The best time of day

Sunrise Starburst, Mono Lake

Sunrise Starburst, Mono Lake
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1/4 second
ISO 125

Imagine a world that’s so quiet you can hear nature’s every stirring, a place where each breath holds a pristine bouquet of subtle fragrances, and the sky is a continuously shifting kaleidoscope of indigo, blue, yellow, orange, and red. In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m describing the very world we live in, before the sun’s light and warmth draw out the dirty, noisy, oblivious masses.

As a nature photographer, I’m quite familiar with this world. And while I can’t say that I relish a 4:30 a.m. alarm, I’ve come to terms with its darkness, frigid temps, and sleep depravity. I also understand why most people despise early wake-ups, because that used to describe me. We’ve been conditioned by a lifetime of rising for school and work and completely bypassing early morning’s benefits as we rush to obligations, appointments, and responsibilities that are almost invariably less pleasant than staying in bed.

But if you haven’t learned to appreciate the joy of the pre-sunrise world, let me help you reset your bias with a few tips for making early mornings happen:

  • For the full experience, plan to be at your spot at least 45 minutes before the “official” (flat horizon at that latitude and longitude) sunrise for that location. The eastern horizon will already be brightening noticeably by then, but the stars will be visible. (This is for mid-latitude locations—twilight starts earlier in the high latitudes, later in the low latitudes.)
  • Get organized before you go to bed. Lay your clothes out, assemble your gear, make sure everything’s charged, and prime the coffee maker. You do all this so you can…
  • Set your alarm for the absolute minimum time necessary to get ready. Your resolve will be much stronger at bedtime than when it goes off—the less time you have to delay, less the chance that you’ll lose your resolve to the cozy warmth of your bed. This also gives you the maximum amount of sleep possible. And don’t forget, one of the best things about being up when no one else is up and it’s dark is that it really doesn’t matter how you look (so you don’t really need to spend a lot of time on personal hygiene).
  • Under no circumstances use the snooze button on your alarm. Rising early is like ripping off a Band-Aid—the sooner you get it over with, the happier you’ll be; the longer you drag it out, the harder it is. Trust me.

    Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park

    The weather report called for clear skies and no chance of rain this morning. But the lightning was already firing when we walked out to Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Point in the dark, and it was still going when we finally ran out of compositions over two hours later.

  • Don’t be discouraged by the conditions at bedtime or wake-up. Some of my most memorable sunrises have happened on mornings I’d have skipped if I’d relied solely on weather reports, or on the way things look when I peek out the window after the alarm. Photography is just one of the benefits of being out before the sun. Even when the photography conditions don’t materialize as hoped, I rarely regret those mornings when I dragged myself out of bed to sit in the cold and dark. And for some reason, the most special stuff seems happen when I go out with the lowest expectations, driven solely by the attitude that I’m just going to enjoy this special time of day.

For example (the above image)

Getting to this remote location on Mono Lake’s north shore is always an adventure; getting there early enough before the sun can feel downright crazy. We depart an hour-and-a-half before sunrise, navigate a bone-jarring maze of unpaved roads that worsen with each mile, and drive until we can drive no further. From there the lake is still a half mile walk. Most of the hike is in volcanic sand, but the last couple hundred yards are through shoe-sucking mud; with no trail or light, it’s no wonder I never end up at the same spot from one year to the next.

Earlier this month my Eastern Sierra workshop group made the annual pilgrimage out here for our final sunrise. We’d been incredibly blessed with great conditions throughout the workshop—great sunrise and sunset color, nice clouds, and glassy reflections at Mono Lake’s South Tufa the day before (always a highlight when it happens). Our luck held as we got all three—color, clouds, and reflection—for this final sunrise.

Sunrise Starburst, Mono Lake

I started shooting in near darkness, with wide, east-facing compositions that included a thin slice of moon flanked by Venus, Jupiter, and Mars. My focus turned more south and west as the sun started to rise and paint the clouds with color. Soon the mountains in the west were bathed with warm light and I turned my attention there. The wind stayed calm, so every direction I shot, I was able to double the beauty with a reflection.

Watching the shadow slide down the mountains, I was able to anticipate the sun’s arrival at my position and turn back to the east just in time to make my sunstar composition. I used a trio of nearby rocks to anchor my foreground, removed my polarizer (I wanted a maximum reflection and didn’t want to worry about differential polarization at my wide focal length), extracted my 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter (Singh-Ray), and stopped down to f-20 to enhance the sunstar effect.

When the sun appeared I clicked a half-dozen or so images, each with a little bit brighter sunstar. I chose this one because it was a good balance between brilliant sunstar without washing out too much of the sky around it. Thanks to my GND and the ridiculous dynamic range of my a7R II, I got this scene with a single click. In Photoshop I dodged the top 2/3 of the sky and burned the water to disguise the GND effect, but did very little else.

Join me in the Eastern Sierra next year

The joys of sunrise

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

14 Comments on “The best time of day

  1. Beautiful image, Gary and lovely thoughts besides. I think I’m going to go for a bit of that “sleep depravity” myself ;~)

  2. Every time I get one of your emails I shake my head and promise myself to work more at creating great images. Thanks for the ongoing inspiration.

  3. Fantastic, Gary! I particularly love the unusual Yosemite photo and the one from White Sands! Stunning! Congrats!

    Sent from my iPad


  4. Absolutely marvelous pictures, all of them. I could look at them for hours. Nature at its best and captured by one of the best. I just had hip replacement surgery and staring at these pictures has a decidedly calming and healing effect. Thank you!

  5. I love your work Gary! When I look at your images I find myself starring just thinking how it would be to be there. There is so much detail and wonder. They definitely bring peace. Great Job!

  6. Gary – Best Time of Day is beautiful, stunning and has such a crystal clear presence to the image. I’m just wondering given this image, how large can you print this retaining all of its sharpness in full frame large backlit sensor 42MP’s? Thanks in advance for your answer. Wishing you continued success and great preparation. Rita

    Sent from my iPad


  7. Absolutely incredible images! I love taking pictures of sunrises as well although my photos are not nearly as good. It is hard to wake up sometimes but once I do, it is magical. I always feel like I am the only person in the world watching the world being reborn.

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