Up at Dawn

The Swimmer
On Sunday I got up at 5:20. The aim was to be out at North Narrabeen while it was still dark, so I could do some sunrise photography. This is the best time of year to do this, because the sun is rising later as winter approaches, but daylight saving hasn’t ended yet, so the sun is actually appearing later (by the clock) than in the middle of winter. And being the tail end of summer, it isn’t nearly as cold in the morning either.

What you want for a good sunrise is a bit of cloud in the sky, but a clear horizon, without that band of grey wall you sometimes get hovering right on the horizon. If there’s no cloud, the sky just goes bland, but some clouds catch the red glow of the dawn sun and provide some contrast in the sky. The problem is, because you have to get up and head out when it’s still dark, you have no idea what the sky is going to be like when the sun finally appears. So it’s always a gamble. So far I’ve been very lucky with my dawn photo sessions – I haven’t really had a bad one yet.

The other thing is that I live on an east coast, which means that yes, I have to get up at dawn for the sunrise. The sun sets beyond the suburbs and the mountains in the distance, which isn’t nearly as good as the sun setting into the ocean. If you’re on a west coast, you get good sunsets; if you’re on the east, you need to go for the sunrises.

And finally, taking photos on the coast, you need to consider the tide. Yes, something I do cares about the phase of the moon. (And I’m not a fisher or a surfer. Actually, I used to care about the phase of the moon when I did astronomy too.) It happened to be high tide at dawn on Sunday, which meant much of the rock platform I was taking photos of was submerged. There were about half a dozen other photographers there – photography is a dawn fraternity – and all of them were simply wading through the sea water to access positions on the edge of the rocks, where waves could wash over them and provide luscious photos. I still need to get some shoes I’m willing to inflict sea water on, so I stayed on the relatively dry area around the rock pool.

Then there’s the choice of lens. I like to experiment and try unconventional things. One of the tricks is a fisheye lens. It distorts the image wildly, and is often used in ways which accentuate the effect, by including lots of obvious lines that get bent. But if you put the horizon bang in the middle of the frame, it stays straight. And if there are few straight lines elsewhere, the image can look reasonably natural. There is some obvious distortion in this shot, but it’s confined to the corners and doesn’t scream at you.

And the other cool thing about being here at dawn is that swimmers get up at the same time and provide interesting foreground subjects, to set against the magic that’s happening in the sky.

It’s good to get up early.


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