The early bird gets the … well they get a different experience. They get a longer day. They get more!
Photography trips are expensive. Transportation and lodging are big items. So it makes sense to get as much as you can out of each day. But you also definitely get a different experience from travel if you start your day before dawn.
It is also my favorite time of day to photograph. As I said in the recent post titled, “But the Sunset is Behind You”, I generally don’t photograph the dawn itself. The subtle lighting of predawn and shortly after dawn creates unique perspectives. Not only is the color of the light different, but also it is easier to show individual features which are selectively highlighted by that light.
Dawn is also a good time to walk through a village or city. The tourist vendors are not set up yet and the streets are quiet. Most people that you meet are friendly, unless you are too early. In the predawn darkness some people are suspicious or fearful of strangers. And perhaps there is personal danger as well. Although most people who are up before dawn are trying to get a jump on their endeavors for the day. They are hard workers not thieves.
It is a time when you can get to know a place on its terms without the street hustlers or crowds. At times it is a private tour. It is also easier to photograph scenes without people in them.
I have many memories that I would not have if I had slept in. I remember walking downhill in the dark to the train station in Wengen, Switzerland to check the mountain summit weather to decide whether to ride the train to the top or not. In order to get to the planned location for photographing when the light is right you have to start in the dark. And you have to carry all the equipment and be prepared in case the weather is right. Thankfully the hotel pastry order was delivered to the basement very early each morning so at least I was able to grab a croissant on my way out the massive back door.
The steep cobblestone streets in Yvoire, France were deserted when I walked through that village to the harbor. The only sound was my footsteps echoing off of the stone buildings. In Vejer de la Frontera, Spain I met a couple of curious people on their way to work in the dark as I set up my tripod in a small plaza overlooking the old town. I remember a cold wind whipping a French flag at a memorial next to the cathedral in Tréguier, France in Brittany. It was the only thing visible in the dark because it had a spotlight on it.
The concrete floor was so hard in the Gite d’Etape in Tizi Oussem, Morocco that I was glad to get up at dawn, and the reward was early morning vistas of the High Atlas Mountains. Driving the narrow hairpin corners up the passes in the Dolomite Mountains of Italy in the dark was slightly intimidating, especially when an impatient local driver can’t wait to get around you and you meet a delivery truck coming around the corner going the other way. Somehow a long walk across urban Casablanca seemed safer at dawn. Although exploring the narrow alleys of Fez at dawn was a gut check.
You meet different people early in the day. They know that you are serious about what you are doing. And they treat you that way-early morning workers treating each other with respect, and some curiosity.
The early morning scene in the photograph above is in Zahora, Spain on the Atlantic coast near Gibraltar. The sunrise behind me shined selectively on this one oak tree. Even though the light was interesting it was not a quiet dawn. We were next to a hunting area which at each dawn sounded like a war zone. I guess some people like a noisy dawn. But our little cabin was a short walk from a very long beach and a short drive to many ancient Andalucían villages.
The thing is, my second most favorite time to photograph, like many photographers, is late afternoon to dusk and early night. So when I travel my days are long, but full. Full of people, experiences, views, and stories I would never have lying in bed sleeping.
Even though the photography trips are fulfilling they are also exhausting. It is difficult to describe how much goes into each image. By that I mean how much planning and traveling and effort to set up each image. But also there is a lot of emotional investment in thinking about the image and then letting ideas evolve during the creative process. Each photograph is one out of many different ideas that I attempt at each location. The light changes and things move into or out of the scene as I try different compositions and settings. The days are completely absorbing. It is not unusual to spend hours at one location.There is a surprising amount of frustration and even feelings of loss, when I miss an opportunity. I didn’t expect the creative part of photography to generate such strong emotions.
But maybe I am just tired from getting up before dawn. However, I wouldn’t do it any other way!