities of light that blue hour, golden hour and sunrise offers.

All the images in this article were taken on July 20th. Below are the times for the different phases of light from the Photopills app.

Photopills twilight times for Moraine Lake, July 20th:

PhotoPills App

PhotoPills screenshot of twilight phases July 20

Blue hour: 5:09 to 5:27 AM (Civil Twilight begins 5:09 AM)

Golden hour: 5:27 to 6:43 AM

Sunrise: 5:53 AM (Civil twilight ends)

Blue hour:

Blue hour is the time in the morning when the blue colour of the sky becomes visible casting a strong blue colour on the landscape. If there are clouds in the sky, they do not pick up any colour of direct sunlight. I generally plan to be at all my sunrise locations at the start of civil twilight in order to capture the unique qualities that blue hour offer.

Golden hour:

I define golden hour beginning when the warm light of the sun starts to influence the sky. If there are clouds in the sky, you start to see them catch some sunlight on them. The golden hour ends when the light starts to look like typical daylight. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, this last roughly for about an hour.


I consider daytime to be when the colour of light from the sun is similar to what you experience in the middle of the day. There are no more radical shifts in its qualities.

Examples of twilight phases at Moraine Lake 

In the slides below, each image has the time it was taken marked. These images are completely unedited right from the raw file and exposed at the meter in the middle using aperture priority. I also imposed a daylight white balance and Adobe Standard profile across the images in order accurately depict the colour of the light. Daylight white balance is set to 5500° K

These slides should give you a good snapshot of how the qualities of light for blue hour and golden hour at Moraine Lake. The most important thing to note is the sun started to hit the mountain peak several minutes before official sunrise, so it is wise to show up early!

5:24 AM

5:32 AM

5:35 AM Moraine Lake

5:35 AM

5:36 AM Sunrise Moraine Lake

5:36 AM

5:37 AM

5:38 AM

5:43 AM

Sunrise Moraine Lake

5:44 AM

5:45 AM

Sunrise Moraine Lake

5:46 AM

5:47 AM

5:52 AM Sunrise Moraine Lake

5:53 AM

As you can see in the images, the colour of light goes from a very saturated blue and begins to become more neutral between the blue hour and sunrise but then becoming very yellow during the later stages of the golden hour.  The example is used to illustrate the shift in the overall colour balance and to have a consistent histogram reading. When I photograph the sunrise, because of this drastic change in colour balance, I shoot in auto white balance to give me the most neutral look. When shooting RAW, I can make any white balance changes in Adobe Lightroom when editing.

Exposure for sunrise

Blue hour:

Exposing correctly for blue hour light is fairly straightforward. Because there is no direct lighting from the sun, the overall dynamic range of the scene should be easily captured when using an auto exposure mode such as Aperture Priority. The main thing when exposing correctly for blue hour is to keep in mind that your colour blue is dominant. When checking your histogram, make sure that you set the camera to RGB mode so you can look specifically at the exposure of your blue channel. Generally speaking, you should try and have the blue channel no brighter than around the last quarter of the right side of the histogram.

5:24 AM

RAW file unedited during blue hour

5:24 AM Blue Hour Moraine Lake

5:24 AM

highlights recovered-8701-histogram

Highlights recovered using Adobe RAW

5:24 AM Edited Blue Hour Moraine Lake

5:24 AM

Final edited image

In the first image of the series which was taken during the last few minutes of blue hour, you can see the histogram of the RAW file in Lightroom showing the blue channel getting ever so close to the right side of the histogram. This far right part of the blue channel is representing the blue sky and the brightest parts of the clouds. Because blue is the dominant colour, it is important to maintain tonal detail in all areas that have a blue tone to it. In the image below I took the RAW file and recovered only the highlights. As you can see that blue sky maintains a nice and natural tone. If you were to clip or overexpose the blue channel, you would not be able to recover a nice natural blue tone because that part of the blue channel is missing.

Golden Hour:

Exposing for the golden hour is similar to blue hour except you will have to start paying attention to your red channel in your histogram. Once the clouds start to catch a bit of that pink sunrise light, you want to make sure you are not overexposing that colour.

5:35 AM Moraine Lake

5:35 AM

RAW file unedited during golden hour

Final edited version

5:35 AM


By the time the light hits the tops of the mountains, the sky has become very bright. As you can see in the histogram below the first image, the highlights are very close to clipping. If you are finding that you have to underexpose your image too much in order to prevent the sky from clipping, try using Neutral Graduated Filters or Exposure Blending. (Stay tuned for a blog post that takes an in-depth look at creating the perfect exposure for sunrise)

In the second image, I used a custom white balance to get a more neutral tone in the shadows. When shooting landscapes, I always use auto white balance. Because the colour of nature is very subjective, I like getting a more neutral white balance and then make up my own mind in the post-processing stage what the overall balance should be. Remember, when shooting RAW, white balance doesn’t have any effect on the actual image. It will have a strong effect on your histogram!

Sunrise generally offers the most colour contrast of the different phases of light. The sky is usually still quite pink while the mountains start to glow with colour from being lit directly from the sun. But a word of caution! Usually once sunrise hits the mountains it’s in the last stages of the beautiful pink light and therefore disappears rapidly. For Moraine Lake, the pink colour lasts maybe a couple of minutes at most, so make sure you are ready for the light!

5:47 AM

RAW file unedited during sunrise

5:47 AM Sunrise Moraine Lake

RAW file with a custom white balance of Moraine Lake during sunrise

5:47 AM

5:47 AM Sunrise Moraine Lake

Final edited image

5:47 AM



Blue hour final image

Golden hour final image

Sunrise hour final image

5:47 AM Sunrise Moraine Lake5:24 AM Edited Blue Hour Moraine Lake

As you can see from the final edited images above, that the blue hour, golden hour and sunrise offer very different lighting qualities which changes the feel and mood of the image. So I highly recommend getting out to your sunrise spot to catch the last 30 minutes of the blue hour so that you can get set up with your composition. I also recommend sitting tight with one composition for the duration, as the perfect moment may pass you by if you are hunting for a new composition.

If you want to get several compositions without missing the perfect moment, I suggest taking two tripods with you and use them as place markers. Once you are set up with the first composition, take your camera off without disturbing the position of the tripod so it can be your placeholder. You can then wander around to look for other potential compositions. If the light starts to unfold, you can quickly go back to your initial composition without much effort!

When planning to photograph a sunrise remember to:

-Try and be there an hour before official sunrise to capture blue hour and all of the golden hour. The sun will start hitting the clouds usually a half hour before official sunrise. Also, the times by various apps may not match the exact time the sun will hit the mountain peaks. As you can see in the above image taken at 5:46, the sun has started hitting the mountain peaks even though the official sunrise is 5:53 AM for that day.

-Understand what direction the sun will be coming up and any objects that may interfere with the light hitting that mountain peak. Will you have a front light sunrise or a backlit sunrise?

Happy sunrise!

Need some help finding the best landscape photography locations in Banff? Why not hire a Private Guide!

Do you have a Canon DSLR and want to learn how to master your camera’s settings and get some great shots of Banff? Check out our Canon DSLR Banff Landscape Workshop!

About the Author
Mark Unrau is an award winning professional photographer and Director of Photography. Mark's extensive Travel Photography has earned him international acclaim with accolades such as the Grand Prize from National Geographic Traveler's "World in Focus" competition and awards from the Prix de Paris International Photo competition.

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