How to photograph dawn in London
“London goes beyond any boundary or convention. It contains every wish or word ever spoken, every action or gesture ever made, every harsh or noble statement ever expressed. It is illimitable. It is Infinite London.” Peter Ackroyd, London
I spent almost twenty years shooting London, in particular at the dawn hours for my two books about the city. This city is for me one of the most inspiring and interesting to photograph, even (maybe especially!) because of the challenges of steely grey skies, abundant drizzly weather and the short daylight hours through the winter. Seeking out good light in London is an adventure in itself, you appreciate it so much when it comes.
The biggest challenge most photographers face when shooting London is creating interesting and unusual shots of the landscape and buildings. Most photographers who are famous for shooting London are known for their street life work. This city is hard to get a handle on.
But what’s special about London is the the landscape and the buildings. They are not just a backdrop for portraits. They can be the subject. And what will help you capture this aspect of the city is being up at dawn – shooting these incredible buildings and cityscapes when no-one one is around. You’ll catch a purer experience of the city.
Here is what I what I want to cover in this post:
- Outline the basics of how to technically capture dawn
- Give you ideas on some of my favourite places to shoot in the city (the city is way to big for me to tell you all in one post)
- Tell you how I captured some of my favourite shots of London
What is fundamentally interesting about shooting London at dawn is that contrast of the urban environment, the overwhelming imprint of human beings on its streets and the ethereal, floating, piercing beauty of mother nature’s light at dawn.
Even the most busy tourist sites, where hundreds and thousands of people swarm to see the stunning views, are empty at dawn. And dawn is time away from distraction when you are connecting with your subject, alone.
Incidentally, Monet believed that most people are blind to their environment. They don’t notice what lies before them, so habitually are we locked into the habit of our minds. But he believed that the light of dawn and sunset actually coloured reality, making it easier for people to see the wonder of the world around them. And that was why he spent so much time painting in the twilight hours. So if Monet believed in the power of dawn, then so can you 🙂
Dawn can be wondrous at any time of the year, but spring, summer and early autumn are my favourites. The transience of the light makes dawn special. And you know that within an hour or two that it will be gone and the feeling of life returning to normal will have invaded the landscape.
“Just before dawn I have the world all to myself.” Terri Guillemets
Note – from here, I have chosen photos of details of London that are interesting to me. I haven’t got any more sweeping views because, quite frankly, they aren’t that difficult to take. Instead I want to look at how you can tell the story of a city by picking out details and smaller scenes.
And I love London’s abundant oddities, like the law that says it’s illegal to die in the Palace of Westminster. I mean how crazy is that?
So here are some ideas, tips and techniques on shooting this great city.
The sheer joy of it
I don’t know why being up when the sun rises is so powerful – but it is. It feels like you are at the beginning of something really special. It is a truly magical feeling seeing the rebirth of the day. As I wander through empty streets I feel I could be wandering through a forest, or a vast expanse of green, or even along the sea shore. There is that sense of freedom for myself – away from the distractions of people.
“Have you ever seen the dawn? Not a dawn groggy with lack of sleep or hectic with mindless obligations and you about to rush off on an early adventure or business, but full of deep silence and absolute clarity of perception? A dawning which you truly observe, degree by degree. It is the most amazing moment of birth. And more than anything it can spur you to action. Have a burning day.” Vera Nazarian
Now for the technical bit….
Every photo that I have taken for my dawn books, before sunrise, was exposed at -1.5 stops. As the sun rises this exposure gets closer to 0 as the light increases. Why, you may ask? Well, I will give you a quick lesson on the camera meter. The camera meter is an averaging system. It looks at all the tones in an image frame and averages it all to a middle grey. From now on and forever think of the 0 exposure as a bland middle grey.
For example, say you had a black wall that filled your frame. If you were to expose that wall at the meter’s 0 setting – like the image below – your black wall image would not be black but middle grey. Same for a white wall. If you made the exposure at the 0 setting your white wall image would come out middle grey. You would have two photos looking exactly the same. Your meter is telling you that the black wall is way too dark and the white wall is way too bright, so here is the proper exposure. Stupid thing doesn’t know anything. You have to know and interpret the information.
The correct exposure for the black wall is at -2 stops (darker) and for the white wall +2 stops (brighter). Dawn being darker than a middle grey needs to be underexposed to retain the deep shadows and rich colours that are inherent for that specific time. NOTE: This is something about auto-modes that people need to understand. If you are on an auto-mode (shutter or aperture priority, etc) your base exposure will ALWAYS be on the 0 exposure, unless you move it with exposure compensation.
I can go into much more detail about this in another post. Just remember, if your tones are predominantly dark your exposure will most likely need to be darker. Inversely, if your tones are mostly bright, or at least brighter than middle grey your exposure will need to be brighter. Counterintuitive, yes? Essential, absolutely!
For most shooting situations that 0 exposure is going to work fine. But not for dawn!
I think crowds and busyness make people act a bit un-human, and so when there are less people around, people are definitely friendlier (and often they’ve been up all night and still on that all-night high of happiness). There is a sense of camaraderie.
When you do happen upon people at dawn it’s much easier to really see them. What they are occupied with? Who they are? They can be very interested in what you are doing photographing at such a crazy hour. Often they want to be a part of it (I’ve had loads of people want to be in my photos over the years. I think that may be a great blog post!) Here are a few of the people I have seen:
What do you think this guy is feeling? I sense tiredness and resignation. Other people have seen humour, that his face is turned in the direction of the gorilla’s behind. I like that people see different things in this photo. And I love the little pops of colour of blue, yellow and red in the sea of grey and brown. There is a lot of muted colour (and grey!) in London. So looking out for strong colours is a great way to provide interest points and contrast.
When I first came to London my good friend Nick, who was a black cab driver, drove me around. One fantastic thing I discovered through him were various all-night places to buy tea, like the Blackheath Tea Hut below (someone even made a documentary about it) and Cabman’s shelters – cafes in little green huts dotted around the London streets for cabbies.
I love this photo of the tea hut, situated in the middle of a vast stretch of green, Blackheath, and edging the A2. An odd place for an all-night cafe, but it was always busy with workers, late-night partiers and other random night folk when I visited.
But apart from the memory, I love the colours. Even though the heath looked scrawny and dusty, I managed to position the red and green colours of the hut against the deep blue of the morning sky. I love simple bold colours and contrast! It doesn’t even matter that the people aren’t all in focus, which is sort of unusual for me. It’s the feeling you get when you look at the people that makes it.
When in doubt, wander
The photo below was the very first one that I took in London for my book. I was walking around at 5am, fresh off the boat from LA and I was freaking out. I didn’t know London at all. My only previous visit had been for two weeks over Christmas with Diana, which was mainly spent in pubs and at parties.
I had been commissioned to do a book about London and once I had actually arrived it seemed like the most daunting task in the world. How could I do this (unknown-to-me) city justice? What I have learnt over the years, though, is I always freak out at the beginning of a project – my wife says she can predict it down to the minute. The first step is to just get my ass out of bed and wander.
So I was walking around feeling excited about new discoveries and suddenly I turned a corner and saw this scene in front of me and I thought, wow. Yes that’s it, I can do this. This is so London to me. Pubs! History! A jumble of mismatched low buildings.
I then walked up to St Paul’s and took this one, below, which is almost the same view but in the opposite direction (always remember – don’t just take the photo of the iconic view or building, look behind you, go inside, look for a different angle).
I love this photo even though it doesn’t have great light; you can feel the grimness of the city, and in spite of the greyness of the scene the scene works. (Can I just repeat – I know this repetition is probably deafening – but can I encourage you to always, always, always consider the light before you take your photo. You don’t have to have great light, as this photo shows, but you do need to be completely in tune with the light and you want to try and respond to what the light is doing, and if necessary adjust accordingly).
This photo would not have worked without the little orange lights. So, again, when you have an abundance of grey or quite similar colours, look for some pops of colour or light that will allow the scene to be what it is but adds some depth or points of interest.
I love photographing at the Thames Barrier. It’s an otherworldly spot in the very far east of London. It’s a wonderful view way down the river and I think it’s the only place in London I’ve seen the sun rise just as it comes up on to the horizon.
Tip – I use the Photographer’s Ephemeris app to tell me where the sun will rise so I can get in position in time. The light changes very quickly and so I want to be exactly in the right spot.
The photo below is of the canal in Hackney. (You can walk for six miles along these canals.) Those houses are very London – all squashed together (or that’s how they seem to me; I’m from the land of ranch styles homes). It’s this closeness that struck me and the blandness of the light that said to me I’m no longer home! Very English. Very London.
The Square Mile as ‘the city’ is nicknamed is fantastic for the mix of old and new buildings – and represents that constant changing nature of the city. This is probably one of my favourite shots as it mixes shiny, reflective new buildings (love those to photograph) and an old house and church. And then a lush tree at the top.
This photo may not be my most well composed or technically amazing, but it does something that photos should do – which is to capture and communicate the essence of my subject. It tells a story about London, and that’s what I’m here for.
Other photographers who like the east
- Hoxton Mini Press produce cool little photo books focused around East London (although they are now expanding their projects). I liked their book I’ve Lived in East London for 86 ½ years and the street photography book Shoreditch Wild Life
- There is also many stories of the area on the blog Spitalfields Life, which also has a small publishing arm. I loved Bob Mizer’s book of photographs of London in the 70’s and 80’s. Very different look to the city then.
- David Bailey is famous for shooting the East End (and here is David Bailey on his favourite photo)
- Short video about why I love shooting East London and my book East London at Dawn.
Along the Southbank there’s a lot of Brutalist architecture (which has become a bit of a fetish I think for some photographers. It looks to me like big slabs of concrete, one-colour Lego put together by a symmetry obsessed child. Here are some interesting buildings in the Brutalist style). Below is my image of the now demolished Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle.
Here you can see that I have some very muted colours to play with but then some rich sunlight appeared, and because beautiful light makes everything look interesting, you can see that it makes these subtle browns, yellows and greens look sumptuous.
This photo below personifies that urban/dawn contrast very well. We have beautiful light penetrating and illuminating the dense London graffiti (which is Leake Street by the way, a legal graffiti tunnel started by Banksy and a place I like to go pretty often. Mostly the graffiti is your standard words and tags, but sometimes some really cool pieces of art pop up.)
“London is a roost for every bird.” Benjamin Disraeli
Walking along the Southbank from Waterloo to Tower Bridge is a favourite, but usually I veer off into the side streets. Just one or two blocks south of the river you’ve got a hodgepodge of buildings and architecture that create all kinds of interesting opportunities for light to bounce, reflect and refract from.
There are also cool little roads – like the workmen’s cottages of Roupell Street and the almshouses of Hopton Street, tiny little old cottages set against a dramatically large new shiny office building.
Just north of the river is this hidden view of the Shard. I love this photo because it’s a view that very few people spot. I was walking along Upper Ground and caught this through a gap in the buildings. You would miss it if you were in a car and maybe even a bicycle. It’s a very small gap.
London will always keep you on your toes. Its views aren’t organised in the way that those in Paris are; nothing feels ordered about London. It’s almost like a treasure hunt where you are walking miles and miles to spot things in little gaps, down side streets or on top of buildings.
Battersea Power station is a great structure; shame it’s surrounded by some pretty boring landscape. The photo below uses natural framing. It’s a fairly simple technique where you use an internal frame within the photo – either something natural or manmade – which works nicely when you have a strong subject that you want to draw the eye to. It also creates a pleasing layer and additional element. Make sure what you choose as your natural frame is distinct and doesn’t blend in with the subject or background.
A touch of the west and the north
If I’m honest, south and east London are my favourite places to shoot. There is tonnes of history in both areas, and many more contrasting buildings than in the west. Although West London suffers from ‘same-ness’ (sorry), I do live there because it’s a fabulous place to bring up kids, very green and the river is awesome.
The photo above is of Richmond. If you head directly up Richmond Hill from here there is such an awesome view stretching across the river and out to the west, one that Turner painted. Then you can head into Richmond Park, a great little stretch of wildness (well, manicured in my opinion, but wild for a city.)
Other good green spots
My preference is for shooting places like Hampstead Heath and Richmond Park in winter or autumn when the leaves are not so thick and allow for a bit more depth to the photo.
Can you see in this photo the leading line that is taking the viewer on a journey through the photo? I love leading lines, they are one of the few compositional techniques that I still avidly use.
Now, photographing dawn is a challenge
It’s a big challenge to get up before dawn, I ain’t gonna lie! Sometimes I am awake at 3 or 4am to start out. And it can be cold – even on a hot day. And it’s dark, and hard to get around. There are so many things that make it inconvenient when you sit down and analyse it. But didn’t Nietzsche say that the hardest things in life are often the most satisfying?
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep. ~Rumi
But…it is exhilarating. And not many people do it. So go for it!
So that’s it for me. I would love to know how you would photograph London. Please comment on my blog below -I love hearing from you.
Have an amazing week. I’m heading off to the Redwoods now!
Anthony and my word-shaping amazing partner Diana