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After three days of solid blue skies (Zzzzzzzzzzzz), yesterday morning my Death Valley workshop group was rewarded with a sunrise for the record books. I’ve seen color like this in Yosemite, Hawaii, and the Grand Canyon to name a few, but never at Death Valley.
As the group gathered at the hotel about an hour before sunrise, a deep ruby glow stained the eastern horizon. Hmmm. Second-guessing my tried and true policy of getting on location at least forty-five minutes before sunrise, I hustled everyone into the cars and we bolted for Zabriskie Point, just five (extremely long) minutes up the hill. At Zabriskie I gave a brief orientation with one eye on the expanding red that now stretched from the eastern horizon nearly to the zenith—in a matter of minutes it would reach all the way to the Panamint Mountains on the western horizon, filling the sky behind Death Valley’s most celebrated vista.
After explaining that the best place to photograph Zabriskie Point is on the dirt hilltop directly below the viewing platform, I set off with a “Follow me.” By the time I made it to the prescribed vantage point the red had indeed spilled all the way down to the Panamints. Thrilled with our good fortune I looked around—imagine my surprise to find that only two others had heeded my advice; the rest of the group had stopped well behind me to photograph in the opposite direction, lured by the electric show playing above the not-too-photogenic scene facing the sun.
Paradox alert: I spend a good deal of time teaching photographers that light trumps landscape—in other words, don’t get so locked in to the scene you came to photograph that you miss better light happening elsewhere. They had heeded my advice so well that they overlooked another truth I try to hammer home: See the world with your camera’s eye. In this case the most spectacular light was indeed behind the classic Zabriskie scene, where the eastern sky was infused with a magenta hue that was equal parts vivid and bright. On the other hand, the red sky to the west, above nearby Manly Beacon and the distant Panamints, was still quite dark to our human vision. What everyone had overlooked was that their camera’s ability to accumulate light would bring out color their eyes missed.
Fortunately, I was able to get everyone’s attention and to convince them where the real show was. We started with long exposures like the one here (30 seconds at f8 and ISO 400) that brightened the scene beyond what our eyes saw. Often sunrise color rises to a tantalizing level only to fade without warning. But this morning as the light increased, the color rose right along with it, faded briefly, then bounced back stronger than ever. At its peak the entire landscape glowed pink and the only sound was clicking shutters.
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A few words about color: I’m always amused when people question the credibility of sunrise and sunset color. I’ll grant that many people enhance their color in processing, but that doesn’t mean that every brilliant sunrise or sunset was manipulated. The truth is, there’s nothing subtle about color in nature, and when people question the color in a sunrise/sunset image, my first thought is to wonder how many sunrises/sunsets they’ve seen.
My group yesterday morning was chuckling about that problem as we packed up—we were all anticipating the inevitable doubts, some explicit, others implicit, but there was comfort in the knowledge that we all had witnesses. And for the record (I just checked), the only color work I did on this image was a slight desaturation of the blue in the sky and the magenta for the entire image.