It is well before dawn, but I am wide awake and (mostly) alert just the same. Hot coffee is in the thermos, the camera gear is stashed in the back of the Jeep, and I'm on the road to this morning's destination. Left behind is a warm bed and a very understanding wife. Chances are that I will soon be carrying all that equipment on my back as I walk a location before the sun meets the horizon.
It is no small task dragging myself out of that very comfortable and inviting bed, but the alternative is to spend the predawn staring out the window and wondering what the dawn light is doing in the unoccupied, uninhabited places. It is a Siren's song of a very unique kind, born in cool silence before the living world stirs.
The morning's destination is determined by various factors. Sometimes my thoughts will converge on a concept of an image in a particular location – specific in detail in the intended photograph, having only to be in the right place at the right time as the light comes to me as I wait. More often, I have a general, vague idea of various elements that might work if I can only pull the bits together in a cohesive composition, then wait for the light to breath life into the scene. Other times, it will be a random exploration of a new location, full of surprise and wonder. Or not. There are mornings that are photographic duds, but there is always satisfaction in the wandering and wondering.
Why the early rising? Why leave the perfectly warm and comfortable bed and cozy wife? It is the light, of course. The dawn light. No other time of the day comes close to the quality of light found as the sun rises. Sunsets are wonderful too, but in a very different way, as the day has a story by the time the sun is fading. Mid-day light is all hard edges and garishness, begging the hard tonal qualities of black and white images. Dawn light is new, clean, virginal in a spirit of potential and promise. All things are possible as the new sun arrives to caress the distant horizon and the world stirs to life, repeating the timeless cycle of days, years, millenia. There are only a relative few moments as the light transitions from the hint of a rosy glow through the reds, then yellows, then blazing golds as the orb climbs into the sky – the eternal cycle repeating yet again.
Here is the best light that holds its special quality – washing the scenery with broad rose and gold swashes of light and long, deep shadows. Pure wonder - often refered to as the 'magic hour' for a reason. The low light allows the photographer to introduce the element of time into an image by using longer shutter speeds. The low light can fit completely within the dynamic range of the film or the sensor, so the scene can be recorded in proper completeness without bracketing or special developing tricks. The creative eye will search out and locate the unusual effects of light and shadow in the fleeting moments these gifts have existence, before the rising sun washes them away.
Worth the early rising? Absolutely. The world during the dawn hours is a quiet, uncrowded place. There is time to think, time to breathe, time to see. The world is a very different place for the people who meet the sun at the horizon. By the time I return home for breakfast and hot coffee, I have already had a full day.