In my Snow day post a few days ago, I shared the story of an overnight dash to Yosemite to photograph snow. I wrapped up that long day photographing various Yosemite Valley views in the frigid damp, bundled at Tunnel View, waiting in vain for the storm to clear. The sky was darkening quickly, and when a dense cloud engulfed my view I decided my (pretty sweet) day was probably done.
Hungry, tired, and cold to the core, I still faced a nearly 4-hour drive home. But descending into the valley El Capitan popped out, and as I approached the crossover that would loop me back to the park exit, all I needed was a single bright star to abort my exit plan and take one last look at a favorite Half Dome reflection. If nothing was happening, I rationalized, the detour would add only 20 minutes to my night—but if the storm had indeed finally cleared, the view would be worth whatever extra time it cost. Dinner would just have to wait.
I arrived at my reflection to find that in the short time it took me to span Yosemite Valley, clearing around Half Dome was well underway. With just a few minutes of late twilight photography, when my straining eyes could still make out snow-etched features in the fading light, I ran to the river and set up fast. Though a little light remained, already my camera was pulling out exquisite detail far better than my eyes could, and I worked fast to take full advantage of this perfect, shadowless light before it darkened into full-on night photography.
The image I share here was one of the last I captured before the darkness behind Half Dome was replaced by the glow of the rising, nearly full moon. By this time nightfall was almost complete to my eyes, but my camera still picked up sunset’s waning vestiges in a cloud capping Half Dome.
This scene is just one more illustration of something I preach to all who will listen—the camera sees the world differently than you and I do. Going home too soon after sunset is one of the most frequent mistakes made by inexperienced photographers.
Instead of heading straight to dinner, hang around for silhouettes and reflections using the fiery hues that follow the sun below the western horizon. Then turn and bask in the pink and blue pastels coloring sky opposite the sun, when the entire scene is illuminated by faint but sweet blue-gray skylight. By now it will be pretty dark to your eyes, but your camera is up to the task, I promise.
Of course you’ll need a DSLR and sturdy tripod to make the most of the low light. Remove your polarizer, bump your ISO, and stretch your shutter speed until the histogram is fairly centered—you’ll see that the image on your LCD is much brighter than the scene your eyes see. You’ll also see that dynamic range is not a concern, and the detail the camera pulls out in the shadowless light is impossible at any other time of day (except in the same light that precedes sunrise).
This evening I stayed well past twilight, not leaving until the stars popped out and the moon-glow washed out the sky behind Half Dome. And believe it or not, my day wasn’t finished….
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