Reach for the Sky

Gary Hart Photography: Sierra Sunrise, Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills

Sierra Sunrise, Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney, Alabama Hills
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
2 seconds
F/16
ISO 100

We tend to photograph the things we love most, but I don’t think that necessarily happens consciously. For example, I never appreciated the role the sky plays in my photography until someone pointed it out a few years ago. Browsing my galleries to verify, I was amazed at the percentage of my images that include at least one of the following: the sun, the moon, stars, a rainbow, lightning, or dramatic clouds. (And more recently, the northern lights.)

While I never set out to be a “skyscape” photographer, given my background, I guess it makes sense. (Or more succinctly, “Duh.”) As an astronomy enthusiast since I was a child, and an armchair meteorologist since my late teens, I spent most of my formative years with my eyes and mind on the sky. I continued these childhood interests into adulthood, studying both astronomy and meteorology in college (I even majored in astronomy for a few semesters), and to this day can’t pass up a book or article on either topic. Even without a camera, I can spend hours watching clouds form and dissipate, or gazing at the stars.

A few tips for good sky photography

  • The amount of sky and landscape a frame gets is pretty much a function of the visual appeal of each: the better the sky relative to the landscape, the more frame real-estate it gets. Both nice? No problem splitting the frame in the middle (despite what the “expert” at your camera club says).
  • Clear sky? Use the absolute minimum sky possible—sometimes that’s a thin strip at the top of the frame; other times it’s no sky at all.
  • Great sky? Give it most of your frame, with only something like a tree, rock, or water feature as a visual anchor.
  • Watch the clouds. Clouds can add as much to a scene as the landscape feature you’re there to photograph. While the rules for compositional elements in the sky are no different than they are for elements in the landscape, I’m afraid clouds are frequently overlooked, leading to things like a towering thunderhead with its top cropped, or a rogue patch of blue intruding into a uniformly cloudy ceiling. Sometimes these things can’t be avoided, but you should always make the edges of your frame a conscious choice, even in the sky.
  • As great as clouds are, I especially enjoy including special elements that can be subjects in themselves (like a rainbow, lightning, the Milky Way, the moon, and so on). Rather than showing up and benignly accepting whatever the scene delivers, I aggressively pursue sky subjects by planning my visits to coincide with the best chance for something interesting in the sky. I start with a landscape scene I like, then figure out what sky feature or features I might be able to put with it. How can I get this scene with the Milky Way? What about a full or crescent moon? A rainbow? Lightning? ( (And before you ask, I refuse to add a sky in post—like everything else I photograph, all of my images that include the sky happen with one click.)
  • Weather phenomena require a little knowledge and planning, and a lot of luck. For example, whenever I shoot in rain, or just when there’s the potential for rain, I figure out where a rainbow would appear if the sun were to break through (your shadow will point to the center of the rainbow). And don’t think you can just go out and photograph lightning because you’re in an electrical storm and have a camera. Not only is capturing lightning very difficult without knowledge, experience, and the right equipment, it’s just plain dangerous. Read my tips for photographing lightning.
  • Night photography is about the stars, so make sure you give enough of your frame to the sky to highlight the stars. My rule of thumb is 2/3 sky, but sometimes I’ll do even more. And exceptions are okay (always!): if the foreground is more spectacular than the starry sky, go ahead and split the frame evenly between the sky and landscape, or give it more landscape than sky.
  • While photographing the Milky Way’s isn’t as dangerous as photographing lightning (unless you walk off a cliff in the dark), like lightning photography, including the Milky Way (the right way) also requires a lot of knowledge and experience, as well as the right equipment. Read my tips on photographing the Milky Way.
  • The moon is predictable, requiring only clear skies, a sturdy tripod, and maybe some warm clothes. Before any photo trip, I make a point of knowing the moon’s phase and rise/set times and position. Read my tips for photographing the moon.

About this image

I captured this scene on the final morning of this year’s Death Valley photo workshop. After three glorious days in Death Valley, we made the 90 minute drive to Lone Pine for a chance to photograph the Alabama Hills at sunset and sunrise. While Death Valley and the Alabama Hills are spectacular landscapes, both are plagued by chronic blue skies, so (speaking of planning for the sky) this workshop is always scheduled around the full moon.

We’d had fantastic clouds throughout our Death Valley stay, but the forecast for Lone Pine was clear skies. No problem, I thought, we’ll have the moon. And we did indeed get the moon, but we also got a bonus layer of thin cirrus clouds that turned a brilliant pink shortly before the sun touched the tallest peaks.

I’d been focused on the moon’s slow descent toward Mt. Williamson (the next peak to the north and just out of the frame on the right) when the color started to kick in. Instead of sticking with Plan A (the moon), I quickly reevaluated the scene and decided that the color in the clouds was best above Lone Pine Peak (on the left) and Mt. Whitney. Vivid color like this doesn’t last long, so I just took the foreground before me, grateful to be in the Alabama Hills, where there’s no such thing as a bad foreground.

With so much going on visually, this is one of those scenes where it’s easy to unconsciously cut off clouds. Ideally every cloud would be a complete entity, surrounded on all sides by blue sky or other clouds. Of course achieving that is easier said than done, but my goal is to make all of my border choices conscious rather than having to later accept what I got because my attention was elsewhere.

Because in my mind the most important cloud feature was the large, pink blob above and right of Lone Pine Peak, I was very careful to include all of it. And you need to take my word that the clouds that run right up to an edge (or just barely poke in from an edge) were in fact seen and consciously handled. But it was impossible to go wide enough on the right to include all of that cloud; and going wide enough to avoid cutting off the other clouds on the edges would have introduced other, even worse, compositional problems.

My point isn’t to justify my choices, it’s merely to point out that they were conscious. (In fact, you may have evaluated this scene differently and made much better choices.) But this underscores one of the things I love most about photography: the blend of conscious and unconscious. I started this post writing about my love of the sky and how that love unconsciously became a major factor in my personal style. Now I finish by emphasizing my drive to be hyper-conscious. And you know what? Each is equally true.


More Clouds

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

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