5 Reasons for Photographing the City at Dawn

The days are quickly getting shorter, and so even for us night owls, it’s worth heading into the streets with our cameras just before dawn. That’s because the morningtime city offers a feast for the eyes. In the empty and half-empty streets filled with still-waking light, pictures are a joy to find.

It’s probably no surprise for most people that the sun rising over a landscape can be picturesque. But a cityscape can also be given a similar, or even more colorful magic by the day’s first rays. The light changes so quickly that places literally change before your eyes, and there’s no other hour when you’ll have the streets practically to yourself. I’ve picked out five reasons why shutterbugs should definitely wake up early.

A street full of tourists all day; an empty street at dawn. Sony A7, FE 28mm f/2, 1/100 s, f/7.1, ISO 160, focal length 28 mm

A street full of tourists all day; an empty street at dawn.
Sony A7, FE 28mm f/2, 1/100 s, f/7.1, ISO 160, focal length 28 mm

1. It’s Empty Everywhere

Once you leave the main routes where sleepy people are headed out to their morning shifts, you’ll encounter only a few people. You’ll especially appreciate this in tourist spots that are flooded with people in the daytime, as well as on busy squares and avenues. In the morning you can enjoy their beauty and majesty in peace and quiet. You have plenty of time and space for thinking over and composing the photo, and meanwhile nobody will be “in the way.” In crowded public places you won’t feel much desire to stick around, which makes it hard to notice any interesting spots and really look at what’s around you. The morning makes the search for these spots quite pleasant. It often even looks as if you’re suddenly in a different world. You’ll start seeing the world through different eyes. You’ll also start photographing different things.

Here the pre-dawn “blue hour” is more than halfway over; the mild pastel pink presignifies the sunrise. Sony A7, FE 28mm f/2, 1/50 s, f/8, ISO 400, focal length 28 mm

Here the pre-dawn “blue hour” is more than halfway over; the mild pastel pink presignifies the sunrise.
Sony A7, FE 28mm f/2, 1/50 s, f/8, ISO 400, focal length 28 mm

2. The Changes of the Blue Hour

The blue hour is perhaps even more magical than the “golden hour” before sundown. In this hour, it’s no longer dark, but it’s not yet light. And during these roughly sixty minutes before the Sun appears, you can see the light changing practically from one minute to the next. If you want to capture the dawning in the city, then you need to head out right at the start of this hour. The Sun will come up faster than you expect.

Dawn can be colorful... even this colorful. Canon EOS 1000D, EF 50mm f/1.8 II, 1/100 s, f/3.5, ISO 200, focal length 50 mm

Dawn can be colorful… even this colorful.
Canon EOS 1000D, EF 50mm f/1.8 II, 1/100 s, f/3.5, ISO 200, focal length 50 mm

The blue hour can surprise you with its colorfulness. Sometimes you run into mild, light shades of blue, while at other times you can also get surprised by more saturated tones, or pink clouds. One place may never look the same way twice. When you return to it, the dawn may surprise you with some completely new image.

The blue hour just before sunrise brings the ideal time for photography, free of sharp contrasts of light and shadow. The light is wonderfully soft and mild.

All this photo needed was a little contrast adjustment. The morning sun took care of giving it a golden tint. Sony A7, FE 28mm f/2, 1/100 s, f/20, ISO 100, focal length 28 mm

All this photo needed was a little contrast adjustment. The morning sun took care of giving it a golden tint.
Sony A7, FE 28mm f/2, 1/100 s, f/20, ISO 100, focal length 28 mm

3. A Golden Sun and Its Rays

With the end of the blue hour comes the golden hour. The sun lies low over the horizon and stumbles through narrow streets, archways, and spaces between buildings, while gradually massaging those buildings’ walls with its rays. Compared to the evening’s golden hour, here the light is softer, with many tones of orange, yellow, and red—and sometimes pink. Here and there it lights up windowpanes; in yet other places, it wrestles with still-shining streetlights.

On the edges of buildings you can even catch sunrays in motion. The roads and the sidewalks look as if they’ve been gilded. The intense morning light also strengthens shadows, and together they both weaken other colors. It’s a special kind of color control you can harness in your pictures.

The sun hung at the edge of rising for only a brief while. Here as always the early bird gets the worm. Sony A7, FE 28mm f/2, 1/100 s, f/16, ISO 100, focal length 28 mm

The sun hung at the edge of rising for only a brief while. Here as always the early bird gets the worm.
Sony A7, FE 28mm f/2, 1/100 s, f/16, ISO 100, focal length 28 mm

4. The Shadows and Silhouettes

A low-lying sun also throws long shadows. No matter whether it’s buildings, lamps, cars, bicyclists, or pedestrians, they are silhouetted on the shadows or walls, and they’re photogenic subjects for morning photography. Sometimes the shadow itself is more interesting than the whole subject. As the Sun’s rays break through treetops, through grates, and past other obstacles, they form interesting structures on other objects. The shadow-plays of the morning sun practically beg for abstract photos that concentrate on the interplay of light and shadow. The morning definitely gives you room to play with shadows.

Shadows offer a bottomless well of topics. Sony A7, FE 50 mm f/8, 1/160 s, f/8, ISO 125, focal length 50 mm

Shadows offer a bottomless well of topics.
Sony A7, FE 50 mm f/8, 1/160 s, f/8, ISO 125, focal length 50 mm

You can take advantage of backlighting in the same way. The morning light is ideal for photographing silhouettes. You can build a good photo from otherwise hackneyed scenery.

5. A Source of New Topics

If you have the feeling that photographic topics from city life don’t inspire you any more, then heading out into the city in the morning hours is the right route for you. You’ll definitely find no shortage of new topics. In the morning, the city experiences a completely different tempo than it does at other times of day. You can run into everything from late-leaving partygoers to the first denizens of the morning shift. Restaurant owners are putting out chairs, dump trucks are rattling around the sidewalks, joggers are stopping in the parks and on the levies to photograph dawn cityscapes, and dog owners are trying to get their pets walked before it’s time to leave for work.

Drab buildings are shown in a better light; out-of-the-way corners look much nicer. Closed shutters, shop windows, and street stalls can also be nice subjects, creating a quiet contrast to the hubbub that they’ll soon experience.

In the waking streets you can sometimes catch people hurrying out to do what they’ve got to do. Sony A7, FE 28mm f/2, 1/60 s, f/3.2, ISO 400, focal length 28 mm

In the waking streets you can sometimes catch people hurrying out to do what they’ve got to do.
Sony A7, FE 28mm f/2, 1/60 s, f/3.2, ISO 400, focal length 28 mm

If you head out into the city streets at dawn, you definitely won’t regret it. There’s plenty to photograph, especially when you have the good fortune to encounter a great site under ideal light conditions. As it always tends to be, the more you visit a place, the better you’ll be at guessing how it will look in the morning hours. This intuition will in turn be visible in your photos.

If you, too, find the courage for a morning photo journey, don’t hesitate to share your finds in the comments!

 

Last updated 12. December 2016

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Author: Dasa Husarova

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