A perfect end to a perfect day

Winter Twilight, Yosemite Valley

Winter Twilight, Yosemite Valley

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A few weeks ago I led a one day trip to Yosemite for a class I teach two or three times a year. This class usually fills, but this time I only had six students (about half the usual size), I suspect because many people saw a storm was forecast and decided to stay home. Sigh. As much as you hear me say that the best conditions for taking pictures are usually the worst conditions for being outside, I don’t think anything will express it more clearly than a picture (or four) from that day:

<< Click the image to view a larger version and read the blog post >>

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

El Capitan and Fresh Snow, Yosemite

El Capitan and Fresh Snow, Yosemite

Snow on Autumn Leaves, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

Snow on Autumn Leaves, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

About today’s image

I’m going to strike preemptively and say a few words about the image at the top of this post, mostly for those who don’t regularly read my blog. I say “preemptively” because I know I’ll get the skeptical “that doesn’t look real” comments. If you read me enough, you not only know that duplicating human reality with a camera is impossible, you know why it’s impossible. Therefore, photographers’ truth becomes their camera’s reality, a very different thing indeed.

For example, check out the exposure settings: Four seconds at f11 and ISO 400 should be a pretty good clue that it was quite dark when I captured this (about twenty minutes after sunset), much darker to my eyes than this image conveys. So while this wasn’t “real” to my experience, it was very much “real” to my camera.

The blue/pink sky is the result of a “twilight wedge,” Earth’s shadow descending on the landscape as the sun drops below the horizon behind me. The twilight wedge is missed by many casual sunset watchers because it’s opposite of the sun (at sunrise it ascends in the west, opposite the rising sun), and usually a few minutes separates the sunset color in the west and the wedges pink and blue pastels. Particularly pronounced on clear-sky evenings, a twilight wedge is never more vivid than when it follows a storm that has scoured the impurities from the air.

On this evening, my group watched late afternoon light warm El Capitan and Half Dome and, right at sunset, nicely (but unspectacularly) color the clouds above Half Dome. As this color started to fade, when the dozens of photographers shoulder-to-shoulder at the Tunnel View vista started to pack up, I told my group if they stuck around they’d be in for a treat. As we waited for the show to begin, I reminded everyone to forget what their eyes saw and simply expose enough to make El Capitan a middle(ish) tone.

We were the only ones remaining, about five minutes later, when the sky above Half Dome took on a pink cast that deepened as the light faded. As the pink started to throb (I swear, that’s how it looks), the detail in the valley floor was reduced to dark shapes. No longer receiving direct light, the entire landscape was bathed in this shadow-free, omnidirectional skylight that our eyes struggled to keep up with. But our cameras, with their ability to accumulate light, returned images that revealed a world devoid of the troublesome contrast that usually plagues photographers here, and where the highly reflective clouds, snow, and even a nearby solitary deciduous tree seem to glow with their own light.

5 Comments on “A perfect end to a perfect day

  1. Hi Gary, I was standing right there with you all, even past the sunset once everyone packed up! What a lovely end to a beautiful day! Check out my photo from right at sunset!

  2. Pingback: Things You’ll Find Interesting December 6, 2012 | Chuq Von Rospach, Photographer and Author

  3. I’ve learned to try and always stick around when shooting sunsets, especially at the beach…thanks to you! And it sure worked our last evening in Yosemite when we shot HD….thank you Kristal!

    Gary, did you use any type of filter (ND, etc) on that shot? I recently purchased a Fader Mark II and having fun with it, but doesn’t work on my 17-40 lens. And never quite sure (yet) when to use it!

    Thanks again for your help in Yosemite!

    • You’re welcome, Denise. The Fader Mark II is a variable neutral density filter; it makes the entire scene darker and is used solely to slow your shutter speed for motion effects. A graduated neutral density filter is dark (but not opaque) on the top and clear on the bottom, so it darkens the top (bright) part of a scene without affecting the lower part. So I may have used a soft transition graduated neutral density filter on that shot, but by then the sky was probably dark enough that I didn’t need it. I usually see the transition in the raw file and dodge/burn it away in Photoshop, but I didn’t do that here, which leads me to believe I wasn’t using one (sorry to be so unscientific).

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