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Lessons learned: sunrise sessions

It’s no secret at all that I ADORE sunrise; any of my couples can attest to how giddy I get when I tell them about morning sessions :). Four of my last five e-sessions took place at dawn. I’m just addicted to that morning glow! Golden hour (that 45-ish minute window of warm, coppery light) happens twice a day; once at daybreak, and then again the hour before sunset. To me, though, there’s something just a LITTLE bit more romantic about sunrise, so I do my best to schedule all of my portrait sessions in the morning. Sure, I might regret the decision for 3-4 minutes when my alarm goes off at 4:15 for a 5:45 am start time, but once I’m awake, and especially once we get shooting, I’ve never once heard anyone say “I wish we’d scheduled this later.” It’s ALWAYS a good decision! So in honor of my love affair with pre-dawn wake-ups, let’s chat about some tips for sunrise sessions! Here are a few questions I’ve received from other photographers on the subject:

Q: What time do you start shooting for a sunrise session?
A: Right at sunrise! Literally. I have the sunrise calendar bookmarked on my Google Chrome, and when my couples and I are chatting about what time we meet, I base it off of the exact time the sun will rise. If the calendar say 6:15 am, I ask my couples to meet me 10 minutes beforehand at 6:05, and I tell them we’ll plan to start shooting RIGHT at 6:15. I also make sure to drive home how important it is that they arrive on time, because once that 45 minute window is gone, it’s gone. Starting half an hour late means we’ve lost a substantial amount of the light that we woke up so early to capture.

Washington DC engagement photographer

Q: How long do you shoot for?
A: My e-sessions last about 90 minutes, sometimes an hour 45. After that time, the sun really does get too high to be able to shoot freely anymore. The golden light comes at the beginning, and will generally dissipate about 45 minutes into the shoot.

Q: What if it’s cloudy?
A: Still a win! Cloudy days give us a lot more freedom as to where we can shoot- we don’t have to worry about the harsh sunlight. In my experience, spring + summer are the best times for sunrise sessions. Fall and winter tend to result in a lot of cloudy mornings, which is still great for portraits, but you won’t have the warm light of golden hour.

Q: What are you looking for when location scouting for sunrise sessions?
A: I’m generally looking for open space when the sun will provide direct light. Shooting in somewhere like downtown DC among the higher buildings means I’ll be working with diffused light, which in and of itself is awesome, but generally doesn’t give me that warm glow we’re looking for. Perfect example- whenever I shoot in Reston Town Center at dawn, I ALWAYS ask my clients to meet me at the top of the parking garage. The top level is open air so we have a perfect sunrise greeting us upon arrival. Once the sun gets up over the horizon a bit, we’ll head down into the streets of RTC, but I LOVE starting on top of the parking garage.

Q: I’m not really a morning person… why on earth should I wake up at such an unholy hour for this sort of session?
A: Just look here, here and here. Need more convincing? Check out this one, this one, and oh yeah. THIS ONE.

Virginia film photographer

Have a question? I’d love to see if I can answer it! Just leave it in the comments section.

Happy Friday!

[...] be disappointed. Waking up early isn’t the fun part, but it is so worth it! Check out this {post} from Abby Grace Photography. She explains better than I can why sunrise sessions are so [...]

Michelle Williams - November 19, 2012 - 11:33 am

I am not sure if you check comments on older posts but I sure hope so! First, I love your work! And that you are a believer! Cool. Second, I am new to photography, but I have read a lot and am having trouble with one thing in particular. At sunrise / sunset shoots I love the backlit look! But when I shoot these I never get crisp shots of my subject. They are hazy with sun rays :( I don’t mind that sometimes, but I wish I knew how to avoid it? Help? . . .

Cate Alman - October 28, 2012 - 9:11 pm

I’m going to have a sunrise session in the next few weeks and these images are making me look forward to getting up early on a Saturday morning lol. Especially that last one with the willow tree (my favourite kind of tree)! Where was that taken? It’s gorgeous!

Sophia Jordan - October 26, 2012 - 1:22 pm

Beautiful! There is something so innocent and pure about sunrise lighting. You know what is funny?? Since moving to Alaska, the times I schedule outdoor sessions have drastically changed whether it is during the summer or winter. During the summer, I have to shoot way later than DC summer sessions (because we have almost 24/7 sunlight here in the summer). Then in the winter, my sessions are usually in the middle of the day (weird!! Never thought I would recommend that time!) because the sun never rises above our heads (just stays on the horizon for a few hours!).

Funny huh???

Love these images!

Serena Severtson - October 26, 2012 - 12:59 pm

Great post, Abby! Sunrise sessions = amazing. <3

admin - October 26, 2012 - 10:00 am

Hey Alicia! I’d never force someone into a sunrise session- I just present my argument as to why I feel it’s best and let them make their own decision. If they really don’t want to do one, I don’t push it- it’s more important to me that my couples be COMFORTABLE than for me to get to shoot at my dream time of day. . Hope that helps!

Alicia - October 26, 2012 - 9:58 am

I love your sunrise sessions! Do you ever get complaints or hesitation from brides about it being too early for them to get up and be ready by sunrise?

molly - October 26, 2012 - 9:36 am

love love love love love! i am obsessed with your sunrise shoots!

Urška - October 26, 2012 - 9:23 am

So good written :) We have to try a morning session soon even though we just love to sleep :)

Happy scans from RPL

I’m pretty set on Fuji 400H being my favorite go-to film for portraits and such. But there are times when 400 isn’t fast enough (like when I’m shooting details in a hotel room) and I need something different, so I gave a few rolls of Portra 800 a shot. I’d heard some not-so-awesome things ago Portra 800, but I have to say I was definitely pleased with what I got back! It was a bit of a relief- now I don’t necessarily have to resign myself to shooting 400H at 1/30th of a second anymore :).

These are some of my latest scans from RPL, just a couple of rolls from each wedding. It’s like a smorgasbord of wedding memories! I’m going to have to figure out a different way to do these sooner or later- blogging images the week after the wedding is great, but then waiting for my film scans to come in means I’m essentially presenting my couples with two different sets of images. I’m still trying to figure out HOW I’m going to make using my Contax during wedding flow with my current style, process, etc., and it’s definitely causing a bit of anxiety because my typical editing style is so different from the look of film. I foresee some soul searching in the near future.
Modern romantic Virginia film photographerModern romantic Virginia film photographerModern romantic Virginia film photographerModern romantic Virginia film photographerModern romantic Virginia film photographerModern romantic Virginia film photographerModern romantic Virginia film photographerModern romantic Virginia film photographerModern romantic Virginia film photographerModern romantic Virginia film photographer

I love this one!

Modern romantic Virginia film photographerModern romantic Virginia film photographerModern romantic Virginia film photographerModern romantic Virginia film photographerModern romantic Virginia film photographer

Happy Thursday!
Autumn - November 2, 2012 - 1:20 pm

I love how your film shots make me really feel. These images made me feel it. The way photography makes a person feel is why i fell in love with it in the first place!

Megan - October 25, 2012 - 7:43 pm

Simply beautiful photos! I could imagine it must be tough to figure out the workflow. But the images are really stunning! (I’ve been following your blog for a few weeks now – I think this might be my first comment though – sorry!)

Jean - October 25, 2012 - 5:11 pm

These are beautiful, Abby! Love them all!

jamie - October 25, 2012 - 2:50 pm

abby…these images are stunning. really. I am loving watching your grow in shooting film and the beautiful results that are finding you.

Rebekah Hoyt - October 25, 2012 - 2:48 pm

Those verticals of Robbie and Julianne and the last one are just TO DIE FOR! That last one belongs on a canvas!! SO gorgeous!

molly - October 25, 2012 - 2:23 pm

GAH!! those last few are just to DIE for! amazing.

Serena Severtson - October 25, 2012 - 2:15 pm

Great set, Abby! I LOVE the ones with the wooden ladder + tree. So adorable! :)

I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.

Yesterday was pure awesomeness. One of my favorite professors from RU, Dr. French, had asked if I’d come down sometime and chat with a class of hers- on my experience in the corporate world, and a bit about how I’m using social media to spread the word about my small business. After recovering from the initial shock that she thought my insight was worth a 75-minute class period, I sent her an email full of exclamation points with my enthusiastic agreement to come down and present. It was SUCH a cool experience! I ended up having the chance to present to twice, one undergrad and one graduate class (which made me substantially more nervous), and it was such a trip to see people taking notes and asking questions as the class progressed.

One my BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals, courtesy of J&M) is to teach. I’ve always been a bit afraid to put that out there because, as I’m still in the somewhat-beginning stages of my business, I don’t want people to think I’m overestimating my own knowledge, or that I’m too full of myself. But after yesterday’s experience, I KNOW that I don’t want it to be the last time I get to share what I’ve learned, to have the chance to pass on generously that which has been generously and freely given to me.

One day? I want to teach a workshop. There. I said it. And it’s ok for me to dream :).

And CHECK OUT THIS MUG. Dr. French gave it to me as a thank-you for talking with her classes and I just about flipped my lid! I’ve been coveting this mug for months and was super disappointed when I couldn’t find it in Hogsmeade last December! It was divine providence at its finest. Thank you so much Dr. French, both for having me and for this AMAZING mug! (The image on the left is how the mug looks when not in use, and the image on the right is what happens when you put hot liquid in it. It’s MAGIC.)


PS- how sweet is that tree stump for photographing props/individual items? I’m making a note to ask my Granny & Pawpaw to never, ever uproot that stump.

Happy Wednesday!

Allison - October 25, 2012 - 2:36 pm

I would enroll in your workshop! :) Do you ever do one-on-one mentoring sessions?

Rebekah Hoyt - October 25, 2012 - 10:26 am

I hope you’ll teach a workshop soon – you’d do a fabulous job! So happy for you!!

Brittany Claud - October 25, 2012 - 12:14 am

I’ve already learned SO much from your blog…you would make an excellent teacher! And I would do a workshop with you in a heart beat :)

ashley link - October 25, 2012 - 12:03 am

so cool! and i would totally attend your workshop. jussayin’! GO FOR IT! :)

Matt - October 24, 2012 - 9:11 pm

I wish I could have been there for your class, I know that you did well! I know you will be great at teaching workshops, you have such a gift.

Sarah B. - October 24, 2012 - 7:49 pm

Abby! I am so pumped you got to teach – how fun is that?! I am sure you did awesome too!! And yay for big dreams! :D

Jen McLeod - October 24, 2012 - 6:27 pm

Hey Abby! Congratulations! It’s great and an honor to get to go talk to college classes. God has blessed you with an amazing talent and I’m glad you’re eager to share it with others.

Lauren Trainor - October 24, 2012 - 4:08 pm

Dr. French – you rock!! So exciting Abby.

Erin Schrad - October 24, 2012 - 3:23 pm

Eeek! I LOVE that mug! So cool!! And mad props for your first teaching engagement! I’ve had to start teaching workshops for work and I always get so nervous… I don’t have a very organized brain, so public speakng/teaching is something I get anxious about because I worry terribly about whether or not I am making any sense or jumping around too much. But the more I do it, the easier it is and getting better-than-average evaluations helps calm the fears!

ali w - October 24, 2012 - 3:07 pm

AHHH!!! I want to teach too!!! But not a workshop – I want to be a HS digital photo teacher! I’ve loved the freedom I have to express myself through this medium, and I want kids to know it too! DO IT!

Erica - October 24, 2012 - 2:54 pm

Oh my gosh I want that mug! Must put that on my gift list!

Lena - October 24, 2012 - 12:50 pm

That is the coolest mug ever!! I feel like teaching is always the next step in one’s career…keep moving towards it!!

Tara Peddicord - October 24, 2012 - 12:47 pm

My in-laws have those mugs! (Big Harry Potter fans themselves!) :) Also, I love learning from you even just on this little bloggity- so I think you would be a great teacher! And I also love me some BHAGs… even if I am slightly terrified of them! ;)

Leah - October 24, 2012 - 12:45 pm

You go! Teaching is a lot of fun! Also, don’t get jealous, but both Jenae and I are going to ITSEC.

Reality check, table of one.

I’ll admit it- last Saturday, I was frustrated. My brother and his then-fiancée-now-wife had been planning their wedding for over a year and I was SO excited to photograph their big day. Ethan and I have had a bit of a tumultuous relationship (as I’m sure most older brothers and their annoying younger sisters have), and this was a chance for me to bless him, to serve him and his new wife. Plus, they were getting married on Bald Head Island, a place I’d been DYING to shoot for years now. So I worked with Jess, my new sister, to create a timeline when I could see they didn’t have one, making sure we had enough time for all the necessary family + bridal party photos, and then plenty of time for couples’ pictures for Ethan & Jess to treasure.

But then life happened (as life often does) and the wedding day schedule was crunched. REALLY crunched. Where I’d originally schedule an hour and and a half to allow for photos, I now had eight minutes.


Eight minutes to take the wedding portraits I’d been dreaming of in my dream location. Eight minutes to capture their joy, to document their bliss. Eight minutes. No more.

The next day on our morning run around the island, I was lamenting to my dad how disappointed I was. That I’d had this tremendous opportunity to create incredible images in front of me but because of the time crunch, I now had a handful of rushed photos that I didn’t feel did the couple or the atmosphere justice. And then my dad, in his everlasting wisdom, said something that pulled me up short:

“But Abby, it’s not about you.”

Ethan & Jess are incredibly laid back- easy going, not stressed by a fluctuating schedule. So when everything was pushed back by an hour on their wedding day, the only person who was panicking was me. Panicking because I wouldn’t get to satisfy my desire to shoot the portraits that I wanted, in the location I wanted.

Let’s take a look at that last sentence and see how many times I referred to myself- I, my, I, I. Four times.

It’s ok that I was disappointed by the crunched schedule- what photographer wouldn’t be? But I was failing to see the big picture- my desires for the day ranked BELOW what Ethan & Jess wanted, and they were ok with those eight minutes in light of the scheduling shift. So even though I was bummed, eight minutes should have been enough for me if it was enough for them. And in the end, we managed to get quite a few portraits that I loved, ones that I know they’ll be proud to frame. I just wish, during those eight minutes, that I’d discarded my “woe is we and my abbreviated portrait session” attitude and chosen to reJOICE in the new union these two, in the fact that my brother was blissfully and incandescently happy in the moment.

The point of my rambling is to remind myself that sometimes, even with as much planning and meticulous attention as I devote to a timeline, things get crunched. It just happens. And my job in that moment isn’t to freak out and feel sorry for myself. It’s to keep the big picture in mind- that this bride and this groom are getting MARRIED, and my job is to document that love, that joy, that bliss in whatever form it takes. Sometimes the best of plans go awry and keeping the big picture in mind honors my couples above myself, serving them in the best way possible.

Bald Head Island wedding photographer

Happy Tuesday!

[...] 8 minutes for portraits- ready? GO. [...]

Matt - October 24, 2012 - 9:19 pm

Sorry about almost crashing the cart, but the images came out beautifully!

Colette - October 24, 2012 - 11:16 am

This is a great post, one that many *brides* should read! (Heck, probably some pushy relatives and attendants, too). No wedding is perfect. Someone will break a heel or the wrong flowers will be on the cake. But it always ends up being okay, and you get married!

Mom - October 24, 2012 - 3:23 am

Beautifully expressed, Abby. I know that it wasn’t all about you. You wanted to be able to present to them what you knew you had the ability to do because this was your gift to them. You have professional standards and it must’ve been hard to suspend those in light of the schedule changing. The point is that you swung with it. Realizing that there was a sense of you being too highly important is a good thing, but balance that with the fact that you knew what you could do for them and it disappointed you to not be able to give them your very best. In other words, chill out. Tell God what your conscience tells you to and then leave it there. His intention for your life is not for you to dwell in guilt and misery, but to accept His forgiveness and walk on as His daughter. Ethan and Jessica will be happy with whatever you come up with. Lessons learned here but don’t beat yourself up here. God was teaching you a new lesson, as He does me, pretty much every single day.

Sarah B. - October 23, 2012 - 7:11 pm

Thanks for your honesty, Abby! And the reminder and good perspective of what the important part of a wedding is – a MARRIAGE – in the midst of all my planning as well!!

Jean - October 23, 2012 - 4:06 pm

Really good blog, Abby! We were all gathered there for one reason, to celebrate the marriage of these two very special people. The two images you shared are beautiful, as I’m sure the rest will be, also.

Sabrina - October 23, 2012 - 4:04 pm

Oh my heavens… thank you for speaking this truth today! I always get so caught up in what’s going on and how it’s affecting me and my timeline that I was so intentional with that I sometimes forget that it’s never about me on the wedding day. It’s my bride and groom’s day and no matter what happens, it’s about them and capturing the day… and whatever that brings with it :-)
PS – your dad’s comment made me smile and may have even brought a small tear to my eye! So sweet!

Courtney Porter {Dogwood Events} - October 23, 2012 - 3:14 pm


That is so exciting that you got to shoot on BHI! Your brother and his new wife chose what I consider to be the most perfect wedding location on earth. Kudos to them! I’m actually headed there this weekend. I completely understand your frustrations and how hard it is to step back and realize that sometimes our big plans have to change on the wedding day due to circumstances out of our control and that’s alright. Thank you for the reminder. That’s great that they were so laid back and happy though. I can’t wait to see more pictures! Congrats to your brother and sister-in-law!

Sharon Elizabeth - October 23, 2012 - 3:13 pm

oh my… i NEEDED this today!!! spent all weekend thinking about how much i hate it when the timeline isn’t ‘working’… gahhh. so needed this <3

Urška - October 23, 2012 - 3:08 pm

You wrote this really great! And yes i know how hard it is in a great location with so little time, but you did it great :)

Dad - October 23, 2012 - 2:47 pm

Abby, you just bless my socks off!

Rebekah Hoyt - October 23, 2012 - 2:26 pm

What a humbling reminder, Abby – it isn’t about us, it’s about the couple. I SO easily find myself feeling selfishly frustrated if I don’t get what I want on the wedding day. Thank you for this!

Hannah Rancourt - October 23, 2012 - 2:16 pm

SO perfectly put! I can’t wait to see the moments you did capture for your brother and new sister:-)

Monday Mash-Up

I don’t know about y’all, but my weekend was totally awesome. Matt & I had originally been planning to take this weekend out of town for a camping trip, but after we saw how complicated it’d make things with everything else going on in our lives, we decided to hold off until the spring for the camping trip. Instead, we spent Saturday roaming around Temple Hall’s fall festival! Hay rides, pumpkin patches and corn mazes- I was in heaven! I’ll save that all for tomorrow though when I blog the photos from Saturday :).

As always, lessons learned/things that transpired over the weekend:

  • I was born a Dallas fan, and I will die a Dallas fan, but dang do I love RGIII! It’s strange to get used to wanting to see the ‘Skins win (well, the Skins’ quarterback)- it goes against my nature, which is usually to cheer for crushing, humiliating defeat.
  • Here’s a combination of food I don’t recommend eating: hot dog, then chili cheese nachos, then funnel cake, then kettle corn. And then if you spend an hour walking around a corn maze? Stomach ache.
  • It’s probably best to check the weather forecast before you head out for your run- shorts and a t-shirt don’t far well when it’s 40 degrees out.
  • I don’t think I’ll ever be able to settle for plain apple cider ever again- I found a recipe this weekend using oranges, nutmeg, cloves and such and it was AMAZING. And of course, now I can’t find the recipe again. Rats.
  • I’ll totally own the fact that this is not my most riveting Monday Mash-Up ever. I’m trying to get out the door so I can head down to RU for a few days!!

A picture from this weekend!

Happy Monday, friends! Wish me speed as I try to pack and get out of the house in a hurry…

Sarah - October 22, 2012 - 11:40 am

Sounds like you made your own wassail! They make a nutmeggy, orangy, version you can just buy the mix…and you can add wine or not and it’s still yummy

Hannah Rancourt - October 22, 2012 - 10:25 am

Yay! You are coming here! You will appreciate that the weather this week appears to be sunny and warm while next Tuesday there is apparently a chance of SNOW?!?!?! At least that is what I heard.