By the Dawn's Early Light, Times Two

Posted by George Hamlin
on Friday, November 1, 2019

Those of you that know me, or have seen my photographic work online, including on Flickr (, are aware that a location that I frequent in our local area is Neabsco, where CSX’s Washington-Richmond, Virginia main line crosses the creek of the same name on a high trestle, just east of the point where the stream flows into the Potomac River.

Broadside shots here favor afternoons (unless you have access to a boat), since the bridge is roughly on a north-south axis; for that matter, if you’re interested in a more standard, three-quarters or “wedge” type shot, this works nicely from the south end of the bridge, as well.  I’ve come to enjoy broadside views here, as they provide a better look at what’s behind the locomotives, or, in the case of some freights, the entire motive power ensemble.  Of course, if you want to see the lead locomotive’s nose, broadsides are not appropriate.

After enjoying many afternoons of photography at Neabsco, it (at the risk of a bad pun…) dawned on me that the same set of shooting locations would be suitable for early morning shots, albeit of a different sort: think silhouettes and sunrises, in particular.  Now if you’d told me during my high school and college years that I’d willingly get up in the full-dark of night, drive 45 minutes and arrive in a place still a good 20-30 minutes before official sunrise to engage in an avocational/recreational activity, I would have laughed, at the least.

By the way, there’s a good reason to arrive well in advance of the posted sunrise time.  Not all sunrises are colorful (generally, some presence of clouds is typically necessary to make this occur, although solid overcast doesn’t work), but the ones that are can be at their peak up to 15-20 minutes prior to actually seeing the disk of the risen sun.  Related knowledge:  this works in reverse at sunset, so don’t leave just because the sun has disappeared below the horizon.

Some planning is necessary, on several counts.  If you’re shooting after the sun is above the horizon, metering the sky and using a full EV (exposure value) darker than the metered value (a full f stop, or shutter speed change) is a good place to start.  Like many things photographic, experimentation, including trial and error, will be helpful in getting you where you want to be; with digital, make use of your histogram, as well.

Pre-framing of the shot is necessary, in part because you don’t want to be staring through your camera’s viewfinder at the sun once it’s well above the horizon; doing so will be hazardous to your vision.  Figure out how you want to compose the shot using reference points that don’t include the sun in the viewfinder, for example, composing below the sun, and later, just prior to actually taking the photo, carefully move the camera vertically, without changing the horizontal framing.

Shooting a little bit “wider” (zoom out) is a good idea; you can crop later if necessary.  If you need to look through the viewfinder, do this at an angle that doesn’t include the sun.  Let me repeat: do not look directly at the sun.

When everything works, the results can be stunning , as seen in the photo above of Amtrak Northeast Regional train 86 this morning, November 1, 2019.

And since almost all of us, in a photographic sense, are greedy, consider a second shot, by panning in the direction of the train’s motion to a spot that you’ve picked previously with this in mind, as seen here:

Because the sun isn’t visible directly, it has a whole different look; it can be hard to believe the train is within a few hundred feet of the initial shot.  Since there isn’t time to change the exposure settings, this one will exit the camera significantly underexposed, which will need to be corrected in post-processing (hint: enhance your luck by shooting in RAW mode).

In sum, consider the use of broadsides, particularly in places that will work with sunrises and sunsets; very enjoyable photos can result.

(Photos by George W. Hamlin)

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