11 Tips for Creating Stunning Photographs of Cities at Dawn

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.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

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.

  • Keith Starkey

    Definitely cool. Thanks!

  • Michael Owens

    The thing I personally like about shooting at dawn, as you mentioned, is the lack of people!
    Secondly, the beautiful light you get, which changes by the minute.

    Thanks for sharing your tips fella!

  • Arlen

    All above
    photographs are just awesome. I visited a lot of beautiful regions of the world
    but never get a chance to capture this kind of prettiest photos. Last week
    during my florida new
    I have been captured a lot of pictures. But your shared tips and
    images are really incredible.

  • jom

    this is beautiful. <3

  • Anthony Epes

    thanks for your great comment and taking the time to read my article. Super glad yoU liked it.

  • Anthony Epes

    I shoot a lot of late day twilight photography but it’s always so crowded just about everywhere you go. Glad you liked the post! Thanks!

  • Anthony Epes

    Thank you for reading and sharing. I hope I can continue here to share I thoughts and skills.
    All the best

  • Anthony Epes

    Thank you!

  • Michael Owens

    Out of curiosity have you tried taking between 10-30 shots of the busy places, and then using photoshops script called ‘statistics’ to remove the people? Very good it is. Life saver if you don’t want to manually edit people from your one picture.

  • Anthony Epes

    No I haven’t. I’ve seen the results though and it looks good, but I’d rather be out shooting than in front of the computer. I will definitely look into it – didn’t realize it was PS you did it in.

  • Michael Owens

    Set it going, come back in 10-15 mins and its done. Not much sitting unless you like watching paint dry hehe. But yeah, easier if u want the perfect people free landmark!

    You need to be using an extended version of Photoshop though, unsure if it’s in Lightroom. I don’t use that.

  • Ken Jacobson

    Great article! “Look behind you (and above, below, around and everywhere)” This is my favorite aspect of photography. When I pay attention to “good light” (even when I don’t have a camera) I see so many cool things that most people are too busy to notice. Early mornings are just awesome for slowing down and appreciating all the photo opportunities. I think the important thing, like You said, is to have your first destination picked out. I have spent many mornings chasing the light. Instead of feeling relaxed and inspired I end up with anxiety and get angry that the sun came up and I didn’t capture anything. I only wish I had the freedom with my “Day Job” to stop and set up a tripod every time I stumble onto something great. Thanks for the article, it reminds me to slow down and look around. Especially in the morning hours!

  • Donna J

    Thank you Anthony for such an inspiring and thoughtful article. Early morning has always been my favorite time to go out to shoot but lately I’ve gotten myself into a rut and am getting lazy with my photography. Thank you for inspiring me to get out there in the early morning again, I agree it’s the prettiest time to shoot.
    Please let me know if you will ever be coming to Boston to do a workshop!

  • Thank you for the kind words! I sometimes get lazy with my photography
    too. You know what I do? I go out for a early morning stroll. Seems
    there is inspiration everywhere if you let it find you!

  • thank you for commenting! I spent many years not having that first spot picked out and I got some good images, due mostly to luck and timing, but now it is a must. With a starting point planned out it is much more relaxing, knowing I’ve got the first one in the bag, and when it’s time to move on I do so without feeling I’ve wasted any time. O Yes, always look up!

  • tomshrill

    I love seeing pictures with good reflections, like the one in number four. They always make me think of a duel dimension to ours, where everything is different, yet the same. It’s so cool photography is powerful enough to play with minds that way.

  • I like the idea of doubling the colour with subtle changes in saturation or expending depth with reflections. Photography is best at expressing these ideas. That you for your comment.

  • Barry Emerson

    Guess you know where I’m from. 5:30 a.m. -2 degrees celcius

  • Thanks for the pointers. Off into Manchester with my son for our 1st city at dawn adventure in 10min (4:10am). Just looking for some advice and pointers and found this. I’ll post back with anything worth sharing. Thank you! 🙂

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