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Experiments in early morning photography

There is something magical about photographs taken in low light which makes even mundane and boring scenes look interesting. Well, living as I do in a fairly mundane and boring part of Hertfordshire I decided I’d try and liven up some pictures by taking them in the very early morning dawn light.

Taking Pictures at Dawn

I set out at about 7:15 am when it was still quite dark, and took my Pentax K5 fitted with my Tamron 10-24mm wide angle lens. The lens choice was relatively easy, because I always think wide angle adds a big impact, so I thought wide angle at dawn would have double the impact value. When it came to the camera to use, I considered using my Sony Nex 6 because it would have been lighter, but in the end settled on the Pentax so I would have full metadata in the images, which I thought would be quite important as I analysed the pictures later. I also fitted the camera onto a sturdy tripod and carried the tripod/camera unit so i would be ready to set-up without too much delay.

The first picture I took was just up the road from our house and I took it really just to get a handle on the sort of exposure I would need. I’d decided before I set out to take the pictures in manual mode and just estimate the exposure to see what I needed. I made a mix up for the first exposure when I mistook 1/4 sec for 4 sec, but once I’d sorted that out I found my first guess of 4 sec at f/11 gave me a pretty good exposure as a starting point.

After the first experimental picture, I carried on with my usual morning walk route and set the tripod down when I saw anything which I thought might look good. After the first exposure I guessed the exposures based on what I thought the light levels were compared to the initial exposure. The other change I made was to enable mirror lock up since that reduced the chance of camera shake.

Once I got home, I imported the pictures into Lightroom and was pleased to see that there wasn’t much needed in terms of exposure correction for any of the pictures. I carried out my usual processing work flow and then had a think about the things I would change and what I learnt from the experience.

Lessons Learnt

So having had a chance to think about it these are the lessons learnt and observations from my experiment:

  • I kept the tripod quite low to get a lot of the ground in the shot and I realised it’s hard to compose when the camera is low. That’s probably just an indication that I’m getting older!
  • The light level comes up really quickly so you don’t have much time. I could tell as I was out taking the pictures that by the time the last 5 were shot it was already too light. Next time I’m going to take some ND filters so I can keep the shutter speed slow as the light comes up.
  • In was the right choice to use mirror lock up, but it was the wrong choice to use auto focus. Next time I’ll set to manual focus and pre-set so everything is in focus. It’s easy to do with such a wide angle lens and the results will be better.
  • If you want light trails, time the exposure to coincide with the cars. On a couple of the shots I ignored the cars and ended up with trails which stop half way through the frame. That being said sometimes short light trails look better than long ones so it might be best to try both.
  • White balance can be difficult to set as the light transitions from street to daylight quickly so take a white card and take pictures of it often to allow correction in post processing.

This has definitely been an experiment I want to try again, and hopefully I can get out earlier next time and get some better shots.


I’m a software developer by profession but I’ve been taking pictures since I was about 8 years old. In that time I’ve owned cameras of all types and sizes from 120 roll film thro’ 35mm to my current Pentax K-5, Ricoh GXR + P10/S10/A12 28mm/A12 50mm, Canon S95 and recently acquired Sony NEX 6.

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