|The Early Bird Gets the Worm!
by Gary W. Stanley
Several hundred excited photographers are eagerly waiting for the start of my slide program called "Getting The Most Out Of Your Photography." They have driven in from all over New England and beyond to the UMass campus in Amherst, Massachusetts. Here, over the next three days they will be attending numerous photographic how-to programs such as mine. The NECCC (New England Camera Club Council) is the host organization that makes this learning experience possible.
It is extremely flattering to have that many people hanging on your every word, anxious to learn how to improve their photography, hoping that what I have to offer in my program will be just what they need to take photographs like I do.
For an hour, I show and illustrate my slides as examples of what to do or not to do to improve your photography. I discuss film, filters, lenses and composition. I talk about my excitement shooting digital and just how much fun it has been. They ooh and ah at the slides and seem amazed at just how great my digital images look when compared to the images shot on film.
Finally, near the end of the program, I talk about lighting. I explain that for the most part a photograph is nothing without great lighting. I sheepishly saved some of my favorite images for last, and continue to talk about the virtues of great light. The program ends, everyone applauds, and I thank them for their enthusiasm.
The last few minutes of the program are reserved for questions. The person in the middle row raises her hand and asks THE question: "How did you get those great shots with that beautiful soft light?"
"Well for that one coastal shot at Marshall Point, I got up at 3:00AM because sunrise is early on the coast of Maine in summer, you know!" I continue: "Well, I got there about forty minutes before sunrise with my tour group, set up our equipment and waited for the light to do its thing ." I'm noticing the strange almost disappointed look on some of the faces in the audience. Someone is actually brave enough to say: "You mean you have to get up that early in order to get those kinds of images?" Yup! As they say: "the early bird gets the worm" and everyone lets out a big laugh and we move on to other questions.
Until I got serious about my photography, I don't think I had ever really analyzed the meaning of that very simple and very true statement: "The early bird gets the worm." From the time we first headed off to school, to the time we started our first job, we have been forced to rise early. If you're like me, this seemed to go totally against what my body was telling me. "Sleep Gary, just a little more sleep."
Well, we all get through it with a refreshing shower and a hot cup of coffee, but in the back of our minds we're thinking; "When Saturday comes, I'm gonna sleep in!" The struggle begins: "I really should get up early and go out and do a little photography."
"Hey! maybe it'll rain." "I know, I'll set my alarm for 4:00am, and then see what it looks like outside. The alarm goes off and you stagger over to the patio door and look out. "Rats, the sky is clear and the stars are out."
Gary: "Remember that last shot you took at Portland Headlight when you took the tour group there? Wow, it was awesome wasn't it?"
Quite often, I find myself playing these mind games, but you know what? When I make the effort to get myself out of bed and into a position to take a great photograph, rarely, if ever, am I disappointed.
There is something so special about sharing the morning with all of nature and having the privilege of capturing that moment. Sometimes I come away with that very special image and sometimes I don't, but rarely do I find it to be anything but invigorating.
Yes, I could take all sunset photographs (wouldn't I have to live on the West Coast?) which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I just find the light a little too warm in the afternoon and the likelihood of there being more people around increases dramatically. The morning on the other hand, is so peaceful; the air is clear, it's quiet, it's head-clearing and it provides me with a very special start to an otherwise normal day.
Photographing in early morning requires the photographer to pay attention to a few things and to be prepared for those special moments. Let me share with you a few suggestions.
If you are photographing directly toward the sun either prior to, or during the actual sunrise, you won't need any filters such as a polarizer. You may however want to use a graduated ND filter (the square kind, dark on the top half, clear on the bottom half). The grad filters can be helpful, not so much for controlling contrast, but to punch up the color of the sky a little. Often when I'm shooting a sunrise with a lot of sky showing, I will use a grad filter to help keep some color to the sky. A graduated blue filter works very well to add some blue to the sky at sunrise, because the rising sun tends to wash the area well above the horizon. You may also want to try either a Sunset filter or a Blue/Gold filter to add interest to the morning sky.
If you are shooting with film, Velvia would be my film of choice because it is so rich and saturated. If you are shooting digital in the RAW mode, you can increase color temperature later, but I would still consider using the graduated filters. If you are shooting digital in the JPEG high mode, you can add richness and saturation to the image by selecting the Cloudy -3, Shade or similar setting to get that warmer Velvia look.
You'll want to mount your camera on a sturdy tripod and use a cable release of some sort to lower the odds of vibration interfering with the sharpness of your image. If you are shooting at a right angle to the sunrise, then a lens hood and a polarizer should be used the lens hood will help control lens flare, and the polarizer will help add a richer color to the shot. Keep in mind that you can over-polarize the image causing the sky to be very dark on one side of the image and lighter on the other. You can visually look through the viewfinder, and adjust the polarizer until it looks good.
Lens flare can be hard to control when aiming your camera directly toward the sun. I will move the camera around a bit to see if I can eliminate all or most of the flare. I prefer to photograph the sun before it completely clears the horizon, thus also helping to control any possible lens flare.
Metering is easy to do. Just meter (spot or center weighted preferably) a portion of the sky to the left or right of the sun or bright area where the sun is about to appear without that bright area in the viewfinder. Make your exposure setting at that point, then set that exposure manually (take your camera off its automatic setting) so that the reading will not change when you recompose your shot that now includes the sun or brighter area. If you are including a silhouetted foreground, be sure that it does not dominate your composition by keeping it low in the composition.
Side-lit compositions in early morning shooting can be dramatic as well, because that side lighting ads texture and detail to your composition. The important thing here, of course, is to be there, trying different compositions experimenting with the light, experimenting with your exposures, trying different filters, films and lenses.
After a while you will know exactly how you want to interpret your own personal vision and record the image whether digitally or on film. Then and only then will you be able to truly appreciate that old saying: "The Early Bird Gets the Worm."
Photos #1-#5 Nikon D100
Digital camera, Nikkor 18-35mm lens