by Editor Rob Darby
The alarm abruptly slaps me awake at 3 am and my first thought is “why is it still dark and why am I awake?” My dog is curled up beside me snoring softly, the bed is warm, and I am tired. My spouse mumbles something that sounds like “You are crazy,” (an obvious and accurate statement) but maybe that is a voice in my own head. For a moment I nearly succumb to the temptation of comfort, after all I can always wake up later and photograph sunset. The light can be very good then too, but then I remind myself: “You are awake this early to capture the sunrise, GET UP!”
And so I do so dutifully, with no guarantee of good light or the promise of a lightning bolt of creativity. I will be lucky to remember all of my gear. I need coffee.
It is commonly understood that photography, especially landscape photography, is optimal with the sun is at an oblique angle. Softer light, long shadows, spectacular pastel and golden colours augment the visual appeal of an image. Low sun angle is, obviously, why photographers focus on early mornings and late afternoons; however, at high latitudes the maximum sun angle is low all day. For example, in the Lofoten Islands of Norway, the sun in February is up for as long as 10 hours, yet it never gets more that 10 degrees above the horizon. At these latitudes, the sun can be quite soft and forgiving all day, although in the case of Lofoten the clouds and storms generally make this a moot point.
There are, however, some reasons why early-morning photography can be especially rewarding.
First, if you are at a popular location shooting landscapes, there are generally fewer people to compete with for your preferred composition or tourists to “pollute” your image (I concede that well-placed humans often bring a landscape to life by giving the image scale or a lyrical quality).
Secondly, morning is, climatologically-speaking, calmer than late afternoon/evening, i.e. there is generally less wind in the morning. Slower wind speeds reduce airborne particulates, like dust, so the air tends to be crisper and provides the opportunity for sharper images and clean water reflections.
The calm of morning allows for other meteorological phenomenon which are somewhat unique to the time of day. The most obvious (and sought after by many) are low fog and mist which form from evaporative cooling over wet ground or a body of water during the night. As the sun rises and the air warms, the mist and fog dissipate, so the early riser is often rewarded with creative elements not generally seen later in the day.
So, the next time you set the alarm to photograph early morning, think twice before succumbing to the warm embrace of sleep. Then again, sometimes the dog and spouse win...in which case, there is always sunset.
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