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 pink. 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.
The magic begins long before the human eye can register detail and color, when a few stars still burn overhead and nearby objects loom as vague shapes. Lacking enough light for the eyes to do their thing, the human experience an hour before sunrise is biased toward the non-visual senses as the sounds of gentle breezes, flowing water, and stirring creatures mingle with the smells of dew and plants. For the next 30 minutes, the horizon seems to brighten faster than the rest of the scene, but as the sun approaches the horizon, the earth’s shadow appears, swallowing stars with its steely blue. Behind the earth’s shadow is the twilight wedge (or belt of Venus), as the sun’s longest wavelengths battle through the atmosphere to color the sky pink.
Photographing this pre-sunrise show can start earlier than your eyes might tell you. Experienced photographers understand that what we perceive as darkness is just our eyes’ relatively limited ability to gather light, combined with the brain’s insistence on processing this limited input instantaneously. But a camera’s sensor accumulates all the light that strikes it for whatever duration we prescribe, thereby stretching the “instant” of perception indefinitely and allowing us to use every possible photon.
Another advantage a digital sensor has over the human eye is its ability to extract color from this apparent darkness. The human eye uses rods and cones to collect light, with the rods doing the heavy lifting in low light, pulling enough monochrome information to discern shapes, but providing little help with color and depth. The cones that complete the scene with color and depth information don’t kick in until there’s much more light. But a digital sensor, though blind to depth, captures photons without discrimination, allowing it to “see” color in very low light.
The ability to capture aspects of the natural world that differ from the human perspective might just be my favorite thing about photography, and these sunrise moments provide a great opportunity to engage the camera’s strength. When the scene is in the same direction as the rising sun, I look for shapes to isolate against the sky, then underexpose enough to turn the shapes into silhouettes, and to prevent the color from being washed out by the sun’s brilliance. When the sun is rising at my back, I take the opposite approach, giving the scene extra light to extract invisible detail from the virtually shadowless light and reveal hidden color in the sky and landscape.
About this image
On the penultimate day of each Death Valley Winter Moon workshop, my group makes the scenic, 90 minute drive from Death Valley to Lone Pine for the workshop’s final sunset and sunrise. The view in the Alabama Hills faces west, so at sunset we’re photographing shaded mountains beneath the brightest part of the sky—not ideal conditions for photography. If we’re lucky enough to get clouds, these Alabama Hills sunsets can still be special, but really it’s the sunrise that we’re here for. At sunrise in the Alabama Hills, we face the Sierra as the sun rises at our back, first coloring the sky with the blue hues of Earth’s shadow, followed by the magenta and pinks of twilight wedge.
Another special aspect of an Alabama Hills sunrise is the Sierra Crest. Towering 10,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, Mt. Whitney and its neighbors jut into the twilight wedge, and for a few sweet seconds take on its pink pastels that photographers call alpenglow.
This year’s sunset was nothing spectacular, but we walked out to the famous Mobius Arch, checked out a couple of other less noteworthy arches nearby, and I pointed out some of the area’s many movie-shoot spots. I was also able to show everyone where the morning sun would rise, and where the moon would set, and introduce them to the most prominent peaks on display: Lone Pine Peak on the left, Mt. Whitney in the middle, and Mt. Williamson on the right.
The forecast for the next morning was clear skies—maybe not dramatic, but good for the planned moonset and ideal for alpenglow on the crest. My general rule for any location is to arrive at least 30 minutes before the “official” (flat horizon) sunrise time, but in the Alabama Hills in winter, I like to get out there even earlier because the warm light from the eastern horizon light reflects off the snow and granite makes the peaks appear to glow in the dark.
The next morning, loading up in the dark at the hotel I glance toward Mt. Whitney and saw a bank of clouds fringing the crest. At first I was concerned that these clouds would obliterate Mt. Whitney, but arriving at our spot in the Alabama Hills, I realized the peak was indeed out, its tip just barely poking into the clouds. We’d arrived about 45 minutes before sunrise, but I barked (gently) at everyone not to delay, that the light (that still required headlamps to navigate) was great photography, despite what their eyes told them. Most beelined to the arch, but I saw a telephoto opportunity and quickly set up right next to the car.
White with snow, Mt. Whitney stood in dramatic contrast to the dark sky and foreground. Using the thin strip of clouds to frame the crest, I started by including some of the sky above the clouds, but quickly tightened my composition to simplify the composition. My 30-second exposure to brightened the image far beyond what my eyes saw, and smoothed all detail from the shifting clouds.
The eastern horizon was already gold from the approaching sun, and while I couldn’t really tell that by looking at Whitney, it was apparent with my very first frame. The light you see on the clouds and Whitney in this image is reflected from the horizon, even though the sun was more than a half-hour from rising. All of the darker terrain below Whitney was too low for a direct view of the horizon light.
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