Dark and early

Daybreak, South Tufa, Mono Lake

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The key to successful sunrise photography is arriving early. How early? My rule of thumb is, if you can navigate without a flashlight, you’re too late. I know, I know, you’re sleepy and it’s cold, but it shouldn’t take more than one or two mad sprints beneath crimson skies to get you to pull back those covers just a few minutes earlier. And guess what—when you arrive early enough to savor the sunrise rather than rush through it, you’ll soon recognize a purity of air, sound, and light that just can’t be found at any other time of day.

At popular spots like Mono Lake, arriving at least forty-five minutes before sunrise has the added advantage of beating most of the people with whom you’ll be competing for choice real estate. The air here is often graveyard-still this early, the lake a perfect mirror. While the landscape is dark to my eyes, a gold-blue band on the horizon hints at the approaching day, and I know it’s not too early for long exposures that will reveal color and detail my eyes can’t see yet.

The image here was captured about a week and a half ago, on the penultimate sunrise of this year’s Eastern Sierra photo workshop, over 40 minutes before sunrise. Experience has shown me that people don’t always realize how well today’s digital SLR cameras perform in low light; when it’s this dark I sometimes need to prod workshop students to start shooting. Often the best way to do that is to fire off a couple of frames of my own to show them what’s there.

It was dark enough that stars were visible overhead (take a look at the exposure settings to get an idea of how dark it was). I spot-metered the brightest part of the sky, dialing in an exposure that was two stops above a middle tone—just bright enough to bring out foreground detail without washing out the color in the sky.

My “rule” (I hate that word) for the horizon is to place it relative to the aesthetic appeal of the foreground versus the sky: If the sky is a lot better than the foreground, the sky gets most of the frame; if the foreground is a lot better than the sky, the majority of the frame goes to the foreground; when it’s a tossup, the horizon line goes in the middle.

This was just the beginning of what turned out to be an amazing sunrise, the kind a workshop leader prays he can give his group. By the time it was over everyone had shots facing east, north, and west. About fifteen minutes after I took this the sky turned an impossible crimson that reflected in the lake, making it appear to be on fire. I have images of that too, but there’s just something about the tranquility of these earliest images that really resonates with me.

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I’ll try to reprise this morning next year, in my 2013 Eastern Sierra Fall Color photo workshop. (As I write this, nearly a year out, it’s already half full.)

Sunsets are red because the sky is blue

Sunset, Mono Lake

A sunset myth

If your goal is a colorful sunset/sunrise and you have to choose between pristine or polluted air, which would you choose? If you said clean air, you’re in the minority. You’re also right. But despite some pretty obvious evidence to the contrary, it seems that the myth that a colorful sunset requires lots of particles in the air persists. If particles in the air were necessary for sunset color, Los Angeles would be known for its incredible sunsets and Hawaii would only be known for its beaches.

But what is the secret to a great sunset? Granted, a cool breeze, warm surf, and a Mai Tai are a great start, but I’m thinking more photographically than recreationally (sorry). I look for a mix of clouds (to catch the color) and sky (to pass the sunlight), with a particular emphasis on a clear western horizon (or eastern for sunrise). But even with a nice mix of clouds and sky, sometimes the color fizzles. Often the missing ingredient, contrary to common belief, is clean air, the cleaner the better. And like most things, it all makes sense when you understand what’s going on.

Light and color

Understanding sunset color starts with understanding how sunlight and the atmosphere interact to make the sky blue. As you probably know, visible light reaches our eyes in waves of varying length, with each wavelength perceived as a different color. Starting with the shortest wavelengths and moving toward the longest, visible light goes from violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. (These color names are arbitrary labels we’ve assigned to the colors we perceive at various points along the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum—there are an infinite number of colors in between each of these colors.) When a beam of light passes through a vacuum (such as space), it moves in a straight line, without interference, so all its wavelengths reach our eyes simultaneously and we perceive the light as white.

Why is the sky blue?

When light interacts with a foreign object—for example, when a beam of sunlight enters our atmosphere—different wavelengths respond differently depending on the size of the molecules they encounter. If sunlight encounters molecules that are larger than its wavelengths, such as atmospheric impurities like dust or smoke, all its wavelengths bounce off (reflect). Because these large molecules are of varying sizes, a variety of wavelengths (colors) get blended into a hazy sky with a gray or brown cast. If all the wavelengths get bounced equally, the sky will appear white(ish).

When a beam of sunlight hits the much smaller molecules that comprise our atmosphere, such as nitrogen and oxygen, rather than reflecting, some of its wavelengths are absorbed, then scattered in all directions. Because the shorter wavelengths (violet and blue) absorb and scatter most easily, they’re the first to scatter, while the longer wavelengths (orange and red) pass through to color the sky of someone farther away. The more direct the sunlight’s path to our eyes (the less atmosphere it passes through), the more we see the first (blue) wavelengths to scatter. When the sun is high in our sky, its light takes the most direct path through the atmosphere and our sky is blue. In the mountains sunlight has passed through even less atmosphere and the sky appears even more blue than it does at sea level.

Sunrise/sunset color

When the sun is on the horizon, the light that reaches us has traveled through so much atmosphere that it has been stripped of its blueness (those wavelengths are coloring the sky of someone whose sun is high overhead), leaving only the long wavelengths. This paints our sunrise/sunset sky shades of orange and red.

Clean air for color

One problem with pollutants is that large airborne particles absorb light, which subdues the intensity of the sunrise/sunset. But more than subdued intensity, airborne junk just plain muddles color.

Anyone who has blended a smoothie consisting of a variety of brightly colored ingredients (such as strawberries, blueberries, and spinach—yum) knows the smoothie’s color won’t be nearly as vivid as any of its ingredients, not even close. Instead you’ll end up with a brownish or grayish muck that might at best be slightly tinted with the color of the predominant ingredient. That’s what happens to the color when the light has to interact with large airborne particles like dust, smoke, and smog. Because these particles aren’t of uniform size, they each reflect a slightly different color rather than allowing one vivid color to dominate. In the middle of the day pollution means less blue; at sunrise/sunset, it’s less pink, red, and orange.

For example

One of my favorite sunrise/sunset locations is the Eastern Sierra. Its location on the lee side of the Sierra keeps the air relatively pristine, and the clouds formed by the interaction of the prevailing westerly wind’s with the precipitous Sierra crest are both unique and dramatic.

Mono Lake makes a particularly nice subject for the Eastern Sierra’s brilliant shows. Not only does it benefit from the Eastern Sierra’s clean air and photogenic clouds, Mono Lake’s tufa formations and (frequently) reflective surface make a wonderful foreground subject. And the openness of the terrain allows you to watch the entire sunrise or sunset unfold. Many times over the course of a sunrise or sunset I’ve photographed in every direction.

The above image was at the tail end of a particularly vivid Mono Lake sunset. The air was clean and I was very fortunate to get not only clouds and color, but also perfectly calm wind that turned the lake’s surface to glass. As you may have noticed by the 15 second exposure, the color lasted quite long that night, and this was toward the end of the show.

I wanted sharpness throughout the frame, so I stopped down to f16—being on a tripod, the long shutter speed wasn’t a factor. I paid careful attention to orienting my polarizer to pick up the color reflecting on the water in the left side of the frame, while removing enough reflection on the right to reveal the submerged rocks. This resulted in differential polarization in the sky as well, but that was a relatively easy fix with my Dodge/Burn action in Photoshop. The rest of the processing for this image was pretty straightforward, with some noise reduction, a slight crop for framing, selective contrast adjustment, and a little desaturation of the blue channel.

I find that the more I can anticipate skies like this, the better prepared I am when something spectacular happens. I was at the lake well before the color started, but because it looked like all the sunset stars were aligning, I was able to plan my shots well before they arrived. I’m far from perfect at predicting conditions, but the more I learn (and experience), the better I get.

Photographers are stupid (and I have proof)

Saturated Sunset, Rush Creek, Eastern Sierra

When I was nine or ten my dad took me to the top of a towering granite dome in Yosemite and asked me to hold his umbrella while he tried to photograph lightning. My dad was not a stupid man, nor was he an unloving or irresponsible father. But it was the first example in my life of how the behavior of an otherwise rational adult can be altered by the simple act of holding a camera. I used to shake my head at some of the things I observed photographers do, and the get-the-shot-at-all-costs photographer stories I heard. That is, until….

October, 2006

An incoming storm had set up the sky for one of those electric sunsets that photographers come to Mono Lake for: towering clouds, shafting light, glassy water—all that was missing was me and my camera. You see, I’d gotten so caught up in the fabulous fall color in nearby Lundy Canyon that I’d lost track of time and was now rushing to beat the sunset to Mono Lake’s South Tufa. I’d chosen South Tufa because its familiarity meant I could pretty much roll out of my truck and find a shot without a hunt. Plus, I knew a shortcut that would save at least five minutes (and what self-respecting photographer passes an opportunity to take a shortcut?). Unfortunately, I’d become so focused on the goings-on in the sky (photographers rarely watch the road) that I’d missed my shortcut, which was why I was barreling down Highway 395 pondering two options: Continue to 120, or turn around and locate the dirt road shortcut? Neither would ensure a timely arrival at South Tufa.

Then, like a gift from Heaven, an unpaved road veering in the general direction of the lake materialized on my left and I swerved without conscious thought across all four lanes of highway, abruptly enough to send all my gear crashing to the floor behind me. This improvised route, all sagebrush and stone, was new to me, but it soon became clear that not only did the road head in the right direction, its washboard surface smoothed out quite nicely at a fairly brisk 40 mph. Congratulating myself on my truly excellent judgement, I nudged the speedometer even higher and started visualizing the sunset possibilities. Barely slowing for a sharp bend, my foot was already back on the accelerator as I exited the curve, which, it turns out, channeled me like a boat ramp toward the heretofore overlooked (and aptly named) Rush Creek, swift and swollen by recent rain. Traveling at more than 40 miles per hour allowed no more than a fraction of a second for deliberation: Hit the brakes and accept defeat, or accelerate and hope?

There must be a mutation polluting photographers’ gene pool, a “get the shot at all costs” mindset that causes paparazzi to pursue princesses with no regard for life, acclaimed photographic masters to clone full moons and zebras into already lovely images, and hungry landscape photographers to believe that really, really wanting a shot is enough to turn a two-wheel drive Toyota Tacoma into a flying machine.

So. It turns out that Toyotas don’t fly. Nor do they float. Of this I have empirical proof. At 40 miles per hour they do, however, have significant inertia. In this case enough inertia to deliver me to the center of a rushing creek before turning me over to another, more inconvenient, force of nature: gravity. Thus, in water swift enough to nudge a one-and-a-half ton truck several feet downstream, my Tacoma sank like a stone. To the doors. Had it been equipped with four-wheel drive, or even front-wheel drive, I might have been able to gain enough purchase to extricate myself, but rear-wheel drive on a submerged pickup is about as useful as wheels on a boat.

Once I came to a rest I turned off the ignition and sat, feeling quite stupid and thinking, maybe if I just sit here, nobody will ever find out. I’m not sure how long I entertained this fantasy, but frigid creek water tickling my toes finally spurred me to action–if my feet were getting wet, what about all the camera gear on the floor in the back? With (selfless) disregard for my own safety, I dove into the back of the cab and rescued my camera bag from the incoming torrent. After stuffing my cell phone in a pocket, I rolled down my window, scrambled onto the hood, stepped gingerly across to the front fender, and leapt to shore.

Out of harm’s way, I surveyed my surroundings. I was actually on a small island, though the channel in front of me wasn’t nearly as deep and swift as the one that had swallowed my truck. Unlike my truck, the road emerged from the creek and disappeared into the inhospitable landscape. With no cell signal and snow promised for later, I knew rescue would require a hike, perhaps as far as South Tufa (a couple of miles away). For some reason it occurred to me that most carnivorous predators are nocturnal. I eyed the darkening sky and with renewed focus charged forward, traipsing through the rest of the creek without bothering to remove my sandals and socks or roll up my pants.

Fortunately, I only had to trek about a half mile before finding a cell signal. Because this was in the days preceding ubiquitous GPS devices, I had to muster all my descriptive skills before the CHP dispatcher could assure me help was on the way. Somewhat assuaged, and having overdosed on urgency for more than hour, on the walk back I finally allowed myself to slow and appreciate the sunset (which had manifested as advertised), though my enthusiasm for photography had dampened considerably. (And when I heard the coyotes planning dinner, the urgency returned.)

Back at my truck, I sat on a rock and watched the wedge of daylight shrink behind the Sierra. After what seemed much longer than it probably was, a tow truck appeared (I never imagined a tow truck could be so beautiful), parking pretty much where I should have stopped in the first place. The driver got out and surveyed the scene, finally hand-signaling (the roar of the creek drowned his shouts) that he’d need to drive around to the other side to pull me out. I was less than enthusiastic about letting him leave, but there was clearly no way he was going to extricate my truck from way over there, and he seemed to know where he was going.

Relieved that I probably wasn’t going to be left to the coyotes, I decided it might be a good idea to snap a picture of my misfortune. Since I was reluctant to venture back onto the Toytanic to retrieve my tripod and remote-release, I switched to the fastest lens in my bag (f2.8), dialed my camera to ISO 3200, turned on the two-second timer, and plopped my butt onto the sand in front of the truck. With a flashlight clamped between my teeth and the camera firmly pressed to my chest (and one eye out for the tripod police), I fired a couple of frames, hoping one would be sharp enough. (If you look closely, you can see the concentric circles of the flashlight on the hood, as well as footprint.)

The darkness was nearly complete when the tow truck reappeared on my side of the creek, and within five minutes my truck was winched out and draining on dry land. I’d envisioned a long, shame-filled tow truck ride back into Lee Vining, but the tow truck driver suggested I try starting my truck—imagine my surprise when the engine turned over and fired right up. Not only that, when the driver found out I’m a AAA member, he told me there’d be no charge. When I sheepishly suggested that I might just be the stupidest person he’d ever helped, he told that in the spring he’d rescued another driver in a high clearance 4×4 who had tried crossing at the same spot (a photographer no doubt) when the water was high enough to actually turn his truck around. That made me feel marginally better.


I hadn’t driven far when my check-engine light came on, but everything continued to run fine. And anyway, I think three hundred dollars damage to my exhaust system, a saturated carpet, and a few soggy books and magazines is small price to pay for an education and a story.

Oh yeah–the snow started falling before I was done with dinner.

Goosebump moments

Sunrise Reflection, Mono Lake
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1/13 second
ISO 100
25 mm

On consecutive nights last week I had the good fortune to witness two memorable non-photographic events: Last Wednesday I watched on TV as Matt Cain pitched Major League Baseball’s twenty-second Perfect Game (and the Giants’ first ever); on Thursday night my wife and I went to see the touring Broadway production of “Wicked.” Both events were amazing, but only one moved me to tears. If you know I’m a life-long baseball fan who harbored Major League aspirations all the way through college, you probably guessed which one.

I’m not sure what this has to do with photography, except that I think it’s the unexpected component of sports and nature photography that moves me. The understanding that nothing is promised, and  that no matter how hard we work to to do our absolute best, we ultimately have no control over the result and just about anything is possible. When something truly special does happen, an event we’ve never witnessed before, it feels like a gift.

The tears that well up after witnessing a Perfect Game or Olympic Gold performance are stirred by empathy—I’ve had similar dreams and understand some of what the athlete must be feeling. But other people experience a physical response to great theater (and are bored to tears by baseball). My response to a magic moment in nature is actual chills and hair-raising goosebumps—different, but no less emotional (or controllable).

The morning I captured this sunrise on Mono Lake, I was there because it was the last day of my Eastern Sierra workshop and that’s where I take my groups for our final sunrise. No divine insight or lofty expectations guided me—simply a good knowledge of the area and prior experience that told me this is a nice spot in any conditions. I certainly never expect (and try not to even permit myself to hope for) something as magic as what we got that morning.

We rose in the frigid, predawn darkness, navigated a network of rutted dirt roads, and walked a trail-less half mile by flashlight through heavy sand and (ultimately) shoe-sucking mud to get here. The morning brightened to reveal a perfect mix of herringbone clouds and blue sky. The air was utterly still and the lake surface spread before us like an infinite mirror. We started with silhouettes, using the shoreline shapes as foreground elements, and when the color arrived we found shots in all direction. As the color faded, but before the sun appeared, I made sure everyone was ready for the brief opportunity to capture a sunburst as the sun peaked above the horizon: We dialed our apertures down (f16 or smaller) and prepared for the difficult light by pulling out graduated neutral density filters (my choice) or setting up bracketing to allow post-exposure blending. When that was over we still had a few minutes of exquisite warm sidelight. One of my responsibilities during these shoots is to remind everyone to stop being photographers long enough to appreciate what they’re witnessing—it seems counterproductive, but I truly believe tapping these goosebump feelings inspires the best photography.

Just as not everyone who loves theater has a Tony, or everyone who loves baseball has thrown a Perfect Game, not everyone who loves nature has people clamoring for their photos. But I’m pretty sure that those who have risen to the highest level of their profession have chosen something that touches them in ways they can’t completely understand or control.

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