The cure for blue skies

Sunrise Moonset, Sierra Crest, Alabama Hills, California

Sunrise Moonset, Sierra Crest, Alabama Hills, California
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/8 second
29 mm
ISO 200
*     *     *
The prominent mountain on the left is 12,944 foot Lone Pine Peak. At 14,495 feet, Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the 48 contiguous United States; it’s the shark-tooth peak left of center. The slightly concave mountain on the far right is 14,380 foot Mt. Williamson.

A good landscape image usually involves, well…, a good landscape. But that’s only half the equation—photographers also need photogenic conditions—soft light, interesting skies, dramatic weather, or anything else that elevates the scene to something special. While we have absolute control over the time and location of our photo outings, the conditions have a significant random (luck) component.

Despite being less than a day’s drive from many of the most treasured photo destinations in the world, most of my photo trips are planned months in advance. Workshops in particular require at least a year of advance planning on my part, and many months of schedule adjustment and travel arrangements for the participants. I think I’ve pretty much established that positive thinking, finger crossing, divine pleas, and ritual incantation (no virgin sacrifice yet) are of zero value where photography is concerned—sometimes conditions work out wonderfully, sometimes not so much. And while I’ve photographed my workshop locations many times, I know most of my workshop participants haven’t, which is why I do my best to schedule my workshops when the odds are best for interesting skies.

My annual Death Valley / Mt. Whitney photo workshop is a perfect example: Among the driest places on Earth, Death Valley gets only about an inch of rain each year and suffers from chronic blue skies. Ever the optimist, I schedule my DV/Whitney workshop from mid-January through early February, when the odds, though still low, are at least best for clouds. And while I’ve actually been pretty lucky with the clouds in past workshops, to hedge my bets further, I always schedule this workshop to coincide with a full moon—if we don’t get clouds, the moon always seems to save the day (and night).

This year’s DV/Whitney workshop wrapped up Saturday morning. Unfortunately, it landed in the midst of what is on its way to becoming an unprecedented drought in California. After two dry winters, this winter is worse—a persistent high pressure system has set up camp above California, creating an impenetrable force field that deflects clouds and and bathes the state weather that is absolutely beautiful for everything but photography. In this year’s DV/Whitney workshop’s four+ days, we enjoyed highs in the glorious 80s, and I don’t recall seeing a single cloud (though there were unconfirmed rumors of a cloud sighting on the distant horizon late in the workshop).

But cloudless skies don’t need to mean lousy photography—they just shrink the window of opportunity. Places like Mosaic Canyon and Artist’s Palette are nice in the early morning or late afternoon shade. And in general, when clouds aren’t in the picture, the best photography skies are on the horizon opposite the sun before sunrise and after sunset. Last week I made a point of getting my group on location at least 45 minutes before sunrise, and kept them out well past sunset to photograph Death Valley’s one-of-a-kind topography beneath twilight’s shadowless pink and blue pastels. Among other things, in this light the dunes were fantastic (I was able to find a relatively footprint free area) all the way from shadowless twilight through high contrast early morning light, and the first light on Telescope Peak from Badwater was wonderful.

But the workshop’s real highlight, the element that elevated our week into something special, was the moon. The real moon show didn’t begin until it showed up above the primary views on our final two sunrises, but we got a nice preview on our first sunset when the waxing gibbous disk rose into the twilight wedge above the mountains east of Hell’s Gate. The next evening I took the group to panoramic Dante’s View; while the prime objective was photographing Death Valley’s last light and the sun setting from 5,000 vertical feet above Badwater, I instructed everyone to walk across the parking lot after sunset to catch the nearly full moon rising above the equally expansive (though significantly less spectacular) panorama of distant peaks to the east. The moon arrived early enough to allow at least ten minutes of quality photography, then we just kind of hung out to watch it for a little while longer. Very nice.

Friday morning’s sunrise we found the moon glowing as promised in the predawn indigo above Zabriskie Point. As the morning brightened, we watched the nearly round disk slide through twilight’s throbbing pink before disappearing directly behind Manly Beacon just a few minutes after sunrise.

But as nice as the Zabriskie shoot was, I think my personal favorite was the workshop’s final sunrise from the Alabama Hills. The group, now expert at managing the difficult contrast between foreground shadows and brilliant moon, immediately spread out to find their own foreground. One or two  headed straight for the Whitney Arch (aka, Mobius Arch), while the rest of us were quite content with the variety of boulders west and south of our the arch.

The thing that makes the Alabama Hills such a special location for sunrise is its position between towering peaks to the west, and relatively flat horizon to the east. At sunrise here, the Sierra crest juts into the blue and rose of the Earth’s receding shadow, then transitions to amber when the first rays of sunlight kiss its serrated peaks. You anticipate watch the sun’s arrival by watch the shadow descent the vertical granite until it bathes the weathered boulders with warm, ephemeral sunlight. Then, just like that, the show’s over.

I’ve shot this scene at sunrise so many times that I usually remain a spectator unless something special moves me to pull out my camera. Last Saturday, despite the absence of clouds, I just couldn’t resist the pull of the moon, which hovered like a mylar balloon in the night/day transition. At first there wasn’t enough light to photograph detail in the rocks and moon in a single frame, but eventually, with the help of a two-stop graduated neutral density filter, I was able to capture the image at the top of the blog.

Orion, Badwater by Moonlight, Death Valley

Orion, Badwater by Moonlight, Death Valley
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
15 seconds
17 mm
ISO 1600
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Another great thing about timing the Death Valley workshop to coincide with a full moon is our moonlight shoots. Of all the workshop moonlight shoots I do throughout the year, I think I look forward to the Death Valley Badwater shoot the most. This year’s didn’t disappoint—not only was the photography great, there’s just something about the playa’s warm temperatures and utter stillness that creates a genuinely festive atmosphere.

Moonset, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California

Moonset, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California
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Last year I photographed the same scene in different conditions. While this year’s capture highlights the Sierra crest and uses the blank sky and dark foreground to create a twilight feel, last year’s image was captured shortly after the sun lit the peaks and colored the clouds. I used a tighter composition to emphasize Mt. Whitney, the moon, and the pink clouds.

5 Comments on “The cure for blue skies

  1. Capturing the glory of a landscape is what landscape photography is about isn’t it? Clear skies, beautiful pastel tones, shades of reds and blues with contrasting jagged peaks, this is the glory of the Eastern Sierras and Alabama Foothills. I was fortunate to see 10 days of rain and storms in May in this area, followed by a 12 hour “Sierra Wave” but you can’t count on it! Shooting in dawn and dusk light, seeking compositions, understanding your camera and lenses though will prepare you for when you do see it though! Plus, that red dawn glow of the Eastern Sierras is nothing short of magical….Great image:)

  2. Pingback: These are a few of my favorite things | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

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