Tag Archives: getting up too early

The nights are getting shorter

As the seasons roll round, and the summer heads our way, thoughts turn again to getting out at the crack of dawn to make pictures.


I thought I was alone in my early bird habits, but a friend of mine is keen enough to learn more about his new camera that he suggested we head out together.

So, Friday morning it is. We’ll be heading for my favourite spot of Hoo St Werburgh, by the Kingsnorth power station on the river Medway. The tide will be in, the weather looks set fair-ish, and the sun will rise at a not unreasonable 06.39 BST.

I have to say, I am really looking forward to the trip. 

Dawn at Hoo St Werburgh – a set on Flickr

(For those on i-Devices, see the set here.)

Once again, I got up stupidly early. I was hoping to hit the Hoo Marina in a Dawn Raid that coincided with a high tide and sunrise, which were both due around 0530hrs BST.

As I parked the car, with about half an hour to spare, I began to walk down the footpath to the river. Those of us who generally never surface before the sun rises often don’t realise how bright it can be in that hour before dawn, when the sky is clear. I adopted a brisk pace to ensure I reached my selected vantage point in plenty of time to set things up. I felt good. I felt alive for the first time in a long time. It was great to be out in the fresh air, just me, the sky and the local wildlife.

Sadly, my chosen location perhaps wasn’t the best in hindsight. While it still afforded some good shots across the Medway, the early August sun peeps over the horizon between the power stations on the north bank. I was hoping for more reflections in my shots.

After getting a sequence as the sun appeared and rose into the sky, I quickly collected everything and shifted position further upstream, where there would be more water in front of me.

The wind, coming offshore, was preventing me from getting the mirror calmness I’ve seen at this location before around slack tide. Still, the rising sun, glittering off the wavelets, was worth capturing.

Once I had had my fill of the rising sun, and noting that clouds were looming from the landward side, I wandered back to the car, stopping to switch the camera to black and white mode for shots across the boat graveyard and into the fields. The “golden hour” seemed to have passed remarkably quickly, probably not helped by the increasing clouds.

It was well worth the effort, I think. Oddly, I feel I have exhausted most of the opportunities at this location. Then again, I haven’t visited on a cold, frosty morning. I think I need to plan a trip for the winter. At least the sun rises later in the day then!

Photography, Preparation and Planning


It begins with a vague nagging feeling that I need to get out with my camera gear. I begin to fidget and fret. I know if I don’t get some personal time with my camera pretty quickly, I will probably explode. I’m suffering from ISF—Itchy Shutter Finger.

I begin to ponder subjects and locations. I scan weather forecasts, pore over maps (thank you, whoever invented Google Maps, thank you!), and consider what sort of images I want to try and capture. Over the years since affordable digital cameras let me rediscover my love of photography, I’ve found some locations I like to revisit. I am not sure why I keep going back. Perhaps it’s because they’re within easy reach of home. Perhaps, being better acquainted with them means I am beginning to capture varying moods, or interesting things I may have missed before. Whatever the reason, I find I return to these places when ISF strikes.

I have several ongoing photographic projects. One of them, Margins, looks at those places between the tide marks. I live near the tidal Medway estuary, and not far from the North Kent coast, so I can get plenty of opportunities to see the muddy bits between high and low tides. I am particularly interested in how people try—and fail—to impose their will on the coastline, and how we often throw our unwanted stuff into the water. I think such untidy people assume it will be washed out on the next tide, only the tide goes out revealing the discarded item marooned in the mud for all to see. And there it remains until it either erodes away or is retrieved and disposed of properly. Observing the edges of the land like this reveals much about how insignificant our species really is in the great scheme of things.


Careful planning

Having chosen a prospective location for my expedition, I take some time to study the online aerial photos. Google Street View is also very handy, as it gives a fairly good idea of what the parking is like, whether my intended target is actually on private property, whether I can park really close or whether I need to prepare for some trekking, and gives a reasonable impression of what I might actually be able to see when I’m there. Being a cheapskate, I also research whether parking is free or not. Some car parks have free parking up to a certain time in the morning, which is handy because I often like to get out before the rest of the world wakes up. I call such trips “Dawn Raids”.

If the prospective location has a clear easterly horizon, I plan a Dawn Raid to catch the sunrise and the so-called “golden hour” shortly after, weather permitting. I have bookmarked web sites that provide sun and moon rising and setting times, as well as tide tables for the local area. You have to be pretty dedicated to your craft to look forward to a 3.30am alarm clock, and you might call me barmy, but until you’ve experienced a stunning sunrise over water, accompanied only by the local wildlife, you’re missing out.


All this planning might take place for a week. I will keep going over the location maps, the weather forecasts and tide tables, refining my plans right up until the night before the trip. The weather forecasts, particularly, only get really accurate about 24 hours ahead.

I do confess to being a fair weather photographer. There’s no real reason why I haven’t ventured out in inclement weather. I have the wet weather gear, my backpack is shower-proof, and has a wet weather hood for when it’s really persistent. My current camera is sealed—only my current lenses are not weather-tight. I suppose, like most people, I like to be fairly comfortable when pursuing a hobby, so aside from the occasional early start I tend to prefer dry conditions—besides, when was the last time you saw the sun rise when the sky was leaden?

Having selected a location, checked the relevant timings and kept an eye on the weather, what’s next?

Preparing the gear

Now, having gathered a reasonable idea of what the area I’m visiting will offer, I can decide on which lenses I should take. This usually means I just stuff it all in the backpack and take everything anyway! The pack is actually quite comfy to wear, although if it starts to get warm… ah, let’s not go there. I only own one “proper” zoom lens, a 28–300mm, which makes it pretty good for most outdoors photography in fair light, but it’s not my best lens by a long chalk. I hope to be able to replace it with something much better eventually, but for many reasons it’s the current default lens for most expeditions. I can generally get away with just that lens, the super-wide 10–20mm, and either the 35mm or 50mm primes. As that constitutes most of my lens collection anyway, there’s the reason for lugging everything out with me!

The day before the trip, I get all the batteries charged. I spend a bit of time checking the lenses, cleaning as required, and putting them on the camera to ensure they operate properly. My camera is still new enough not to need forensic checks for dust around the sensor, but it should also be included in the check and clean routine.

I format the memory card in the camera. I don’t need to do this, but at the very least I would delete all the images currently on it. It’s not unknown for me to return from a Dawn Raid with over 300 images! I will never let the computer format my CF cards—I always do it in the camera itself. This is because computer file systems may prove incompatible with the camera’s idea of what to expect. This is received wisdom from numerous professional photographers, so who am I to argue? Once everything is spick and span, I make sure it’s all packed in the bag so it’s easy to get to when I need it.

I also check over my tripod, and charge the mobile phone. Being of the female persuasion, I transfer important bits and pieces from my handbag to the backpack—stuff like ID, driving licence, purse, lip salve and so on. The backpack also has enough room for a 500ml bottle of water. As well as the DSLR and lenses, I also pack a compact camera, an air blower, cleaning cloth, filters and holders, an angle-finder that fits over the DSLR viewfinder, and cable release. I also pack a plastic bin liner, so I can throw it over the camera on the tripod if I get caught in a shower.

I set the alarm clock as required, then turn in as early as I dare. As I try to drop off to sleep, I run through what sort of images I would like get on my trip. Our American cousins call this “pre-envisioning”, which is an ugly word for a nice way to nod off.

Being prepared

I mentioned earlier I have the wet weather gear. By this I mean I have a pair of waterproof over-trousers, a nice roomy fleece-lined waterproof jacket, sturdy walking boots, and gloves and hats. I will generally place these in the car anyway, even if I’m expecting fair weather.

Finally, as I currently make these expeditions alone, I let the other half know roughly where I plan to be. I will have my mobile with me in case of emergency, but it’s also a good idea that someone knows where I’m supposed to be in case I’m late getting back, or I don’t call in. Many of my trips involve shorelines and uneven ground, and while pretty careful you never know what might happen. Better safe than sorry.

That does seem to be a lot of palaver to get some photos, doesn’t it? I would argue if you’re serious about your photography, such preparation is par for the course. There would be nothing worse than getting to a new location, only to find you can’t park, get the shots you expected, your battery conks out without a spare, and it’s hoofing down with rain. Besides, I enjoy making such plans. It’s all part of the fun as far as I am concerned. Then again, no amount of preparation and planning can make up for pure serendipity. This last image was from a speculative expedition which didn’t look at all promising when I set off from home. By the time I arrived at the river, the sky was clearing in a nicely dramatic fashion. Pure luck.


To see more of my Dawn Raids, please visit my Flickr Photostream The Real World collection.

This post was originally published at x404.co.uk.


Medway Dawn

As the weather guessers were claiming a sunny weekend, I planned an early morning dawn raid into Strood, Kent, again.

It’s not much of a town, overshadowed by Rochester across the river Medway, but it can have its moments. If anything, it has as much history as its more famous sibling, and is a separate entity in its own right, despite being lumped into the general term “The Medway Towns”.

When I woke at around 5am, it didn’t look too promising. There was fog, and I considered calling the trip off. Then I decided I’d take the chance that it might be clearer closer to the river. The hunch paid off.