Filming at Dawn

 In Cornwall, General

Hands up how many of you have learned a skill or art form intuitively and then subsequently gone on to take some classes in it? It could have been golf, flower arranging or any number of pursuits or activities. I have been editing film and video since the mid 1970s but, only in the past couple of months, have I signed up for a professional on-line editing course,

I have obviously read books on cinematography and I even attended a day’s introductory editing course with Soho Editors some 10 years ago, but as for a set of practical, “hands on” set of tutorials ……

So for the past couple of weeks,  my first assignment has been to wade through 35 hours of rushes that were used to make a television documentary on the photographer Anthony Epes. Anthony is an American, now living in London, who has carved out a reputation for taking pictures of London, Venice and Paris at dawn as part of an ongoing project Epes generally uses a traditional film camera rather than a DSLR.

Anthony Epes

I have often wondered quite what photographers meant by “great light” and the “the golden hour.” I now know and would like to share with you some of Anthony Epes’ photographic, practical and aesthetic musings that I have picked up which apply to videographers as well as photographers


Why film sunrise rather than sunset?

The city is at its most beautiful in the morning. It is also at its quietest. Dawn affords a private light show, shared only with others like you who have made the effort to leave a nice warm bed or who have spent a great night partying. You feel wonderful to be alive and carry with you a very real sense of anticipation. All you have to do is anticipate, wait, snap / film, then appreciate it, before moving on to the next one.

Shoot at dawn and you’ll see beautiful and magical light emerging and experience the re-birth of another day in a mystical way. It is like a painting.




The window of opportunity

You may well only have 5 seconds to 20 minutes to capture the magic. The more times you go out the more you learn to spot the signs. It can be so random. Sometimes a grey morning can be the best time to go out – because the sun might break through and mother nature will unveil for you a brief snapshot and then be gone. If the clouds are moving and the sun rays squeeze between two clouds the Eiffel tower could be lit up in gold for just a few precious seconds. Look for the sun coming through a crack. Crisp clouds are a sure sign of a dramatic sunrise. Look for pinks at the bottom of the frame as the sun begins to rise and the colour of Big Ben begins to change. You will begin to see great edge details and gold reflections of the sun on the windows. Move the camera to capture the reflection. Underexpose to highlight these reflections. Capture the contrast between the gold dome of the Albert memorial in the foreground and Buckingham Palace, the sky and the clouds. If clouds are moving quickly and the sun comes up, you may only have a minute or five minutes to shoot when the light is perfect. Balance ambient with the emerging natural light.

Always be ready with the perfect set up for the right light. The ideal situation doesn’t always happen. Sometimes it can get darker when the sun comes up. You have to be patient and analyse what it is going to be like in a minute’s time. You could be 100 yards away from the perfect shot, so think about your location all the time. Be prepared to move around. The window could even be a mere 10 seconds when the clouds are lit or when they are open or closed. Sometimes it is luck, especially when there are clouds. Subdued buildings can ping with a great sunlight. Look for the sun coming through a crack in the clouds. Deep reds and purples make for a good sunrise.




Follow the light

Find out where the reflection is coming from. Be mindful of exposure and lighting temperatures changing so rapidly. You can never know what sun light is going to be like. It changes from day to day.  Degrees of angle make all the difference when filming reflections. Look for gold reflections all the time. Look for the moon as well. Light on the water can be amazing. This is what it is about – beautiful light, Don’t be afraid of shooting directly at the sun. Sometimes the contrast is flat but the colours are so interesting. You want deep colours – and all this before the sun is up.



Shooting the pre-dawn

Pre dawn is so beautiful. You can get some nice shots before the sun comes up. Start setting up when the sky is not pitch black any more – 30 minutes before sunrise, 10 minutes before dawn. It can be a nice light. There can be lots of artificial light at Tower Bridge and you can get a wonderful blue if it is cloudy before the sun comes up. Blue is far more interesting that white or grey. Sometimes ambient lights can warm up a whole scene e.g. table lights in the foreground and shop lights turning on, especially on a cool blue day. Shoot the lamps and make a nice composition. Never pass up a good opportunity. Sometimes you’ll get a dawn pink that glows. Get pink and blue in the same shot, but remember you won’t always see the transition from pink to blue. Always hope for a break in the clouds before sunrise. Shoot using as variety of lenses. Use trees if the sky is grey, so long as there are leaves on them. Look out for the pink in the low clouds; that signifies sunset is coming coming. You can see the lower clouds turn pink. “Pink glass.” Wow!




Work on composition, especially if the conditions and the light are not good. Don’t compose on your tripod. Walk around with your camera in hand a few small steps – a couple of feet. It can make all  the difference. Only take 10 minutes to compose. Under-expose to make your shot more dramatic, especially if it is more about form rather than colour. Don’t worry about filming in dark places.



Inclement weather and dull light

Move on if the weather and the light are not working for you on your original epic shot. If it turns out overcast and grey and no warm light it will be difficult for you to get contrast or directional light coming in. It is hard shooting in the winter. Opt instead for a street rather than a vista and use a wide angle lens. Look for reflections on buildings. Look for a small part of a street or house where there is a window or coloured glass – something that other photographers and film makers will not see. Film people (and wildlife) if the buildings and the sky don’t vibrate. Portraits come alive at this time of the day. Remember, a red umbrella can spruce up a shot.


Be unique

Avoid the cliched, postcard shot. Go off the beaten path and avoid the crowd of 200 photographers who take the same picture (if indeed they are up!) You have to think harder and expand your thinking. Going with the herd is non-creative. Don’t snap away without thinking. Your brain and feet take the pictures not the camera. You’ve got to think as well as shoot. Whether you are eventually making a book of photographs or a film – variety of images and story telling are vital.

Be prepared

It is so important to scout locations beforehand so that there are no surprises. Take a small camera and make notes. Wear heavy comfortable footwear and plenty of layers. Ensure that you have adequate food and beverages with you. It can be a long time before you get to a cafe for coffee and bacon baps and can sit back and watch the commuters storm by at an unhealthy pace.

Put in the hours

Sleeping is over-rated. If you don’t put in the hours, you’ll never get anything. Do you need or wish to get a great portfolio of images?  May be, may be not! When it works, it works. If you don’t get the shot you want go back! You’ve got to put in the time. Have you never been back to a place a second time?

Padstow at Dawn

Watching Anthony at work over the past few weeks has inspired me to get up early, get out there and start capturing the dawn and sunrise in Cornwall. I have teamed up with a local photographer, Barry Heaton. This is my first attempt at  filming  at dawn. It provided me the opportunity to put my new Sony PMWF3 and the prime lenses through their paces.



Anthony Epes coming to Cornwall?

I have been so grateful to Anthony for giving me his permission to use some of his beautiful pictures (rightly in low resolution) in this blog, They feature in his books (London at Dawn, Paris at Dawn, Venice at Dawn .…) I have also given him an open invitation to stay with Ruth and me for a week or so, should he wish to start capturing Cornwall at Dawn in his own, inimitable, unique style.

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