Posted on July 24, 2018
We’ve all heard it: “That’s so fake,” or “You Photoshopped that,” or some other derisive barb implying that an image is trying to be something it isn’t. But before you say that about this image, let me say that I processed it five times, each time dialing down the saturation, attempting to create something that would appear credible to the dubious masses. And with each pass, the color looked a little less like what we saw this unforgettable New Zealand morning. So finally I just said, enough is enough—you’ll just have trust me when I tell you that for the sake of credibility, you’re already being cheated of that morning’s full spectacle.
Don Smith and I got our New Zealand winter workshop group up early to photograph sunrise at the famous Wanaka willow tree. The tree was just a short walk from our hotel, and even though we still had 45 minutes until sunrise, it was apparent the second we stepped outside that something special was in store. Though it was still dark enough to require flashlights, already the entire sky radiated a rich ruby red. Since we’d shown the group the tree the prior afternoon, a few rushed ahead, but Don and I held back with the stragglers. Nevertheless, even the stragglers pace quickened as the red deepened, and by the time we reached the tree we were pretty much jogging.
Turns out we needn’t have rushed. For the next 30 minutes the red intensified until everything in sight seemed to buzz with color. I’ve experienced color like this a few times in my life, and the best way to describe is that it feels like the light possesses a physical component that penetrates my skin and everything else it touches. And with the sky throbbing in all directions, I felt like I might get dizzy whirling about to avoid missing something. Soon we all just started laughing at how unbelievable the show was, knowing that every picture we shared would be met with the obligatory “That’s so fake” skepticism.
All this got me thinking again about what causes color in the sky, so I dusted off a post I wrote a few years ago, tweaked a few things, and…
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 sunrise or 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 sky (to pass the sunlight) and clouds (to catch the color), with a particular emphasis on a clear horizon in the direction of the sun. 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 of the wavelengths bounce off (reflect). Because these large molecules are of varying sizes, a variety of wavelengths (colors) get blended into a murky 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 of the gases that comprise our atmosphere (such as nitrogen and oxygen), some of its wavelengths are absorbed while others are reflected and scattered in all directions. Because the shorter wavelengths (violet and blue) scatter most easily; the longer wavelengths (orange and red) continue on to color the sky of someone farther away. The more direct the sunlight’s path to our eyes, the less atmosphere it passes through and 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 most blue (assuming no pollutants have altered the scattering). In the mountains, sunlight has passed through even less atmosphere and the sky appears even more blue than it does at sea level.
When the sun is on the horizon, the light that reaches us has traveled through so much atmosphere that at the very least it has been stripped of its blueness because the blue wavelengths are the first to scatter (those wavelengths are coloring the sky of someone whose sun is high overhead). And if that sunrise/sunset light hasn’t encountered larger dust and smoke molecules on its journey, only the red wavelengths will have survived unscathed, and everyone enjoys the show.
The cleaner the air, the more vivid the sunrise/sunset color. To understand the mixing effect that happens when a variety of wavelengths are bounced around by large airborne particles, think about blending a smoothie consisting of a variety of brightly colored ingredients (such as strawberries, blueberries, and spinach—yum). Your 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.
Clouds can enhance sunrise/sunset color by catching the red wavelengths and reflecting them back to our eyes, but only if there’s an opening on the horizon for the light pass through. Without clouds, the red wavelengths continue on to color the horizon opposite the sun—a “twilight wedge” when the color is in the sky, and “alpenglow” when mountains jut into the colored region of the sky and take on the color themselves.
So. To the skeptics who reflexively dismiss pictures like this, you might want to suggest that they spend more time out in nature. Whether it’s a tropical bird, a fluttering butterfly, a field of wildflowers, or a New Zealand sunrise, there really is nothing subtle about color in nature.
Posted on September 11, 2014
Tomorrow I head off to the Big Island for my annual workshop there. Not a bad gig.
One of the great things about Hawaii is the fact that there is no such thing as a private beach—all beaches are open to everyone. Of course that doesn’t give tourists carte blanche to do as they please, and some locals can be pretty territorial about “their” beaches. But I’ve found that if you treat the beaches with respect (leave it as you found it, or better), honor the many areas of spiritual significance (don’t go traipsing through burial grounds and religious sites), and don’t disturb the locals (use your inside voice), most Hawaiians are quite happy to share their beautiful coast and lush rain forests.
Unlike the smooth beaches and gentle surf of the Big Island’s Kona side, the Hilo side is bounded by rugged, volcanic beaches—not great for swimming, but fantastic to photograph. It’s this way because Kilauea has been in some degree of activity for many centuries, and most of this volcanic activity is focused on the Puna Coast south and west of Hilo. The result is pretty much ubiquitous black rock and sand like you see here.
Driving the narrow road that follows the Puna Coast is one of my favorite things to do on the Big Island—on every visit I “discover” another hidden gem (or two) like this. I found this anonymous beach while exploring one afternoon a couple of years ago, and rose early the next morning to get out there for sunrise. Many Hawaii sunrises and sunsets have clouds all the way down to the horizon, but on this morning, much to my delight, the rising sun found its way through a gap in the clouds.
One more thing I love about Hawaii? Well, there’s the ability to photograph sunrise in a tank top, shorts, and flip-flops. Can’t wait….
(Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show)
Posted on October 9, 2013
It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s early—so early that some would still consider it late. But you drag yourself out of bed anyway, for the promise of something most people never experience. And experience is the operative word here, because it’s much more than just the view. Or the photography. It’s the opportunity to witness the transition from night to day, to bask in a quiet that’s impossible in our metropolitan mayhem, to inhale clean, chilled air, and to watch the rising sun’s warm hues push back Earth’s indigo shadow to devour the twinkling vestiges of night. Of course you can watch this happen in reverse after sunset, but it’s just not the same in a world has been lived in for a dozen or so hours.
I’d scheduled this year’s Eastern Sierra workshop to conclude on the one day each month when a sliver of moon floats in the transition between night and day. To photograph the moon this small and close to the sun, I try to be in place an hour before “official” sunrise (the posted sunrise time, when the sun would crest a flat horizon), when darkness still predominates. With a five mile drive on a rugged, unpaved road, and a half mile (or so) trail-less walk through sand and mud, I got the group on the road at 5:15 for our 7:00 a.m. sunrise. Despite some blurry eyes, there was no grumbling; and by the time we were ready to trek to the lake, everyone was in great spirits.
On this morning Mother Nature rewarded us by chasing away the clouds that had dogged the horizon the last couple of days. These clouds had given us brilliant color, but had also preempted our night photography shoot just ten hours earlier; I was concerned that they’d obscure the moon I’d been so looking forward to. No problem—in the clouds’ place we found this two-percent slice of old moon, one day removed from new, just as I’d ordered. Phew.
Because this was the last day of the workshop, everyone had pretty much mastered the difficulty of exposing for a dark foreground beneath a bright horizon—some blended multiple exposures, others reached for their graduated neutral density filters—allowing them to concentrate on creativity. I tried a variety of compositions, horizontal and vertical orientations from wide to tight, and encouraged the rest of the group to do the same (though I suspect that by now they’d all learned to tune me out).
This is one of the first images I captured that morning. It was still dark enough that the amount of light required to bring out any detail in the foreground also revealed lots of lunar detail in the earth-shadow, and stars still pierced much of the sky. Nice. To ensure that I didn’t get motion blur in the moon, I made some compromises: I dropped to f5.6 (depth of field wasn’t a concern, but lenses are slightly slightly less sharp as the approach their extreme apertures) and bumped to ISO 800 (with my 5D Mark III and today’s noise reduction software, noise at ISO 800 is no longer much of a concern). For most of my images that morning I used a two-stop hard-transition graduated neutral density filter to subdue the bright horizon, but this was one of my earliest images, captured before that was necessary.
The group was pretty quiet for most of this sunrise, usually a sign that they’re pretty happy with what they see and the images they’re capturing. Every once in a while I’d answer a question, or offer suggestions, but it seemed like people were pretty much “in the zone.” Nevertheless, I did pause couple of times to remind everyone not to get so caught up in their photography that they forget to appreciate what we’re witnessing.
These ephemeral moments in nature change subtly but quickly—soon the stars disappeared and moon faded into the advancing daylight. By the time the sun crested the horizon, our attention had turned to the warmly lit peaks behind us. And then it was over.
Posted on September 24, 2013
This is the second installment in my semi-regular “Favorites” series
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Some things you just can’t plan. But if you have experienced the disappointment that comes when preparation, sacrifice, and extreme discomfort end in complete failure, yet have still gone back out the next time and the next time and the next time, Mother Nature will sometimes reward you with gifts of exquisite beauty. More than the successful shot that was planned and executed to perfection, it’s these gifts that keep me going back out with my camera when I’d so much rather be at the dinner table, curled in bed, or reading by the fire.
I’ve had a few of these unexpected blessings in my photographic career: Half Dome emerging from a churning caldron of clouds, barely visible in the very last light of day; a persistent double rainbow arcing above the full breadth of Yosemite Valley; the Milky Way, framed by glowing clouds, pouring into Kilauea Caldera; and most recently, a magic morning at the Grand Canyon, when the lightning wouldn’t stop and the first rays of sunrise balanced a vivid rainbow on the canyon’s rim. Another of those moments was this sunrise at Mono Lake. It was the final day of a trip with my brother to photograph fall color in the Eastern Sierra. Facing a long drive home, and despite a weather report promising clear skies, we rose in the dark and went out in the October chill anyway.
That I’ve been able photograph these moments with my camera is my great fortune. But with or without my camera, every detail of being there is permanently etched in my memory—not just the visual, but who I was with, where I might have been instead, and the joy of feeling like I’m witnessing the most beautiful thing happening on Earth at this moment. It’s these permanent, visceral memories that drive me from bed, warm my flesh, and calm my angry stomach when thoughts of comfort try to keep me home.
Posted on August 1, 2013
A few weeks ago I added a Favorites gallery to my website, which of course forced me to make all kinds of difficult choices. First I had to figure out what “favorite” means. Is the gallery going to represent my favorites, or will it be the images that sell best (often not the same thing)? My mercenary instincts told me that, since this is page allows people to click to purchase ($$$), I should go with the bestsellers. But when I decided to make my living with photography, I vowed to only photograph what I want to photograph, and to never base my decisions on what will sell.
While things became easier once I decided to go with my personal favorites, that decision put me in something of a Sophie’s Choice quandary. I really never select any image to display unless I like it a lot, but if I want to keep my Favorites gallery down to a manageable number, I need to choose my favorite “children.” (It occurs to me in hindsight that choosing a favorite image by what sells best would be kind of like choosing a favorite child based on who gives the best presents. Hmmm….)
Once I hardened myself to the process (sorry kids), it became an enlightening exercise that, among other things, showed me how my style has evolved. Disabling the analytical side of my brain and going with “feel” enabled me to revisit my entire portfolio with new eyes, to shed old biases and reject images that had become default favorites, in favor of images for which I discovered a new affinity.
It also became clear to me that “favorite” is a moving target—what I choose today isn’t necessarily what I’ll choose tomorrow. (I’ve even made a few changes as I work on this post.) I plan to make this a pretty dynamic gallery, so please feel free to visit often (no purchase necessary).
First Light, Yosemite Valley
Labeling the image in this post a “favorite” was a no-brainer—it’s always been a personal favorite, and it has become one of my top sellers (not to mention my WordPress avatar). And even though Tunnel View images are a dime a dozen, this was a special, one-of-a-kind spring morning that I never tire of revisiting.
I was there with a workshop group, and if memory serves, we’d had a nice sunrise shoot, but nothing truly unique. The air was crystal clear and quite cold for April, still enough to allow the moist valley air to condense into a radiant fog that hugged the floor, ebbing and flowing like liquid. As the sky brightened we photographed a pink veneer of translucent clouds, a particular treat for those who’d never been to Yosemite.
When the color started to fade, I was about to move the group on to our next location when a brightness behind Sentinel Dome caught my attention. So I waited. And as we watched, the light intensified, expanding before our eyes into a diaphanous film that spread a buttery glow that turned our world into an amber light box. I captured several frames; this is my favorite.
Posted on January 24, 2013
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After three days of solid blue skies (Zzzzzzzzzzzz), yesterday morning my Death Valley workshop group was rewarded with a sunrise for the record books. I’ve seen color like this in Yosemite, Hawaii, and the Grand Canyon to name a few, but never at Death Valley.
As the group gathered at the hotel about an hour before sunrise, a deep ruby glow stained the eastern horizon. Hmmm. Second-guessing my tried and true policy of getting on location at least forty-five minutes before sunrise, I hustled everyone into the cars and we bolted for Zabriskie Point, just five (extremely long) minutes up the hill. At Zabriskie I gave a brief orientation with one eye on the expanding red that now stretched from the eastern horizon nearly to the zenith—in a matter of minutes it would reach all the way to the Panamint Mountains on the western horizon, filling the sky behind Death Valley’s most celebrated vista.
After explaining that the best place to photograph Zabriskie Point is on the dirt hilltop directly below the viewing platform, I set off with a “Follow me.” By the time I made it to the prescribed vantage point the red had indeed spilled all the way down to the Panamints. Thrilled with our good fortune I looked around—imagine my surprise to find that only two others had heeded my advice; the rest of the group had stopped well behind me to photograph in the opposite direction, lured by the electric show playing above the not-too-photogenic scene facing the sun.
Paradox alert: I spend a good deal of time teaching photographers that light trumps landscape—in other words, don’t get so locked in to the scene you came to photograph that you miss better light happening elsewhere. They had heeded my advice so well that they overlooked another truth I try to hammer home: See the world with your camera’s eye. In this case the most spectacular light was indeed behind the classic Zabriskie scene, where the eastern sky was infused with a magenta hue that was equal parts vivid and bright. On the other hand, the red sky to the west, above nearby Manly Beacon and the distant Panamints, was still quite dark to our human vision. What everyone had overlooked was that their camera’s ability to accumulate light would bring out color their eyes missed.
Fortunately, I was able to get everyone’s attention and to convince them where the real show was. We started with long exposures like the one here (30 seconds at f8 and ISO 400) that brightened the scene beyond what our eyes saw. Often sunrise color rises to a tantalizing level only to fade without warning. But this morning as the light increased, the color rose right along with it, faded briefly, then bounced back stronger than ever. At its peak the entire landscape glowed pink and the only sound was clicking shutters.
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A few words about color: I’m always amused when people question the credibility of sunrise and sunset color. I’ll grant that many people enhance their color in processing, but that doesn’t mean that every brilliant sunrise or sunset was manipulated. The truth is, there’s nothing subtle about color in nature, and when people question the color in a sunrise/sunset image, my first thought is to wonder how many sunrises/sunsets they’ve seen.
My group yesterday morning was chuckling about that problem as we packed up—we were all anticipating the inevitable doubts, some explicit, others implicit, but there was comfort in the knowledge that we all had witnesses. And for the record (I just checked), the only color work I did on this image was a slight desaturation of the blue in the sky and the magenta for the entire image.
Posted on November 7, 2012
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The drive to Hana is an adventure of crowded, winding, narrow roads. The drive to the Seven Sacred Pools of ‘Ohe’o Gulch, Maui, about twelve miles beyond Hana, is even more unnerving—the road narrows further and the crowds are replaced by miles of empty road interrupted infrequently and abruptly by careening locals in vehicles just slightly too large for the blacktop.
On my latest Maui visit I rose in the Hana darkness and headed to the Seven Sacred Pools for sunrise. Doing this drive in the pre-dawn dark only adds to the tension, but I arrived unscathed to find the parking lot empty. Perfect! Following my headlamp along the quarter-mile trail, I continued mulling compositions I’d been plotting since my last visit (when light and crowds didn’t permit anything particularly creative). So imagine my surprise to find a padlocked gate blocking the stairs down to the pools. Hmmm. After a few minutes of reconnaissance, I decided they really, really didn’t want me down there and set out in search of other opportunities.
‘Ohe’o Gulch empties into the Pacific, draining rain that falls on the slopes of Haleakala high above. In addition to the main trail along the gulch are a number of smaller, less defined trails that trend out toward the surf. I followed one of these and soon found myself making my own path along broken lava toward the waves. The sky had brightened just enough to render my headlamp unnecessary, but footing was treacherous and I had to step carefully—a fall likely wouldn’t have resulted in death or even severe injury, but the rocks would have sliced me pretty good, not to mention what it would have done to my camera, so my focus was more on the ground at my feet than the larger scene.
When I made it out to where the surf met the rocks (I can’t call it a beach), I was quite pleased to find several reflective pools nestled in the lava, guarded by a prominent lava outcrop. The rising sun had already started to color the sky, so I set up quickly, finding various compositions that balanced the largest pool with the rising sun and outcrop. Working the scene, I was treated to a sunrise palette of magenta, red, and gold punctuated by an explosion of crepuscular rays as the sun crested the horizon. I couldn’t help thinking that I’d probably have missed it all had I concentrated on the shots I’d planned for that morning—a gentle reminder not to get so locked into my agenda that I lose sight of the larger world around me.
On the drive out of the parking lot I encountered the park ranger opening the entrance station. I asked her about the locked gate at the pools and she explained the flash flood risk forces them to restrict access when the weather forecast calls for heavy rain on Haleakala.