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11 Tips for Creating Stunning Photographs of Cities at Dawn

We’ve all seen hundreds of gorgeous photos of sunrises over beaches and beautiful landscapes. Of course they have the capacity to wow and inspire, but I would argue that it’s far more interesting to photographs cities at dawn. You have so much more to work with – buildings, graffiti, debris, rivers, glass, the odd person, roads, and greenery in the midst of all of this urban-ness. The possibilities to create unique photos are endless. So, if you combine all this intense city landscape with the wonderful and quickly-changing light of dawn, you have an amazing combination.

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I’ve been shooting cities at dawn for over a decade now. For me cities are at their most inspiring when they are empty of people, traffic, and chaos and bathed in the beautiful light of dawn.

Here are 11 tips on how to create stunning photographs of cities at dawn:

1. Sunrise

Sunrise, especially when it’s an epic one, is obviously the focus for any early morning shoot. But it shouldn’t be just about capturing the sunrise.

  • Clouds: To me what is special about any given morning is what kind of clouds are in the sky. Clouds are what make mornings different from day to day and are one of the reasons to keep going back to the same place again and again.
  • Other elements: Think about other elements you can use to enhance the photo. Try framing the sunrise, and the sky, to create an interesting contrast (see photo above).
  • Foreground: Find an interesting subject for your foreground, using the sunrise like a tapestry.

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2. Emptiness

Being in a city (which is usually densely packed with people) suddenly deserted, creates a feeling that you are in a different world. You see the city as it really is, and it changes what you see but also what you photograph.

This sense of emptiness is made especially impactful when you photograph:

  • Tourist attractions
  • Roads
  • Monuments
  • Public squares

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3. Varying types of light

The sunrise may be the shining moment of the morning, but don’t forget other unique qualities to early morning photography.

  • Blue hour: Is a very short time between night and sunrise, when the sky changes quickly from dark to light. It happens again before sunset, but at dawn the beauty of the blue hour is enhanced by the emptiness and stillness of the city. When you are shooting during the blue hour, be prepared as the light changes very quickly. Get your camera set up on a tripod and have your scene already composed, so that when it arrives and the light is changing, you won’t miss it. If you have a shot you really like, be patient, and shoot slowly as the light changes. Slowing down like this also creates the opportunity to relax enjoy the view and look around for the next shot.

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  • Artificial and natural light: Contrasting artificial and natural light. There is a very short time at dawn when you have both, and the effect is beautiful.
  • Low sun, long shadows: At dawn the sun rises from below the horizon and moves up into the sky at a height dependent on the time of year (and what part of the world you are in). The effect of a low sun is that it creates long shadows, which are stunningly effective with the low light of dawn. Stick around for a few hours after sunrise to capture the light falling over the streets and buildings like this:

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4. Look for light sources

A bundle of different elements like buildings, roads, glass, and windows with the light falling onto them creates a myriad of opportunities for light to bounce, reflect, bend and distort. If you see light falling onto a wall, or reflecting onto a piece of glass, look for its source. It could be that the source is more interesting than the effect the light is creating.

  • Reflections: Are a gem to photograph and dawn is such a brilliant time because there aren’t people crowding around disturbing them. Search out water as it’s usually still – puddles, canals, ponds and my favourite – glass buildings.

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  • Light effects: The low sun creates a myriad of effects as it filters through trees, buildings and other city architecture. Look at this man, locking up, and how the shadows enhance the mood and meaning of the photo.

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  • Use the light for contrast: Search out the unusual. I love the contrast of some of the rougher, decaying edges of a city with the vibrant light of dawn.

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5. Seek out people – they are usually doing interesting things at dawn

Most people out at dawn are either working or they’ve been out all night enjoying themselves. They make interesting, and often very willing subjects!

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6. Return to your favourite spots

No two sunrises are the same. So, if you have a favourite spot, go back and photograph it on a different day, during different seasons. The quality of the light will be different, perhaps there will be changes in the cityscape (London is never the same year to year), you will notice contrasts. Give yourself a challenge, ask yourself: How can I make this same scene a distinctive photograph? What else can I do? Push yourself to create more unique photographs every day.

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7. Explore

Go off the beaten track. Photographing the iconic sites is amazing in any city (it’s iconic for a reason, right?) and having St. Mark’s Square in Venice to yourself at dawn is a heady experience. But there are always so many areas of any city that are not so frequently photographed. It could be the docklands in London’s East End, the rough and run down area east of Paris’s Sacre Coeur or the eastern edge of Venice, where I found abandoned buildings and ancient fortresses. Everything seems other-worldly at dawn and worth exploring.

8. Look behind you (and above, below, around and everywhere)

When you are going out to shoot, it’s important to really look around you. Doesn’t this sound like a simple task that we spend all of our lives doing? Actually no! You will be surprised by how much we all miss as we rush around in the little bubble of our minds, distracted by our thoughts and our tasks for the day.

Don McCullin says it brilliantly: “You can feast your eyes on a daily basis, although I suspect the average man on the street goes through life with narrowed vision, not seeing the whole scope of what’s going on around him.”

If you want to create images with a WOW factor you have to pay attention to what’s around you. What the photo world calls, “The art of seeing”.

I find being out at dawn helps me see, because there isn’t the usual distractions, our senses are more heightened, it’s an unusual time of day to be awake (for most of us) and we are seeing our familiar streets and places in a new light.

9. Get started early

I like to have found my location before I go out. From there I wander, but it’s good to have a initial place so you don’t waste time. I like to be in this first location at least an hour, sometimes an hour and half, before sunrise. There are some incredible opportunities to photograph the blue hour.

10. Be prepared with your kit

The light changes very quickly at dawn, and you definitely don’t want to miss that spectacular sunrise. My essential kit list for dawn shooting includes:

  • A small torch (flashlight) for setting up your camera in the dark
  • A plastic bag for my camera in case it rains (cheap but it works!)
  • A visor or hat as walking into the sunlight is hard on the eyes
  • Gloves (it’s often cold at dawn, even in summer)
  • A light, but sturdy tripod, (you’ll need this for the first couple of hours, but then you’ll be carrying it, hence it should be light)

11. Get yourself acquainted with your camera

This may seem a bit obvious but it is something most people don’t do; know your camera. Lack of camera knowledge can turn a simple shoot into a difficult one (especially in the dark)! Know what all those buttons do, some may make your life easier.

Does that give you some ideas for photographing your city at dawn? Or perhaps getting up early on the next trip? Share your comments below please.

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Anthony Epes
Anthony Epes

is a photographer whose work has been featured internationally; including on BBC, French Photo Magazine, Atlas Obscura and CNN. He is also a teacher – writing in-depth free articles on his website. Receive his free ebook on the two essential skills that will instantly improve your photos, and sign up to his weekly newsletter providing inspiration, ideas and pro-photo techniques.

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