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Up with the Overachievers: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) boasts a picturesque campus that comes to life in the soft, golden hues of sunrise. There's something truly magical about the early morning light as it bathes the historic buildings, tree-lined walkways, and iconic landmarks in a warm and inviting glow.

Like most of my trips these days, it all started with the 4 AM drive. I had planned the trip out perfectly, with the key shot getting the sun rising over Kenan Memorial Stadium. A nearby parking garage lined up perfectly with the suns trajectory, all I had to do was get there and wait. I arrived at the parking garage with plenty of time to spare, and that's when it hit me. And by it, I mean the hanging marker indicating my car was too tall for the parking garage. Luckily, at this time of the morning there's no one to judge. A quick reverse followed by a half hour of driving around, and I finally found a garage I could fit in near the campus hospital.

By this time I was approaching the blue hour. It's time to start running the half mile to the parking garage. But there's always time for a quick water tower pic. I actually really like the angle I got on it here, but I didn't have time to set up a tripod so there's too much noise to recover from. But a target for a future trip.

Photo of UNC's Water Tower before sunrise.
Photo of UNC's Water Tower before sunrise. 58mm - f4.0 - 1/60s - ISO 2500

I got to the target parking garage just before golden hour was about to start. The sky were beginning to light up and I could tell there's something special about to happen. After reaching the top of the garage I hit my second issue of the morning: the garage walls are probably 10 feet tall, making viewing the stadium impossible. While this was probably a good move to keep people from watching the game for free, it's a real buzzkill for me. I'm sure I put on a great show for security holding my extended tripod above my head, but eventually I had to give up and move on. Look at that sky though, it would have been perfect. It will definitely go down as one of my great regrets.

Photo of obstructed view of UNC's Kenan Stadium at sunrise.
What would have been a great photo of Kenan Stadium at sunrise. 24mm - f4.0 - 1/60s - ISO 2500

So after that failure, I'm officially on the clock. Sun's up, the campus is big and I have 40 minutes to get that fantastic golden hour light. From the parking garage the easiest stop was the Bell Tower, and that's where my luck finally changed.

The Bell Tower at the University of North Carolina (UNC) is a cherished emblem of the institution's rich history and enduring legacy. Standing proudly in the heart of the UNC campus, this iconic structure exudes a timeless elegance that seamlessly marries tradition with modernity. With its Neoclassical design, the Bell Tower is an architectural masterpiece, its stately columns and intricate detailing reflecting the grandeur of academia. Its bronze carillon bells, which chime with melodious precision, resonate across the campus, serving as both a practical timekeeper and a symbol of unity for the Tar Heel community. Also a constant reminder of how little time I have to get these shots. Beyond its aesthetic charm and sonic significance, the Bell Tower is a meeting place, a backdrop for countless photographs, and a beacon for generations of students and alumni, uniting them in their shared love for UNC and the enduring beauty of this hallowed structure.

I chose to set up across the street from the Bell Tower to best utilize my 24mm lens UNC's campus is beautiful, but a little cramped, so it's hard to put the usual distance I'd like on this kind of shot. After setting up my tripod I was able to take a few quick images at different angles to find the views I liked. The sky cooperated the whole time. As I passed between locations I would keep stopping to try this shot again, as the morning sky kept presenting new views.

While in the area, I stopped at some iconic buildings in the central campus. Of the many great structures, two in particular stood out to me as a neutral observer.

The University of North Carolina's Wilson Library and South Building are two historic landmarks that embody the institution's rich history and academic excellence. Wilson Library, with its neoclassical architecture and impressive facade, stands as a symbol of knowledge and heritage. Inside, it houses a vast collection of rare books, manuscripts, and archives that serve as a treasure trove for researchers and scholars. The library's grand reading rooms, adorned with stately columns and elegant design, provide a serene and inspiring environment for students and academics to delve into their studies. I caught this view right as the sun started getting over the horizon, which created unreal hues in the sky.

Photo of UNC's Louis Round Wilson Library at Sunrise
Louis Round Wilson Library at Sunrise. 24mm - 1/60s - f4.0 - ISO 100

South Building, on the other hand, is a magnificent example of Georgian architecture, and it serves as the administrative heart of UNC. With its brick exterior and iconic white columns, it exudes an air of authority and tradition. This building has been at the center of the university's operations for many years, witnessing countless academic achievements and milestones. Its historic significance is palpable, making it a beloved and iconic structure on campus. What called me to the location was the school seal on the ground in front of the building. I set the camera up low to get the full detail of the logo. I then captured them image in two shots, one focused on the ground and the other on the South building in the last gasps of sunrise The combination of these photos created a sharp image that might be my favorite of this trip.

View of UNC's South Building at sunrise. School seal prominant in foreground.
View of the South Building towards sunrise's end. Two image focus stack, 24mm - f4.0 - 1/80s - ISO 100

To wrap up my planned shots, what better place than the Old Well? The Old Well stands as a symbol of tradition, elegance, and academic excellence. Nestled at the heart of the historic campus in Chapel Hill, this neoclassical structure is a timeless and iconic landmark. Its distinctive architecture, inspired by the Temple of Love in the Gardens of Versailles, imparts a sense of grandeur and grace. The soft, robin's egg blue dome, adorned with white columns and intricate wrought-iron work, creates a picturesque scene that beckons visitors and students alike. Surrounded by lush greenery and vibrant flowers, the Old Well is not only a cherished source of drinking water but also a symbol of the deep-rooted pride and tradition that defines UNC. It serves as a gathering place for celebrations, graduations, and quiet moments of reflection, connecting generations of Tar Heels to the enduring spirit of the university.

Photographing this iconic landmark was a little more difficult than anticipated. The cramped-ness I felt elsewhere on campus was really magnified here. The tall buildings block large parts of. the sky, but backing up to get more sky in puts you under a tree, which also blocks the sky. Further, there are flower beds everywhere you'd need to stand to get a good angle at the sunrise. And let's not forget that we're past 7 a.m., so the students, one sorority in particular, were beginning to show up for pictures and conversation. Despite these issues, I was able to get a pretty good shot of the Old Well before sunrise ended. The angle was a little unique and I was lucky to be there when I was; any change in the sun's trajectory and it wouldn't have worked.

Photo of UNC's Old Well at Sunrise
Old Well at Sunrise. HDR - 24mm - f7.1 - ISO 100

With the sun up and the students about, it was time for me to take my leave. The unappreciated part about photography is that if you have a bad sense of direction you can take way more pictures. I took advantage of this on my way back to get a shot of the university entrance gate and another shot at that water tower. Upon finally reaching the parking garage, I decided it was necessary to redeem myself. So I climbed to the top of the parking garage and got a shot without a barrier. It might not be the stadium, but it was quite the view.

In conclusion, visiting the University of North Carolina at sunrise is an experience that is worth the time and effort. Just maybe try leaving after rush hour. The tranquil beauty of the campus bathed in the first light of day, with its historic Bell Tower as the focal point, is a testament to the enduring legacy of this esteemed institution. The sense of calm, renewal, and hope that comes with the sunrise perfectly encapsulates the spirit of UNC. Whether you are a student, an alum, or a visitor, witnessing the campus at this magical hour is a powerful reminder of the rich history, the vibrant present, and the boundless potential that UNC represents. It's a moment to reflect on the past, savor the present, and embrace the future. So, if you ever find yourself in Chapel Hill, make sure to set your alarm clock a little earlier and experience the University of North Carolina in all its sunrise glory.


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