An autumn photography day in Northumberland: sunrise
An early morning start to catch sunrise at the Simonside Hills
With a rare full day to dedicate to photography and a location planned in advance, I set off into the darkness and a day in which I realised I hadn’t planned very well at all.
At the end of October 2021, with a rare chance to spend a full day on photography and the clocks going back that very morning, I could pretend I was getting up at 6am for an 8am sunrise, rather than the actual 5am for 7.
My plan for the day was to return to the gorgeous woodland by the Simonside Hills, something I wrote about in Looking to autumn, back in August, and spend a large chunk of the day in the same woodland looking for good compositions with hopefully rich autumn colour.
In this page:
My first mistake
I am not what you’d call a morning person.
The only early mornings I’m used to are being woken up by our kids climbing over my face or hitting me with a book, and then dragging myself awake to make their breakfasts.
As a result, I’m just not used to planning for a sunrise shoot. So focused was I on this favourite wood at Simonside after the magical colour I found last year, I hadn’t fully (or at all) thought through what I’d do for sunrise.
Arriving at the first car park—at the foot of Thompson’s Rock—it began to dawn on me (pun slightly intended) that carrying on to the next car park for the forest was a little silly—as far as making the most of sunrise went.
Cursing my total lack of planning, I pulled into the car park—empty but for a couple of camper vans—and weighed up the options:
- Quickly drive somewhere else. But where?
- Hike straight ahead, towards Lordenshaw Hill Fort
- Start the ridge trail behind me. going for higher ground
Driving elsewhere wasn’t going to work: I had no time and even less idea where to go.
The path straight in front of the car looked interesting, but I’ve never been that way before and had no idea (theme here) whether I would find a good composition, either in time for sunrise or at all.
Onwards and upwards
Which left the simplest—albeit least appealing to my still-tired body—option of dashing up the ridge trail to higher ground. I have at least been up there before and having views in more directions would increase my chances for finding compositions.
that decided, and without spending time lightening my fully-loaded Atlas pack, I quickly geared up and began walking up the trail as quick as my poor state of fitness allowed.
Around half-way up, the glow of impending sunrise and a reasonable area to stop and set up the tripod nudged me into doing just that: it would give me a little time to find compositions before the sun peeked up rather than be scrambling to get kit out of my bag higher up.
Setting up, the coldness of the morning began to make its presence felt. A bitter early morning wind was driving right-to-left across the camera and I worried the whole thing might topple, let alone stay stable enough for sharp images.
In a rush once I’d decided where to go, the one quick nod to pack weight I’d made was taking the 3 Legged Thing Albert ‘travel’ tripod rather than my heavier iFootage Gazelle Uprise. Standing in a strong cross-wind attempting to set up, I regretted my decision deeply.
Could this relatively lightweight tripod seriously keep a heavy medium format camera and telephoto lens steady in strong winds?
Well, yes. It could.
I have to say, I was very impressed.
A bad experience with my first 3LT tripod 5 years ago (the PUNKS VYV, which was horribly unstable) put me off them for quite a while even as others seemed to love them. I eventually dipped a toe back in 3LT waters last year when looking for a travel tripod I could fit inside my Peak Design Everyday Backpack, for a weekend cabin-bag-only trip to the Alps—the Albert I still have now—and it’s proved itself whenever I’ve needed it. I’ll just trust the thing from now on.
With the GFX 50S set up on the tripod with the 100-200mm lens, I did the obvious thing for someone who hasn’t shot a clear view of a sunrise before and pointed straight at the sun rising over the sea to the east.
In terms of points of interest available to me I had the sun itself which, as mentioned, was rising over the sea in the distance. There was a small bank of low cloud blocking it right on the horizon but then a good gap before a larger bank of closer, higher clouds which were beginning to catch and light up.
Off to my right (south), there were some wind turbines that drew my attention probably more than they should have, nice as they were in the softer off-angle light and with some mist/haze in the air.
To the left (north), hills and valleys which in hindsight I wish I’d focused more on. They caught the light in much more interesting ways throughout the sunrise and I did catch a few decent images in that direction.
Lastly, behind me: the heather-lined path up the rest of Thompson’s Rock. I made a couple of quick frames in this direction as the warmest of the light caught the heather, but the composition wasn’t really there to go with the light.
East, to the sea and sun
I made a series of panoramas looking out towards the sea and the rising sun. The landscape falling away from me in the direction of the sun was a bit bland unfortunately, though the sunrise itself was lovely. The more interesting land shapes were to either side—hence the panos—though not too many of them work that well in retrospect.
As I mentioned earlier, I think I would have been better off focusing to the north where there was more interest in the landscape and I could catch the light falling side-on.
I do like the little diptych pano below though, split at the centre of the sun, and am tempted to try this as a printed diptych to hang at home (one to add to my already-long backlog of mostly other photographers’ images to frame and hang).
With the 50S and GF 100-200 on the tripod for capturing sunrise, I also occasionally wandered off to one side or another with the GFX 50R hand-held, using the GF32-64 lens to frame wider views including more foreground, like the path winding back down the hillside or the little stream doing the same.
With the sun fully above the horizon, it cast across the early morning haze and created a nice series of increasingly-washed-out layers towards the coast, with the occasional copse of trees picked out on a ridge or wind turbines silhouetted in the far distance.
To the north
Looking north across the hills revealed some less obvious but more interesting compositions.
As the sun got close to rising above the horizon, some lovely pastel colours were cast across the clouds to the north: lilacs, pinks and peaches against the still-dark green hills.
Then, as the sun breached the horizon, a wonderfully overpowering orange glow washed across the landscape, multiplying the colours of the heather up on the hillside.
I mainly focused on shooting to the east for sunrise itself but as the rush of sunrise faded into early daylight there was again some wonderful light across the hills to the north.
Much cooler light now but still soft, with the sun low in the sky and beginning to pick out hilltops and the various trees, sheep and other objects dotted across them.
The next image is a tight crop from a wider shot (below) and I like both for different reasons. The tighter crop reveals a bit more of the depth as the landscape rolls away behind the lit foreground hill, while the wider crop show more of that lit ridge, with the farm and livestock picked out in a band across the scene.
And then, as I was about done this location, a burst of rain in the distance left a small band of rainbow to catch my eye.
West, up the hill
Behind my main position, the path continued on up Thompson’s Rock without too much to see. As the early sunrise cast that gorgeous, rich orange glow though, the heather and long grasses carpeting the hillside all caught the light and I did have to take a few photographs.
I really liked this square crop I got, right at the peak of the colour:
South, with less to see
To my right, southwards, there wasn’t that much to photograph: a ridge in the hill rose quite near to me, blocking a chunk of the view and otherwise the landscape just wasn’t as interesting to the south.
Again though, I got one image I’m happy with: a wide panoramic crop as the light caught different strata of the landscape in a range of colours: oranges, yellows and greens.
Making the best of poor preparation
Way back at the start of this account, I spoke of my lack of preparation being my first mistake of the day.
As it turned out, my lack of preparation didn’t hurt me too badly: I found a non-terrible location to cover sunrise and a number of photographs I quite like. Indeed the later mistakes I made will have to wait for another time, as the fruits of my first mistake have already taken plenty of space in this article.
So much of photography can be in the planning, yet so much more is also in reacting to the conditions you find yourself in and making the best of them. That became a theme for this day and I think I did OK in the end.