Travel photography on the beach

6 Reasons Why Waking Up Early Gets You the Best Travel Photos

If you’re into travel photography but are also someone who hates getting up early, you’re in trouble! No, not really, of course. However, serious photographers will have to make the effort to get out of bed before anyone else does, if they want to shoot great travel photos.

There are several reasons why waking up early will result in the best travel photos. I’ve listed the most important ones, in my opinion, below.

1. You’ll Have the Whole Place to Yourself

Heading out before sunrise will allow you to see and experience a place in a completely different, unique way. It doesn’t matter where you are—as is the case for most of these reasons. Venice, for instance, just to name one especially photogenic city, is particularly superb for early-morning exploration. That’s when the city is at its quietest and when you can really admire the astonishing architecture in peace. The same applies to natural areas, though. There’s nothing quite like photographing a foggy morning mountain landscape all by yourself.

Related Article: Ultimate guide to fog photography

The obvious benefit of being all alone is that there are no people around to spoil your precious shots. No one will walk through your frame just as you press the shutter. There aren’t any enormous tourist crowds to obstruct views of skylines, statues, or buildings.

2. Sunlight Is at Its Prime in the Morning

Shooting travel photography in the morning and evening is one of the basic rules to get great photos. This time of day is called the “golden hour”, which specifically refers to either the hour after sunrise or the hour before sunset. Its name couldn’t be more appropriate because that’s when the sun’s low angle results in scenes that seem to bathe in a golden glow.

Because of this low angle, and in addition to the warm glow, the sunlight is much softer than it is during the day. The sun is low on the horizon, meaning that its rays are diffused in the sky. Basically, this means that light comes from all different directions, as opposed to from directly overhead in midday. In the morning, scenes—any outdoor scene you can think of—are evenly lit, which greatly improves the quality of your photos.

Sunrise in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia
Sunrise in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia – Photo by Bram Reusen

 3. Long Shadows Add Depth

With a low-angled sun come long shadows. This reason is actually an extension of the one above. The longer the shadow of an object is, the less sharp (or softer) it will be. Together with the intrinsic softness of morning sunlight, this adds to the overall “easiness on the eye” of the entire scene you’re capturing.

Long shadows also add depth and a different kind of contrast to a scene. Whether it’s a forest landscape where sun rays peer through the trees or an impressive bridge spanning a mighty river, if there are more shadows involved, your photo will be a lot more powerful and emotion-invoking.

A photo of a forest backlit by the sun rays
Shadows created by the sun rays behind the trees add depth to this photo

4. You Get to See People on Their Way to Work

This may contradict reason number one, but it doesn’t. It all depends on the focus of your travel photography. If you like empty squares or deserted landscapes, that’s fine. Early morning will be perfect for you. If, on the other hand, you like to photograph people while traveling, early morning is also a good time of day for that. You just need to visit different places in your destination for each type of travel photography.

Photographing commuting locals is one of the most fun kinds of travel photography. There’ll be cars, buses, trams and/or subways. People will hold to-go coffee cups, carry umbrellas, run down the street to catch their respective transportation method,… The opportunities for people and street photography are virtually endless in the morning.

Rush hour people in the morning
Morning is a great time to capture rush hour – Photo by Unsplash

5. Wild Animals Are Most Active in the Morning (and the Evening)

This obviously applies to nature photography. Here, too, getting up early will get you the best travel photos. Dawn (and dusk) are the two times of day when wildlife is most active and most easily spotted. Combined with the “golden hour”, this is the absolute perfect mix of circumstances.

You don’t necessarily need to go to wilderness areas to photograph wild animals in the morning, although those places are, of course, fantastic destinations if you’d like to capture, say, grizzly bears, deer, lions, moose, or other high-profile animals. The thing is that literally, every city is home to a wide variety of wild animals as well. From foxes and raccoons to even monkeys, the world’s cities are surprisingly great places to photograph wild animals.

A photo of a Monkey taken in India
A Monkey in India – Photo by Devanath

6. Travel Photography is the Most Fun Way to Start Your Day

Getting up early is just plain fun. If you’re not a morning person, you might not agree with that, but hear me out. We’re talking about travel photography and traveling in general here. If you really want to get to know your destination, you simply need to join the locals in their morning routine or go for a sunrise hike in the mountains.

This last reason basically summarizes everything I’ve said above. From witnessing people commuting to work to enjoying a place all by yourself and spotting iconic wild animals, waking up early will—I guarantee you—provide you with the best possible travel memories and travel photos.

Travel photography on the beach at sunrise
Beach photography in the morning – Photo by imagineunimagined

Tips For Waking Up and Getting Early-Morning Shots

Let’s face it. Most of us aren’t exactly morning people. Chances are that you’re not either so let’s delve into some things you can do to make it easier on yourself to get up early in order to get the best photos possible.

Coffee, Coffee, Coffee

This one’s pretty straightforward. Coffee is the ultimate wake-up beverage. I suggest you fill up a thermos with the black stuff (or however you like it, it can be a latté too, of course) and bring it with you on your morning adventure. Hot coffee has the added benefit of keeping you warm if you’re shooting in winter or in cold locations.

Go to Bed Early

Turn in early to rise early. Try to crawl into bed early the night before in order to maximize your number of sleeping hours. For obvious reasons, this will help you get out of bed in the morning better.

Set Two Alarms

Don’t rely on your phone’s alarm alone. If you have a smartphone, which are devices that aren’t known for their impressive battery life, it might die on you in the middle of the night, causing you to sleep in. Set a backup alarm just in case. If you’re staying in a hotel, ask for a wake-up call.

Go Location Scouting the Day Before

This is one of the best tips you can get. Don’t just wander around randomly hoping to stumble upon a great scene in the morning. No, definitely take your time to explore your destination the night or even days before. Walk and ask around. Picture what a certain viewpoint would look like in the morning. Think about where the sun rises. Make a list of potential early-morning photography locations.

Study Transportation Schedules

With the list you’ve gathered above, consult transportation schedules if necessary. In case your locations lie spread out across the city or even the countryside, it’s good to know how and when you can get there.

Get Your Camera Bag Ready in Advance

Save yourself some precious time in the morning, or allow yourself at least a half hour of extra sleep by packing your camera gear the evening before.

Don’t Forget a Lens Cleaning Kit

When you assemble the gear you think you’ll need the next morning, don’t forget to include a lens cleaning kit. Mornings can be foggy and lenses can condensate. Being able to wipe off any moisture might be handy.

Consider Bringing a Flashlight

Also, consider packing a flashlight or other lighting device. This is especially useful if you’re heading out way before the sun rises and if you’re going to dark places like woods or deserts.

With all these tips now at your disposal, you will definitely be ready to take on the early-morning world with your camera. Get up early and see how that simply act improves your travel photography tremendously.

Are you a photographer who takes advantage of the beauty of the morning? Share your thoughts and tips in the comment section below.

Wake up early for best travel photography


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About the author

Bram Reusen

Bram Reusen is a Belgian travel writer and photographer who’s based in Virginia, USA. From day hikes in national parks to long-distance cycling adventures, from short city breaks to multi-month trips, he has tried several travel styles over the years. So far, Bram has been to 26 countries on 4 continents, 28 national parks and 44 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

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