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By the Dawn’s Early Light: A Photographic Review

August 26, 2014
Early morning on Warren Street, Hudson, New York

As every photographer knows, when shooting outdoors, an essential component of any photograph is the available light. In the open air, the photographer is subject to the vicissitudes of terrain and weather, which to a large extent determine the nature and quality of the available light. However, one factor that remains within the photographer’s control is the choice of the time of day to shoot. My favorite time of day to take photographs, particularly when traveling, is at dawn, both just before and just after sunrise. The early morning light before sunrise is gentle and even, suffusing the entire scene without creating dark shadows or strong highlights that can reduce or eliminate detail. If there are thin clouds in the sky, they may pick up orange, pink and purple colors from a sun still below the horizon. In town, the streets are deserted, without moving automobiles or pedestrians, and the photographer can roam the streets and concentrate on the architectural detail without interference. Later, when the sun first appears above the horizon, it casts a soft reddish light that gives a warm glow to buildings and trees.

Some of my early morning photographs have already appeared in previous blog posts here. For example, all of the photos shown in my article entitled A Photographic Tour of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, other than the first two, were taken in the early morning at first light. The details of the ancient stone buildings and alleys of that medieval village seem almost magnified in the soft light of dawn.

In fact, the beautiful architecture of many old European cities seems to take on a special aura at first light. This can be seen in a number of early morning photos which I took a couple of years ago while in Edinburgh, Scotland. I awoke before dawn on a Sunday morning and peered out of the window of my hotel, which was located on the Royal Mile, where many of the city’s historical attractions are situated. I was greeted by a beautiful clear pre-dawn sky which, as frequent visitors to Scotland will attest, is not something that can always be counted on in that otherwise wonderful country. I hastily got dressed, picked up my camera (Nikon D800 with a Nikon 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens) and tripod, and headed down to the street. At about 6:30 AM on Sunday morning, the sun was still below the horizon and the city was half-dark and virtually deserted. I walked to a suitable spot and photographed the view down the Royal Mile facing east (click on any photo in this article to see a larger version):

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh

In this sort of low light, a tripod is almost always a necessity. In order to obtain corner to corner sharpness and the least possible noise, it is usually advisable to use a small aperture and a low ISO, and as a result a fast shutter speed will be unavailable. The above photograph of the Royal Mile was taken with an aperture of f/14 at ISO 100, resulting in a shutter speed of 0.3 seconds, so a handheld shot was out of the question.

The building in the center of the above photo is St. Giles Cathedral, which dates mostly from the late 14th century (the unusual “crown steeple” from the late 15th century), and was extensively restored during the 19th century. Here is a photo St. Giles from the east side, taken at about the same time:

St. Giles Cathedral

St. Giles Cathedral

The building is suffused with warm pre-dawn light, here coming from behind the camera. At left, a statue of the Scottish economist Adam Smith is visible.

It had also been my aim to record an unobstructed view of Edinburgh Castle. The castle is located at the western end of the Royal Mile. However, to obtain a view of the entire castle together with the rocky outcropping on which it sits, it is necessary to walk a considerable distance off the Royal Mile. This shot was taken from Princes Street, on the other side of the railroad tracks from the Royal Mile, after about a half hour’s walk:

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

As you can see, by the time I reached this spot, the sun was already above the horizon, its light illuminating the upper parts of the castle.

Aix-en-Provence, France, is another town which is ideal for early morning photography. Normally a busy city with streets full of cars and sidewalks and cafes full of tourists and university students as well as local residents, in the early morning hours just before or just after dawn it is beautiful and quiet. Here is the Place Séraphin Gilly at dawn on a Sunday morning:

Place Séraphin Gilly, Aix-en-Provence

Place Séraphin Gilly, Aix-en-Provence

The principal street in Aix is the Cours Mirabeau, which extends from the circular Rotonde with its large fountain eastward to the Place Forbin. Along the way are several cold water and natural hot water fountains. Aix has been known since ancient Roman times for its natural hot springs. In fact its name derives from its Latin name “Aquae Sextius,” meaning waters of Sextius. Gaius Sextius Calvinus was the Roman consul who founded Aix about 122 BC as the first Roman city in the territory of today’s France. This is an early morning shot of the Cours Mirabeau, before the street became filled with the morning traffic:

The Cours Mirabeau

The Cours Mirabeau

In the foreground is the Fontaine des Neuf Canons, built around 1691. The term “canons” here refers not to weapons of war but to the pipes that spout water from the fountain, of which in the case of this fountain there are nine, as the name implies. At the end of the avenue in the distance can be seen the large fountain of the Rotonde.

My love for early morning photography began some years ago when I was serving as production stills photographer during the shooting of “The Man at the Counter”, a short film shot mostly in the town of Hudson, New York. As is customary in such settings, the cast and crew were off to an early start the first morning, setting up on a nearly empty street at about 7:00 am. The town had cooperated by blocking off a portion of Warren Street, the town’s main street, for a few hours to facilitate unobstructed filming. After taking some preliminary shots of the cast and crew, I looked about for a scenic shot and found this view of Warren Street, looking west toward the Hudson River:

Warren Street, Hudson, NY at Dawn

Warren Street, Hudson, NY at Dawn

This shot has been one of my most popular photos, and appeared in the November, 2013 issue of Architectural Digest. I was inspired enough by the early morning light that weekend to get out even earlier the next day, before the crew even began to set up. Walking down to the east bank of the Hudson River, I took this shot of the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse, which sits on a tiny island in the middle of the river between the town of Athens, on the west bank, and Hudson on the east bank:

The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse

The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse

This photo also found its way into Architectural Digest, in an article entitled Great American Lighthouses.

More recently, I had an opportunity for early morning photography in the gorgeous California town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, where I was staying for a few days last spring in a house just a few blocks from the beach. The following shot was taken just after sunrise from the edge of the Scenic Road, the street that runs alongside the cypress-lined beach:

The Beach at Carmel

The Beach at Carmel

Carmel’s famous “fairy tale” architecture also photographs well in early morning light. Here, for example, is the “Tuck Box”:

The Tuck Box, Carmel

The Tuck Box, Carmel

And this is Carmel’s version of the great American shopping center:

The Court of the Golden Bough

The Court of the Golden Bough

While we are on the subject, here is a recent addition from a trip to Quebec City. The early morning sky was overcast, but a break in the clouds allowed the sun, which was just above the eastern horizon, to illuminate the Château Frontenac Hotel and create a strong contrast with the dark sky:

Château Frontenac Hotel, Quebec City

Château Frontenac Hotel, Quebec City

On a recent trip to Salzburg, Austria, I got out early one morning and took these two photographs from a bridge over the Salzach River some distance from the town center:

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Salzburg Sunrise

Salzburg Sunrise

By the way, early morning is also a great time for wildlife photos. Here is a shot of a great blue heron, standing on a raft in a pond, lit from the side by an early morning sun:

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

The photographs shown in this blog are available for purchase as prints or (in most cases) as downloads for personal use on my photography website at http://www.philhaberphotography.com. You are also invited to visit and hit the “Like” button on my photography Facebook page, located at http://facebook.com/PhilHaberPhotography.

Phil Haber

Copyright © 2014 Philip A. Haber

From → Photo Techniques

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