In my third year of graduate school, I decided to become a morning person. I had fallen into a group of friends who regularly got up at ungodly times of the day to go on various wilderness adventures, like climbing and skiing. Since I wasn’t getting up early on weekdays, my morning wakeup times would swing from 9AM during the week to 4AM on the weekends. The big swings in my sleep schedule were killing me. I knew I needed to globally shift my sleep schedule.
My problem was: while it was easy to get myself out of bed at 4AM when I was going on a big outdoor adventure, it was much harder to wake up at 4AM to go pipette liquids from one tube into another tube (aka do labwork). On outdoor adventures, getting up at dawn provides us enough time to complete our objectives before nightfall. But what could getting up at dawn offer during the weekdays other than just being tired in lab? For me, the answer was sunrise photoshoots.
I first got into photography when I worked on a sailboat delivery crew before college. While I initially used it to pass time on long ocean passages, it has since become a fulfilling way for me to engage with my surroundings and express myself (#followmeoninstagram @dan.the.anderson).
My interest in photography became a means of self-incentivization. Self-incentivization is a commonly-used behavioral change technique of coupling something you normally don’t want to do (in my case, wake up early) to something you enjoy doing (in my case, photography).
Early morning provides a combination of factors that make for great landscape photography: (1) soft, low-angle light (the photographers’ blessed “golden hour”), (2) a distinct lack of people in popular tourist destinations, (3) unique / rare perspectives on common sights.
If you are interested in utilizing photography as a self-incentivization method to get yourself up earlier, sunrise photography is a great, low-stakes incentive to get started, regardless of your level of experience.
Planning a landscape shoot
I find that planning my photo shoots keeps me intellectually stimulated and provides a great jumping off point for creative opportunities. In the following section I’ll outline the approach and tools I used to plan a photo shoot in East Boston.
Identify a shot
My starting point is usually a specific shot that I want to get. In the case of my East Boston shoot, I wanted my shot to be of the Boston skyline tinged with Alpenglow (a reddish glow that often illuminates the top of mountains right before the sun rises). Even though I head out with a specific shot in mind, more often than not, I’ll find other shots on the journey. The planned shot might not even be my favorite photo from a given shoot, but having a planned shot provides a nucleation point for other creative ideas.
Once I have an idea for a shot and a location, I begin to scout the place with Google Maps and Google Street View. During this process, other photo ideas often come up; I keep a note of all of them as they come. In the case of my shot, I was looking for a good, unimpeded view of the skyline. I found three different piers that had public access. I was particularly excited about one of the locations which seemed to have a broken-down pier in front of it, which could make for an interesting dystopian foreground element.
Choosing the right time with the power of the internet
In order to get the Alpenglow look, I knew I’d have to get a photo right before the sun came above the horizon and I’d also want the sun to be directly behind me as I looked straight at the buildings. Luckily, all the complex astronomical calculations have already been worked out and I could use an online tool, Suncalc, to figure out that the sun would be rising at the correct angle in late September and that I would have to snap my shutter at about 6:37AM.
The other factor I knew would be important for my Alpenglow shot is that the sky should be relatively free of clouds. For this, I use Cleardarksky. This tool taps into a numerical forecast model originally designed to predict weather windows for astronomical observations. But it also works great for photographers. Want the most dramatic looking sunrise / sunset photos? Check Cleardarksky to make sure there are at least some clouds in the forecast.
Go out and shoot!
Lastly (and most importantly), you have to go out and take some photos. I went out to East Boston, on a lovely, crisp morning and got my shot:
Making changes with self-incentivization
After going out on a few dawn shoots back-to-back, I had successfully shifted my sleep schedule. Maybe you’re not a photographer, but you also want to utilize self-incentivization to become a morning person. Instead, couple your dawn rise time with other things you may enjoy: go to the gym, meditate, have coffee and pastries with a good friend (bonus points for using this method to convert two people into morning risers). I, of course, don’t continue to go out and shoot every morning. I now use a mix of activities to get myself up early during the weekdays. The point isn’t to find a single activity that will get you to leap out of bed every morning. The point is just to encourage yourself to take the first steps.