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There are a number of things that go into producing a photograph that stands out. One of those elements is capturing a subject that your audience (whoever that may be) is unlikely to have experienced in the way that you are presenting it to them.

Early morning colours are often so nice and soft. Parc du Mont Orford, Orford, Québec.

There are a number of things that go into producing a photograph that stands out. One of those elements is capturing a subject that your audience (whoever that may be) is unlikely to have experienced in the way that you are presenting it to them.

A portrait, for example, is usually more interesting if the subject is displaying a strong emotion, or if it is taken from an unusual perspective. Take a look at Jill Greenberg’s series “End Times,” for example. If the children were not crying, the pictures would be beautiful because they are well composed and amazingly lit, but because they are crying, they really stand out. For the parents of a toddler, crying might not be unusual, but it’s likely not the usual state of their child (or I would hope not, anyway!). For most non-parents, a crying child is certainly not a usual element of life. That, I think, is one of the key reasons that those photographs stand out: if toddlers spent all of their time crying and people were exposed to them regularly, the photographs would have far less impact.

The same can be applied to landscapes, or cityscapes. Unfortunately, these do not have emotions in and of themselves that can be reflected in an image. However, the way they “feel” changes significantly based on the weather, time of day, time of year, etc. Some of those characteristics aren’t experienced by most people, which makes a photograph of them more likely to stand out to an audience.

This article is about why I love the characteristics of early mornings for photography.

Cambie Bridge, Vancouver, early in the morning. It’s fun because you get the same kind of darkness and lighting as in the evening, but minus the people.

Late mornings, afternoons, evenings, nights… those are times that people are often awake. This means that if you’re taking a picture of a place during any of those times, it’s more likely to be familiar. It might still be beautiful, but it’s less likely to stand out. What’s interesting, though, is that a lot of people don’t like to wake up and experience the world at 4 in the morning, or the couple hours after. I’ve long been a proponent of waking up early for interesting photos, but here’s a podcast that I listened to a little while ago that made me think about why.

Shifting Time

We live our lives by the calendar and the clock, but time is also an abstraction, even an illusion. In this hour, TED speakers explore how our sense of time changes depending on who and where we are.

The point is that in the early hours of the morning, if you’re awake, you’re likely to feel very lonely. There may be the other, occasional, early riser up and about, but for the most part the world feels empty. And I find that it makes those moments special, because those moments are often devoid of people, which might be unusual, especially in a cityscape. They also have a certain quality of light which many people aren’t used to seeing: something that happens around sunrise is that you get a golden light similar to a sunset, but you also have all the water that condensed during the night that starts to warm up and evaporate, making the light softer, and sometimes providing a thin layer of mist across the landscape.

Fort William, Scotland, early in the morning. I love the mist, draping the landscape in the background.

There’s another interesting thing about the mornings which is that, if you’re out early enough, you can take delightfully long exposures to blur the movement of clouds and water, but without the artifacts that might come from using a neutral density filter during the day. To be fair, one of the interesting things about using neutral density filters in daytime for long exposures is that you can transform the scene to make it more unusual.

The shots I’m describing are shots that arise from situations and techniques that aren’t accessible to most audiences, and that is why I think they stand out to many people. I think it comes from a sense of excitement about the unknown, unusual, and inaccessible. If were nocturnal creatures, perhaps photographs of blue skies would stand out just as much.

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The view from Porteau Cove, BC at around 7am in late October.