Dark and early

Daybreak, South Tufa, Mono Lake

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The key to successful sunrise photography is arriving early. How early? My rule of thumb is, if you can navigate without a flashlight, you’re too late. I know, I know, you’re sleepy and it’s cold, but it shouldn’t take more than one or two mad sprints beneath crimson skies to get you to pull back those covers just a few minutes earlier. And guess what—when you arrive early enough to savor the sunrise rather than rush through it, you’ll soon recognize a purity of air, sound, and light that just can’t be found at any other time of day.

At popular spots like Mono Lake, arriving at least forty-five minutes before sunrise has the added advantage of beating most of the people with whom you’ll be competing for choice real estate. The air here is often graveyard-still this early, the lake a perfect mirror. While the landscape is dark to my eyes, a gold-blue band on the horizon hints at the approaching day, and I know it’s not too early for long exposures that will reveal color and detail my eyes can’t see yet.

The image here was captured about a week and a half ago, on the penultimate sunrise of this year’s Eastern Sierra photo workshop, over 40 minutes before sunrise. Experience has shown me that people don’t always realize how well today’s digital SLR cameras perform in low light; when it’s this dark I sometimes need to prod workshop students to start shooting. Often the best way to do that is to fire off a couple of frames of my own to show them what’s there.

It was dark enough that stars were visible overhead (take a look at the exposure settings to get an idea of how dark it was). I spot-metered the brightest part of the sky, dialing in an exposure that was two stops above a middle tone—just bright enough to bring out foreground detail without washing out the color in the sky.

My “rule” (I hate that word) for the horizon is to place it relative to the aesthetic appeal of the foreground versus the sky: If the sky is a lot better than the foreground, the sky gets most of the frame; if the foreground is a lot better than the sky, the majority of the frame goes to the foreground; when it’s a tossup, the horizon line goes in the middle.

This was just the beginning of what turned out to be an amazing sunrise, the kind a workshop leader prays he can give his group. By the time it was over everyone had shots facing east, north, and west. About fifteen minutes after I took this the sky turned an impossible crimson that reflected in the lake, making it appear to be on fire. I have images of that too, but there’s just something about the tranquility of these earliest images that really resonates with me.

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I’ll try to reprise this morning next year, in my 2013 Eastern Sierra Fall Color photo workshop. (As I write this, nearly a year out, it’s already half full.)

10 Comments on “Dark and early

  1. Beautiful shot, Gary! Would you elaborate a little on what you mean by “dialing in an exposure that was two stops above a middle tone”?

    • We control the amount of light in our images with our shutter speed and f-stop settings, adding or subtracting “stops” of light by increasing or decreasing the shutter speed and f-stop. A stop is the measurement of light photographers use, like a cup (of sugar or almonds) is a measurement of volume that cooks use. The photographer’s third exposure variable is ISO, which is a measure of how sensitive the sensor or film is to light; it’s also measured in stops. The beauty is that a stop of light is a stop of light, whether you control it with the f-stop, shutter speed, or ISO. For example, if you need a fast shutter speed to freeze motion, you replace the light lost (because the shutter wasn’t open as long) with a larger aperture (measured by the f-stop setting) that admits more light.

      I expose manually (I set the ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop myself), but whether you use manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, program, or whatever automatic mode your camera offers, the frame of reference exposures are based on is a “middle tone,” which is a tone (more or less) midway between black and white.

      Since a meter doesn’t know what it’s pointing at, in any of the automatic (non-manual) modes, it gives the scene enough light to make what it “sees” a middle tone. Unfortunately, when your camera sees sunlit snow, because it doesn’t know that it’s snow, it will make it gray (too dark). Conversely, when the meter sees a shaded lump of coal, it doesn’t know it’s a shaded lump of coal and will make it gray too. Or, if you’re metering manually, the meter indicator points to 0 when the exposure settings you’ve chosen will result in a middle tone.

      As photographers, we need to know what our camera is metering on and dial in the appropriate tone (since the camera doesn’t know)–for example, if I’m metering on sunlit snow (or a bright sunrise sky), I might dial an exposure setting that makes it two stops above a middle tone. But there’s no law that says we must make our subject the tone that we see; sometimes we want to make something darker than our eyes see, other times we might want to make it brighter. That’s just part of the creative process photographers go through.

      So in this Mono Lake scene, I pointed my camera’s meter at the bright sky and dialed in exposure settings (the combination of ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed) that would make the bright sky two stops brighter than a middle tone. I knew that making the sky plus two stops, I’d maximized the amount of light in my scene without overexposing the sky (washing out the color or erasing detail).

      Exposure is logical and much simpler than this makes it sound–once you understand the basics, you’ll be fine.

  2. Hey Gary-Do you use ISO 800 to shorten shutter speed to prevent noise?

    • Because it was quite dark, allowing enough light into the scene required a sacrifice (less than ideal settings). I didn’t want to compromise depth of field by going with a large aperture, nor did I want to go into bulb mode to expose longer than 30 seconds, so I opted to bump my ISO to 800, reasoning that I could live with the extra noise this would cause.

      • Learning what and when to compromise is the secret it seems so your point is well taken.I appreciate your discussion on starting an exposure before sunrise for more subtle colors and light that the dig. sensor reacts to before our eye does…thanks mm

      • Thanks, Mike. Reciprocity is the cornerstone to exposure control–to get one thing, you need to give something else up. Understanding and managing these trade-offs is a real point of emphasis in my workshops. I’m afraid the instant feedback and do-over mentality of digital photography has given people the illusion of control they don’t have; in the film days we had to get it right at capture, so all this stuff was second nature.

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