A cup of super strong Death Wish coffee gets Claude Lazzara going each morning.
After working 30 years as a bartender, it takes a jolt to transform the former night owl into a morning person.
He rises at 4:30 a.m. and drives from Centerville to his job as a public affairs photographer at Robins Air Force Base.
“I was always a night person and then I came here and they said, ‘Oh, you know what? You’re going to be a morning person. You’ve got to start at 7 a.m.,’ ” Lazzara said Thursday, as he began his morning hunt.
When heading down Watson Boulevard on the way to work, he is already scoping out the sky.
In the summer, the nearly 69-year-old who is originally from Buffalo, New York, arrives about 90 minutes early to catch and capture the first light of day.
“I try to find a different spot every day,” Lazzara said, as he drove his silver Jeep toward the west side of the base.
The U.S. Army veteran fell in love with photography in Vietnam.
After he was drafted, he took along a Kodak Instamatic that fit in his pocket.
His small, square photos paled in comparison to those shot on a platoon buddy’s 35 mm camera.
“I want to take pictures like that,” he said.
On his next “R and R” to Hong Kong, Lazzara bought a Pentax Spotmatic.
When he got back stateside, he started looking at photography magazines.
He enrolled in classes and studied photography in college.
Lazzara loved photographing people, fashion models and endured the “dreaded weddings.”
He moved out West and worked as a bartender in Palm Springs, California.
After 9/11, he applied to work for the new Transportation Security Administration, which was hiring veterans.
After a few years of pat-downs, Lazzara was itching to get his fingers back on his camera and began applying for government photography jobs.
Robins Air Force Base didn’t pay moving expenses, but he didn’t care.
“When do you want me?” he asked.
In recent years, his legs started to give out on him, and surgery seemed to make matters worse.
He spends most of his days shooting official portraits in the studio, but his mornings begin with a search for the best sunrise shoton his souped up cellphone.
“Clouds give it character and makes it more interesting and it picks up the colors real nice,” he said Thursday morning when the pre-dawn sky was nearly clear.
At Luna Lake, one of his favorite spots, only one tiny cloud was above the tree line when he arrived about 5:45 a.m..
He stroked the sides of his bushy silver goatee as he contemplated his angle.
Since he must balance on a walker, Lazzara usually sits in his driver’s seat and places his iPhone 7 Plus on a monopod outside his open window.
He uses his remote control, so he doesn’t move the camera.
After firing off several shots, he pulls the camera back into the car to see his pictures.
If he likes what he sees, he starts processing it with an app on his phone.
“I’m just enhancing what’s there,” he said as he increased the brightness, contrast, color saturation and boosted the ambience.
On Thursday, he wasn’t pleased with some white light on one side of the photo by the lake, so he decided to chase the rays from another location.
He drove to a gravel road he found about a month ago next to a horse pasture.
A few clouds were hidden by the trees, but a pink contrail lit up the horizon.
He snapped some more photos, hoping to get the red hue that’s a crowd pleaser.
When Lazzara first started shooting sunrises he posted them on his personal Facebook page.
After the Public Affairs Office created their own page, he was asked to post them there.
“Then I got a lot of nice comments and I started doing it every day,” he said. “It seems like all my red shots seem to get the most compliments.”
But that hue doesn’t last long.
“It’s only red for a few minutes,” he said while heading back to the office, thinking the golden glow he captured between the trees would have to do.
While driving, the crape myrtles along the golf course caught his ever-watching eyes.
He’s been looking for a day when the clouds are lit behind the flowers, but it didn’t happen Thursday.
His time was waning when he saw more clouds up ahead.
“They were red 10 minutes ago, and now look at it,” he said, as he pulled into the Pine Oaks golf course.
The clouds were turning golden, but he liked what he saw.
A hushed tone came over his deep voice: “We’ve got fog, too.”
He snapped two more pictures, thinking he found his winner for the day.
“We might have a new one,” he said.
In Thursday’s Facebook sunrise photo, a hint of mist rises from the lush green grass. Rays shoot from the horizon like the spikes crowning the Statue of Liberty.
An empty bench faces the fiery red tree line at the horizon.
Lazzara sees his photographs as a morale booster for the base.
“Just making people happy at Robins,” he said.
“Absolutely stunning!” one commenter said.
“Beam us up Scotty,” another messaged.
“So beautiful that bench would b perfect for coffee drinking,” another person wrote.
Lazzara is showing the world the base’s hidden treasures and helping others see familiar locales in a different light.
One lady was amazed by one of his photos of Luna Lake.
“I’ve seen that lake a hundred times and I’ve never seen it like that,” she told him.
“You’ve got to get up early,” he told her.