Posted on October 4, 2020
This morning, while going through unprocessed images looking for something to blog about, I came across this image from last June in New Zealand. I realize the world probably doesn’t need any more pictures of this tree (which is why I’d never processed it), but after nearly two months of smoky skies that have robbed California of anything close to a normal sunset, sunrise/sunset color seemed to be a worthy topic, and this image definitely got my juices flowing.
Following a morning that had started with a beautiful sunrise reflection at Mirror Lakes in Milford Sound National Park, Don Smith and I (well, technically it was our driver) pulled the van carrying our New Zealand workshop group into Wanaka a couple of hours before sunset. We had a sunset spot in mind, but with a little time to spare we decided to give the group a quick preview of our sunrise subject, the iconic lone willow tree of Lake Wanaka. We never left.
It was pretty apparent from the instant of our arrival that the ingredients for a spectacular sunset were in place: clouds, clean air, and a clear spot on the western horizon to let sunlight through. Of course nothing in nature is guaranteed, but based on what we saw, Don and I made a calculated decision to alter our plan. Even though our original sunset spot would benefit from the same conditions, we decided that, because the opportunity to photograph this tree was one of the prime reasons most of the group signed up for the workshop in the first place, and sunrise conditions are never a sure thing, staying would give our group the best opportunity for a memorable experience here. Boy did we make the right call.
For this image I used my Breakthrough 6-stop neutral-density polarizer (X4 Dark CPL) to smooth a slight chop rippling the lake. Not only did the resulting 30-second exposure soften the lake surface, it added an ethereal blur to the distant clouds and fog.
Sunrise was in fact completely washed out by fog, but that didn’t mean it was a failure, just different….
And speaking of sunrise/sunset color, I’ve revised my Photo Tips article on that very topic and added it below. So if you want to know why the sky is blue and sunsets are red, read on.
A sunset myth
If your goal is a colorful sunset/sunrise and you have to choose between pristine or hazy air, which would you choose? If you said clean air, you’re in the minority. You’re also right. 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. But if particles in the air were necessary for sunset color, Los Angeles would be known for its vivid sunsets and Hawaii’s main claim to fame would be its beaches. (Okay, and maybe its luaus. And waterfalls. And pineapples. And Mai Tais. And…. Well, maybe lots of great stuff, but not its sunsets.)
So what is the secret to a great sunset? Granted, a cool breeze, warm surf, and a Mai Tai are a good start, but I’m thinking more photographically than recreationally. I look for a mix of clouds (to catch the color) with an opening for the sun to pass through and light the clouds. 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.
Light and color
Understanding sunset color starts with understanding how sunlight and the atmosphere interact to color the sky. Visible light reaches our eyes in waves of varying length. The color we perceive is a function of wavelength, ranging from short to long: violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. (These color names are arbitrary labels we’ve assigned to the colors we perceive at various wavelength points along the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum—there are an infinite number of wavelength-depenedent colors between each of these colors.)
Because a beam of sunlight passing in a vacuum (such as space) moves in a straight line (we won’t get into relativity and the effect of gravity on a beam of light), all its wavelengths reach our eyes simultaneously and we perceive the light as white. When a beam of sunlight encounters something (like Earth’s atmosphere), its light can be absorbed or scattered, depending on the wavelength and the properties of the interfering medium, and we see as color the remaining wavelength that reach our eyes.
For example, when sunlight strikes a leaf, all of its wavelengths except those that we perceive as green are absorbed, while the green wavelengths bounce to our eyes.
Color my world
Since our atmosphere is not a vacuum, sunlight is changed simply by passing through it. In an atmosphere without impurities (such as smoke and dust), light interacts only with air molecules. Air molecules are so small that they scatter only a very narrow range of wavelengths. This atmospheric scattering acts like a filter that scatters the violet and blue wavelengths first, allowing the longer wavelengths to pass through. When our sunlight has traveled through a relatively small amount of atmosphere (as it does when the sun is overhead), the wavelengths that reach our eyes are the just-scattered violet and blue wavelengths, and our sky looks blue (the sky appears more blue than violet because our eyes are more sensitive to blue light).
On the other hand, because the longer orange and red wavelengths are less easily scattered, they travel a much greater distance through the atmosphere. When the sun is on the horizon, its light has passed through much more atmosphere than it did when it was directly overhead, so the only light reaching our eyes at sunrise or sunset has been stripped of its shorter (blue and violet) wavelengths by its lengthy journey, leaving only the longer, orange and red wavelengths to color our sky. Sunset! (Or sunrise.)
Pollution dampens the filtering process. Rather than only scattering specific colors, light that encounters a molecule larger than its wavelength is more completely scattered—in other words, instead of scattering only the blue and violet wavelengths, polluted air catches some orange and reds too. Anyone who has blended a smoothie consisting of a variety of brightly colored ingredients (such as strawberries, blueberries, cantaloupe, and kale—uhh, 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. Midday light that interacts with large particles in the atmosphere is similarly muddied, while polluted sunrise and sunset light has already had much of its red stripped out.
Verify this for yourself the next time a storm clears as the sun sets, and compare the color you see to the color on a hazy, summer evening in the city.
Tips for maximizing sunset color in a photograph
Any time rain has cleared the atmosphere and the remaining clouds are mixed with sunlight, there’s a good chance for vivid sunrise or sunset color. I have a few go-to locations near home, and at my frequently visited photo locations (Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Hawaii, and so on) that I beeline to when there’s a chance for color in the sky.
When I’m on location and preparing my shot before the sunset show begins, I look for clouds receiving direct sunlight. This is the light that will most likely color up at sunset, starting with an amber glow that transitions to pink, red, and eventually a deep orange.
An often overlooked color opportunity when the air is clean is the horizon opposite the sun after sunset or before sunrise. When the sun is below the horizon, the opposite horizon reveals the transition between the blues of night and the pinks of the sun’s first or last rays the best color of the day. This is especially true when there are no clouds in the direction of the sun. Photographing this twilight color with your back to the sun’s horizon has the added advantage of being much less contrasty and easier to manage with a camera.
Maximizing sunset color in your images requires careful exposure and composition decisions. By far the most frequent problem is overexposure—giving the scene more light than necessary. In scenes of such extreme contrast, your camera can’t capture the entire range of light your eyes see. And of course your camera has no idea what you’re photographing, so if you leave the exposure decision up to automatic metering, you’ll likely end up with a compromise exposure that tries to pull detail out of the shadows at the expense of color in the sky.
Since it’s the color you’re most interested in capturing, it’s usually best to spare the color in the highlights and let your shadows darken. This usually requires some planning—finding striking finding foreground subjects that stand out against the brighter sky, or water to reflect the sky’s color.
When you’ve found your sunset subject and are ready to shoot, base your exposure decisions on your camera’s histogram, not the way the picture looks on the LCD (never a reliable gauge of actual exposure). Remember, since your camera can’t capture what your eyes see anyway, the amount of light you give your scene is a creative decision. After you’ve exposed, make sure you check your RGB histogram to ensure that you haven’t clipped one of your color channels (most likely the red channel).
You can read more about metering in my Manual Exposure article.
For example: Sentinel Dome, Yosemite
Sentinel Dome in Yosemite provides a 360 degree view of Yosemite and surrounding Sierra peaks. Among the many reasons it’s such a great sunset spot is that from atop Sentinel Dome you can see what’s happening on the western horizon and plan your shoot long before sunset arrives. On this summer evening I was up there shortly after an afternoon rain shower. Though air was crystal clear, lots of clouds remained—and there was an opening on the western horizon for the sun to slip through just before disappearing for the night.
Rather than settle for a more standard Half Dome composition, I wandered around a bit in search of an interesting foreground. I ended up targeting this group of dead pines on Sentinel’s northeast slope, a couple of hundred feet down from the summit. It was no coincidence that sunset that night, one of the most vivid I’ve ever seen, came shortly after a storm had cleansed the atmosphere. Not only did the clouds fire up, the color was so intense that its reflection colored the granite, trees, and pretty much every other exposed surface.
For example: Hilltop Oaks, Sierra Foothills
I was driving the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento looking for the right subject to put with this fiery sunset. Earlier in the sunset it had simply been a been a matter of finding a photogenic tree (or trees), but with the sun more than 15 minutes below the horizon, the foreground was so dark I needed a subject to silhouette against the sky—anything else would have been lost in the rapidly blackening shadows. These trees showed up just in the nick of time.
Color like this comes late (or, at sunrise, early), in the direction of the sun long after most people have gone to dinner (or while they’re still in bed). Everything in this scene that’s not sky is black, which is why my subject needed to stand out against the sky. I was so happy with my discovery that these trees have become go-to subjects for me—browse my galleries and count how many times you see one or both of them (often with a crescent moon).
For example: South Tufa, Mono Lake
The air on Sierra’s east side is much cleaner than air on the more populated west side, and the clouds formed as the prevailing westerly wind descends the Sierra’s precipitous east side are both unique and dramatic. Mono Lake makes a particularly nice subject for the Eastern Sierra’s brilliant sunrise/sunset shows. Not only does it benefit from the clean air and photogenic clouds, Mono Lake’s tufa formations and often glassy surface make a wonderful foreground. The openness of the terrain surrounding Mono Lake 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 image here was captured at the start of a particularly vivid sunrise. The air was clean, with just the right mix of clouds and clear sky; perfectly calm air allowed the lake’s surface to smooth to glass. I find that the more I can anticipate skies like this, the better prepared I am when something spectacular happens. In this case I was at the lake well before the color started, but because it looked like all the sunrise stars were aligning, I was able to plan my composition and settings well before the color started.
Posted on December 9, 2018
Earth’s climate is changing, and the smoking gun belongs to us. Sadly, in the United States policy lags insight and reason, and the world is suffering.
Climate change science is complex, with many moving parts that make it difficult to communicate to the general public. Climate change also represents a significant reset for some of the world’s most profitable corporations. Those colliding realities created a perfect storm for fostering the doubt and confusion that persists among people who don’t understand climate science and the principles that underpin it.
I’m not a scientist, but I do have enough science background (majors in astronomy and geology before ultimately earning my degree in economics) to trust the experts and respect the scientific method. I also spent 20 years doing technical communication in the tech industry (tech writing, training, and support) for companies large and small. So I know that the fundamentals of climate change don’t need to intimidate, and the more accessible they can be to the general public, the better off we’ll all be.
Recently it feels like I’ve been living on the climate change front lines. On each visit to Yosemite, more dead and dying trees stain forests that were green as recently as five years ago. And throughout the Sierra (among other places), thirsty evergreens, weakened by drought, are under siege by insects that now thrive in mountain winters that once froze them into submission. More dead trees means more fuel, making wildfires not just more frequent, but bigger and hotter.
Speaking of wildfires, for a week last month I couldn’t go outside without a mask thanks to smoke from the Camp Fire that annihilated Paradise (70 miles away). I have friends who evacuated from each of this November’s three major California wildfires (Camp, Hill, and Woolsey), and last December the Thomas Fire forced a two-week evacuation of Ojai, where my wife and I rent a small place (to be near the grandkids). Our cleanup from the Thomas fire took months, and we still find ash in the most unexpected places (and we were among the lucky who had a home to clean).
Despite its inevitable (and long overdue) death, the climate change debate continues to stagger on like a mindless zombie. We used to have to listen to the skeptics claim that our climate wasn’t changing at all, so I guess hearing them acknowledge that okay-well-maybe-the-climate-is-changing-but-humans-aren’t-responsible can be considered progress.
Despite what you might read on social media or fringe websites, climate change alternative “explanations” like “natural variability” and “solar energy fluctuations” have been irrefutably debunked by rigorously gathered, thoroughly analyzed, and closely scrutinized data. (And don’t get me started on the whole “scientists motivated by grant money” conspiracy theory.)
One thing that everyone does agree on is the existence of the greenhouse effect, which has been used for centuries to grow plants in otherwise hostile environments.
As you may already know, a greenhouse’s transparent exterior allows sunlight to penetrate and warm its interior. The heated interior radiates at longer wavelengths (infrared) that don’t escape as easily through the greenhouse’s ceiling and walls. That means more heat is added to a greenhouse than exits it, so the interior is warmer than the environment outside.
Perhaps the most common misperception about human induced climate change is that it’s driven by all the heat we create when we burn stuff. But that’s not what’s going on, not even close.
Our atmosphere behaves like a greenhouse, albeit with far more complexity. The sun bathes Earth with continuous electromagnetic radiation that includes infrared, visible light, and ultraviolet. Solar radiation not reflected back to space reaches Earth’s surface to heat water, land, and air. Some of this heat makes it back to space, but much is absorbed by molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, forming a virtual blanket that makes Earth warmer than it would be without an atmosphere. In a word, inhabitable.
Because a molecule’s ability to absorb heat depends on its structure, some molecules absorb heat better than others. The two most common molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, nitrogen (N2: two nitrogen atoms) and oxygen (O2: two oxygen atoms), are bound so tightly that they don’t absorb heat. Our atmospheric blanket relies on other molecules to absorb heat: the greenhouse gases.
Also not open for debate is that Earth warms when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rise, and cools when they fall. The rise and fall of greenhouse gases has been happening for as long as Earth has had an atmosphere. So our climate problem isn’t that our atmosphere contains greenhouse gases, it’s that human activity changes our atmosphere’s natural balance of greenhouse gases.
Earth’s most prevalent greenhouse gas is water vapor. But water vapor responds quickly to temperature changes, leaving the atmosphere relatively fast as rain or snow, while other greenhouse gases hold their heat far longer.
The two most problematic greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2: one carbon atom bonded with two oxygen atoms) and methane (CH4: one carbon atom bonded with four hydrogen atoms). The common denominator in these “problem” gases is carbon. (There are other, non-carbon-based, greenhouse gases, but for simplicity I’m focusing on the most significant ones.)
Carbon exists in many forms: as a solo act like graphite and diamond, and in collaboration with other elements to form more complex molecules, like carbon dioxide and methane. When it’s not floating around the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, carbon in its many forms is sequestered in a variety of natural reservoirs called a “carbon sink,” where it does nothing to warm the planet.
Oceans are Earth’s largest carbon sink. And since carbon is the fundamental building block of life on Earth, all living organisms, from plants to plankton to people, are carbon sinks as well. The carbon necessary to form greenhouse gases has always fluctuated naturally between the atmosphere and natural sinks like oceans and plants.
For example, a growing tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, keeping the carbon and expelling oxygen (another simplification of a very complex process)—a process that stops when the tree dies. As the dead tree decomposes, some of its carbon is returned to the atmosphere as methane, but much of it returns to the land where it is eventually buried beneath sediments. Over tens or hundreds of millions of years, some of that sequestered carbon is transformed by pressure and heat to become coal.
Another important example is oil. For billions of years, Earth’s oceans have been host to simple-but-nevertheless-carbon-based organisms like algae and plankton. When these organisms die they drop to the ocean floor, where they’re eventually buried beneath sediment and other dead organisms. Millions of years of pressure and heat transforms these ancient deposits into…: oil.
Coal and oil (hydrocarbons), as significant long-term carbon sinks, were quite content to lounge in comfortable anonymity as continents drifted, mountains lifted and eroded, and glaciers advanced and retreated. Through all this slow motion activity on its surface, Earth’s temperatures ebbed and flowed and life evolved accordingly.
Enter humans. We have evolved, migrated, and built civilizations based on a relatively stable climate. And since the discovery of fire we humans have burned plants for warmth and food preparation. Burning organic material creates carbon dioxide, thereby releasing sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. Who knew that such a significant advance was the first crack in the climate-change Pandora’s Box?
For thousands of years the demand for fuel was met simply by harvesting dead plants strewn about on the ground and the reintroduction of carbon to the atmosphere was minimal. But as populations expanded and technology advanced, so did humans’ thirst for fuel to burn.
We nearly killed off the whales for their oil before someone figured out that those ancient, subterranean metamorphosed dead plants burn really nicely. With an ample supply of coal and oil and a seemingly boundless opportunity for profit, coal and oil soon became the driving force in the world’s economy. Suddenly, hundreds of millions of years worth of sequestered carbon was being reintroduced to our atmosphere as fast as it could be produced—with a corresponding acceleration in greenhouse gases (remember, when we burn hydrocarbons, we create carbon dioxide).
Compounding the fossil-fuel-as-energy problem is the extreme deforestation taking place throughout the world. Not only does burning millions of forest and jungle acres each year instantly reintroduce sequestered carbon to the atmosphere, it destroys a significant sink for present and future carbon.
Scientists have many ways to confirm humans’ climate change culpability. The most direct is probably the undeniable data showing that for millennia carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere hovered rather steadily around 280 parts per million (ppm). Then, corresponding to the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen steadily and today sits somewhere north of 400 ppm, with a bullet.
Humans don’t get a pass on atmospheric methane either. While not nearly as abundant in Earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide, methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas, trapping about 30 times more heat than its more plentiful cousin. Methane is liberated to the atmosphere by a variety of human activities, from the decomposition of waste (sewage and landfill) to agricultural practices that include rice cultivation and bovine digestive exhaust (yes, that would be cow farts).
While the methane cycle is less completely understood than the carbon dioxide cycle, the increase of atmospheric methane also correlates to fossil fuel consumption. Of particular concern (and debate) is the cause of the steeper methane increase since the mid-2000s. Stay tuned while scientists work on that….
For humans, the most essential component of Earth’s habitability is the precarious balance between water’s three primary states: gas (water vapor), ice, and liquid. Since the dawn of time, water’s varied states have engaged in a complex, self-correcting choreography of land, sea, and air inputs—tweak one climate variable here, and another one over there compensates.
Earth’s climate remains relatively stable until the equilibrium is upset by external input like solar energy change, volcanic eruption, or (heaven forbid) a visit from a rogue asteroid. Unfortunately, humans incremented the list of climate catalysts by one with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and our thirst for fossil fuels.
As we’re learning firsthand in realtime, even the smallest geospheric tweak can initiate a self-reinforcing chain reaction with potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity’s long-term wellbeing. For example, a warmer planet means a warmer ocean and less ice, which means more liquid water and water vapor. Adding carbon dioxide to water vapor kicks off a feedback loop that magnifies atmospheric heat: More carbon dioxide raises the temperature of the air—>warmer air holds more water vapor—>more water vapor warms the air more—>and so on.
But that’s just the beginning. More liquid water swallows coastlines; increased water vapor means more clouds, precipitation, and warmer temperatures (remember, water vapor is a greenhouse gas). Wind patterns and ocean currents shift, changing global weather patterns. Oh yeah, and ice’s extreme albedo (reflectivity) bounces solar energy back to space, so shrinking our icecaps and glaciers means less solar energy returned to space even more solar energy to warm our atmosphere, which only compounds the problems.
Comparing direct measurements of current conditions to data inferred from tree rings, ice and sediment cores, and many other proven methods, makes it clear that human activity has indeed upset the climate balance: our planet is warming. What we’re still working on is how much we’ve upset it (so far), what’s coming, and where the tipping point is (or whether the tipping point is already in our rearview mirror).
We do know that we’re already experiencing the effects of these changes, though it’s impossible to pinpoint a single hurricane, fire, or flood and say this one wouldn’t have happened without climate change. And contrary to the belief of many, everyone will not be warmer. Some places are getting warmer, others are getting cooler; some are wetter, others are drier. The frequency and intensity of storms is changing, growing seasons are changing, animal habitats are shifting or shrinking, and the list goes on….
We won’t fix the problem by simply adjusting the thermostat, building dikes and levees, and raking forests. Until we actually reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, things will get worse faster than we can adjust. But the first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging we have one.
The Camp Fire had been burning for ten days, devouring Paradise and filling the air in Sacramento with brown smoke so thick that at times not only could we not see the sun, we couldn’t see the end of the block. But on this afternoon, when an orange ball of sun burned through the smoke I donned a mask, grabbed my camera bag, and headed for the hills.
I have a collection of go-to foothill oak trees for sun and moonsets, but most of these trees are too close to my shooting position for the extreme telephoto image I had in mind. Too close because at this kind of focal length, the hyperfocal distance is over a mile. So I made my way to a quiet country road near Plymouth where I thought the trees might just be distant enough to work. But I’m less familiar with this location than many of my others, so I didn’t know exactly how the trees and sun would align. Turning onto the road, I drove slowly, glancing at the sun and trees until they lined up. Because there wasn’t a lot of room to park on either side, I was pleased that the shoulder at the location that worked best was just wide enough for my car.
Envisioning a maximum telephoto shot, I added my Sony 2X teleconverter to my Sony 100-400 GM lens. While my plan was to use my 1.5-crop Sony a6300, when I arrived the sun was high enough that that combination provided too much magnification, so I started with my full frame Sony a7RIII. But soon as the sun dropped to tree level I switched to the a6300 and zoomed as tight as possible.
When I started the sun was still bright enough that capturing its color made the trees complete silhouettes, with no detail or color in the foreground. But as the setting sun sank into increasingly thick smoke, it became redder and redder and my exposure became easier. It always surprises me how fast the sun and moon move relative to the nearby horizon, so found myself running around to different positions to get the right sun and tree juxtaposition as the sun fell. The smoke near the horizon was so thick that it swallowed the sun before it actually set.
Later I plotted my location and the sun’s position on a map and realized that I was pointing right at San Francisco, about 100 miles away, with a large swath of the Bay Area in between. Then I thought about this air that was thick enough to completely obscure the sun, and the millions of people who had been breathing that air for weeks.
I’d be lying if I said I don’t like this image—it’s exactly what I was going for. But I’d be very happy if I never got another opportunity to photograph something like this.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on August 25, 2014
A few days ago I was thumbing through an old issue of “Outdoor Photographer” magazine and came across an article on Lightroom processing. It started with the words:
“Being able to affect one part of the image compared to another, such as balancing the brightness of a photograph so the scene looks more like the way we saw it rather than being restricted by the artificial limitations of the camera and film is the major reason why photographers like Ansel Adams and LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith spent so much time in the darkroom.” (The underscores are mine.) Wow, this statement is so far off base that I hardly know where to begin. But because I imagine the perpetuation of this myth must send Ansel Adams rolling over in his grave, I’ll start by quoting the Master himself:
Do those sound like the thoughts of someone lamenting the camera’s “artificial limitations” and its inability to duplicate the world the “way we saw it”? Take a look at just a few of Ansel Adams’ images and ask yourself how many duplicate the world as we see it: nearly black skies, exaggerated shadows and/or highlights, and skewed perspectives. And no color! (Not to mention the fact that an image is a two-dimensional approximation of a three-dimensional world.) Ansel Adams wasn’t trying to replicate scenes more like he saw them, he was trying to use his camera’s unique (not “artificial”) vision to show us aspects of the world we miss or fail to appreciate.
You’ve heard me say this before
The rest of the OP article contained solid, practical information for anyone wanting to come closer to replicating Ansel Adams’ traditional darkroom techniques in the contemporary digital darkroom. But it’s the perpetuation of the idea that photographers are obligated to photograph the world like they saw it that continues to baffle me.
The camera’s vision isn’t artificial, it’s different. To try to force images to be more human-like is to deny the camera’s ability to expand viewers’ perception of the world. Limited dynamic range allows us to emphasize shapes that get lost in the clutter of human vision; a narrow range of focus can guide the eye and draw attention to particular elements of interest and away from distractions; the ability to accumulate light in a single frame exposes color and detail hidden by darkness, and conveys motion in a static medium.
No, this isn’t the way it looked when I was there
While this sunset scene from Lipan Point at the Grand Canyon is more literal than many of my images, it’s not what my eyes saw. To emphasize the solitude of the lone tree, I allowed the shaded canyon to go darker than my eyes saw it. This was possible because a camera couldn’t capture enough light to reveal the shadows without completely obliterating the bright sky (rather than blending multiple images, I stacked Singh-Ray three- and two-stop hard transition graduated neutral density filters to subdue the bright sky).
To convey a mood more consistent with the feeling of precarious isolation of this weather-worn tree, I exposed the scene a little darker than my experience of the moment. The sunstar, which isn’t seen by the human eye but was indeed my camera/lens’ “reality” (given the settings I chose), was another creative choice. Not only does it introduce a ray of hope to an otherwise brooding scene, without the sunstar the top half of the scene would have been too bland for me to include as much of the shadowed canyon as I wanted to.
I’m not trying to pass this image off as a masterpiece (nor am I comparing myself to Ansel Adams), I’m simply trying to illustrate the importance of deviating from human reality when the goal is an evocative, artistic image. Much as music sets the mood in a movie without being an actual part of the scene, a photographer’s handling of light, focus, and other qualities that deviate from human vision play a significant role in the image’s impact.
(Stuff my camera saw that I didn’t)
Posted on July 12, 2013
Nature photography is a particularly serendipitous art form. We do our best to get ourselves in the right place at the right time, but it’s ultimately up to Mother Nature to deliver. Fortunately, some things in nature are more certain than others. Among them is the phase, location, and timing of the moon, each of which can be anticipated with near absolute precision. Another certainty I’ve grown to depend on is clear skies in California in July. Armed with those two truths, Wednesday night a friend and I headed to the foothills to photograph a thin crescent moon in the western twilight.
My criteria for photographing any twilight scene include finding a striking shape to silhouette against the sky. And like a portrait photographer who can’t get enough of a particular model, there a number of “go-to” trees scattered about the foothills that I return to whenever I get the urge to photograph a sunset near home. For a long time I’ve known the hilltop perch of one pair would allow me to juxtapose them with a setting moon. I’d already photographed this pair many times with good success (one of these images was on a magazine cover), and one time got them with a crescent moon. But that success only made me greedy for a tight shot with the moon large, among the trees. I check the moon info each month to see if its phases and position align with my schedule (for obvious reasons, I’m often away from home when the moon is at its photographic best), and Wednesday night looked like everything might just fit into place, so out we went.
By about two hours before sunset it became pretty clear that clouds would be part of our sky that evening. While not unprecedented, this unexpected intrusion could be: A) Good, if the clouds added sunset color while parting enough to reveal the moon; or B) Bad, if the clouds thickened to obscure the moon and block the color. Serendipity.
Mark and I pulled up to “my” trees about fifteen minutes before sunset, but with the clouds starting to look like they might deliver a colorful sunset, and since we didn’t need to be in position for the moon until 25 or 30 minutes after sunset, I made the snap decision to continue about five miles down the road to another group of trees that I thought would be particularly nice for a colorful sunset. The sunset was indeed worth the detour, but that’s a story for another day. When it was over, we hightailed it back to the hilltop tree spot to find the moon playing hide and seek with the clouds above and just a little south of the trees. Definitely photo-worthy, but not aligned so perfectly that I could get the tight telephoto shot I’d envisioned.
While photographing from the narrow shoulder here is fairly easy (though a bit unnerving), the angle we needed to align the trees and moon required scaling a small hill. Behind a barbed wire fence. Hmmm. But wait—what’s this? A gate! And it’s unlocked! So, all with about as much restraint as two ten-year olds at the all-you-can-eat dessert bar, up the hill we traipsed, dodging cow patties and listening for rattlesnakes. As expected, the new vantage point provided exactly the angle we needed, but I have to say that in the growing darkness my impulsiveness enthusiasm was soon replaced by visions of tomorrow’s headlines:
Fortunately, none of that stuff happened, and Mark and I made it back to my car, undetected and intact. Impulsive urges notwithstanding, I ended up with several “keeper” images, thanks in no small part to the convergence of my plan with the fortuitous appearance of clouds to color our summer sky. Sometimes things just work out.
Later, I had to admit that going up there like that violated one of my personal rules: Get permission before entering private property (I’ll often offer a print as thanks). But this time I rationalized that since we’d do no harm, and because time was absolutely of the essence, it would be okay to maybe go just a little bit beyond the fence. And while it worked out this time, that’s the kind of decision that inspires hindsight (and I have the stories to prove it).
A Crescent Moon Gallery
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on April 10, 2013
Coordinating all of the rapidly changing exposure and composition variables sometimes feels like juggling cats (thankfully without the bloodshed). The difficulty is compounded by the unfortunate need to simultaneously process input from two sides of the brain (creative and logical) that don’t often play well together.
For me an image usually starts with a feeling or connection, not just the scene’s now, but also for its what-might-be. Using that seed, a general idea for a composition emerges. Next, I evaluate the scene’s exposure, depth, and motion variables, and how to best manage them with my camera’s aperture, shutter, and ISO settings. Usually compromises are required, as one need usually contradicts another (see “cat juggling,” above). And finally, when I think everything’s in place, I return to my creative instincts and allow my intuitive side to actually click the shutter—that is, it has to feel right. Often this is a multi-click process requiring multiple frames, with analysis and refinement in between, each frame informing the next until I’m satisfied.
Below is a summary of my mental process as I tried to turn this beautiful Maui sunset into a photograph. Its genesis came long before the final click (and the beautiful color that made this moment special).
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh your screen to reorder the display.
Posted on March 30, 2013
Photographing the Grand Canyon isn’t easy (I’ve said this before)
The Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph. Or more accurately, the Grand Canyon is a very difficult place to photograph well. More than any place I photograph, the Grand Canyon incites right/left (creative/logical) battles that can kill an image.
Despite (and likely because of) the Grand Canyon’s sweeping grandeur, you can’t expect to simply walk up to the rim and find a shot that does the scene justice. The view at the rim puts your emotional, creative brain on overload, and you instantly forget that the Grand Canyon’s depth and breadth, the very things that make it so breathtaking in person, are completely lost to the camera’s two-dimensional, confined perspective.
Overcoming these losses starts with understanding your camera’s vision and refining your ability to recognize and organize your scene’s compositional elements (subject, color, depth, light, visual flow), and how to manage them with your camera’s variables (f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, focal length). With that in place, you’re ready to formulate an actual plan for approaching the scene you plan to photograph. But keep in mind that plans can be a creative straightjacket (especially in a dynamic, unpredictable location like the Grand Canyon)—you also need the flexibility to overcome disappointment and quickly shift to Plan B when Plan A doesn’t materialize. For me, implementing all this means arriving early and spending every non-shooting moment familiarizing myself with my surroundings, the light, and the conditions in the sky.
Once my plan is in place, I put my left brain to bed and wake my right brain. Ultimately, despite all the analysis and planning that goes into setting up a shot, I try to click the shutter with my heart—does it feel right?
Putting it all together
My “plan” for this evening at the Grand Canyon’s Hopi Point was to photograph a full moon rising in the east, above the canyon, an image I’ve long sought. When clouds hugging the eastern horizon thickened I could have stubbornly stuck to my guns and hoped the moon would somehow find its way through. On the other hand, I knew if the moon didn’t show and something nice started in the west (where the sky looked more promising), I’d have to scramble to the other side and hope to quickly find a composition that did the moment justice. Always conscious to avoid reactive photography, I jettisoned the east-facing moonrise plan and headed over to re-familiarize myself with Hopi Point’s west side (but that didn’t keep me from sneaking back around for an occasional peek to the east).
The Grand Canyon is great for this kind of anticipatory photography because the unobstructed view of the horizon from the rim allows provides good insight into what’s in store. Once I switched views, I spent the rest of my pre-shooting time walking Hopi Point’s western rim, identifying trees, shrubs, and rocks that could anchor my frame and balance the distant ridges, river, sun, and clouds.
The moon that evening was in fact a no-show (until it was far too late to photograph), but the view to the west rewarded me with about forty-five minutes of productive, continuously improving photography as the sun slipped in and out of gaps in the clouds before finally dropping to and below the horizon. The highlight came couple of minutes after sunset, when a fan of thin clouds spewing from the sun’s exit point started throbbing with crimson, creating a flame-like effect.
But I wasn’t satisfied with a nice sky above the beautiful canyon (nor should you be)—I needed relationships between my foreground and background. After spending most of my shooting time emphasizing the canyon’s vast lateral expanse with wide, horizontal compositions anchored by a distinctive tree, I wanted a vertical composition that would turn the emphasis to the canyon’s depth beneath the flaming sky. Continuing with my horizontal frame would have been too wide to capture the sky’s impact. But because I’d spent so much time exploring earlier, I went right to this spot where a small (albeit unassuming) shrub jutted from the textured rim rock.
Given the extreme depth of field my composition required, I opted for f16, live-view focusing on the rock just behind the shrub. A gusty breeze forced me to bump my ISO to 400 and time my shutter click to coincide with the wind’s intermittent lulls. My 3-stop reverse graduated neutral density filter reduced the significant dynamic range to a very manageable level that allowed me to capture the entire range of light in a single frame (my personal rule). (Later I smoothed the barely visible GND transition with a few dodge/burn brush strokes in Photoshop.)
Photographing in my right mind
Once I’ve identified a scene’s compositional elements and exposure variables, I turn off my left (logical) brain and engage my right (creative) brain. (This is no longer conscious, nor is it genius—it’s pretty much just the product of years of repetition.) I composed the scene in my viewfinder (still haven’t embraced the live-view composition thing), moving up/down, forward/backward, left/right, and zooming in and out until everything felt balanced. While I’d love to claim that I was conscious of the virtual diagonals connecting the flaming sky and flame-shaped shrub, and the shimmering sliver of the Colorado River and nearby vein of light colored rock, I really wasn’t. But neither do I believe relationships like this are accidental—I’ve done this long enough to know that compositional relationships happen organically when I free my mind from distractions that force me to think when I should be creating.
It’s interesting to compare this image with one I created from within a few feet of this location a few years ago. While each contains many of the same elements, the conditions were vastly different, and so were my objectives, and ultimately, my compositional choices.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on March 17, 2013
On my September scouting trip for my just completed Maui workshop I hiked cross-country down the rugged flank of West Maui, searching for lava-rock tide pools I’d read about. Scrambling down a steep hill and over sharp rocks, I found the beach but decided it was too dangerous for a group. Rather than return the way I came, I continued picking my way along the shore and eventually found another spot I liked better. At first I thought this wouldn’t be suitable for a group either, but climbing out I found an overgrown dirt road/trail leading back to the highway (“highway” in this case is the one-and-a-half lane, mostly-paved, rental-agreement-voiding Highway 340 circling West Maui). Fearing I’d miss this obscure spur from the main road, I saved its position on my GPS.
Last Sunday, the day before the workshop started, I picked up Don Smith (Don assisted this workshop; I’ll return the favor for Don’s Northern Arizona workshop next week) at the airport and was excited to share with him the spot I’d “discovered” (it’s not as if I’m the Edmund Hillary of landscape photography—there’s enough debris down there to indicate the spot is known to locals) and off we went. The steady rain that had been falling for most of the afternoon increased with the road’s remoteness and soon we were slaloming around boulders dislodged from the surrounding cliffs by the downpour—at one point we passed a car waylaid by a grapefruit-size rock embedded in its windshield.
Undeterred, we soldiered on through the intensifying rain. This was Don’s first Maui visit, so I narrated the tour with vigor, enthusiastically pointing out the island’s scenic highlights as we passed them, pausing only occasionally to reassure Don that the highway was navigable despite increasing evidence to the contrary, punctuating my confidence with, “And just wait until you see the scene at the end of this ‘secret’ road I discovered.”
Closely monitoring my GPS, at the prescribed location and without hesitation (for dramatic effect) I veered left into a gap in the trees almost as if I had a brain. The narrow track unfolded between rapidly oscillating wipers, immediately plummeting the steep hill and twisting right. Dense foliage brushed both sides of the car, which by now was clearly losing purchase in the mud. Don hadn’t quite finished a sentence that started, “Are you sure…,” when it started to dawn on me that I’d never intended to actually drive this road, that my plan when I marked it six months earlier was to park at the top and walk down. Oops.
Propelled by momentum, and without the benefit of traction, completely at gravity’s mercy, we careened down the hill (remember the jungle slide scene from “Romancing the Stone”?). Steering seemed to have more influence on the direction the car faced than it did on its direction of travel and I quickly gave that up. If it weren’t for the deep ruts that occasionally nudged us back on course, I’m sure we’d have bounced into the jungle. I held my breath as we approached a protruding boulder and exhaled when the undercarriage passed above unscathed. Shortly thereafter the slope moderated somewhat and I nursed the car to a stop, miraculously still on the “road” (more or less).
After a few seconds of cathartic expletives, Don and I scanned our surroundings. Backing up the slippery road was out of the question, but a little farther down the slope we spotted a flat clear space with a small Y-spur that might enable us to turn around. I scrutinized the dash for the switch that would engage the 4-wheel drive (I swear) the guy at rental agency promised my SUV had. When we didn’t find it Don dug the manual from the glovebox—apparently 4WD is an option the powers-that-be at Alamo deem unnecessary on Maui. Uh-oh.
With crossed fingers I gave the car some gas and felt the wheels spin with no effect. More expletives. Don and I exited into the rain to survey our predicament—the road was fast progressing to creek status, and where rubber tires were supposed to be were instead four mud disks. Hmmm—that would explain the whole no traction thing. Scraping the tires clean would have been of little value because the next revolution would simply reapply a new layer.
Back in the car I found that cranking the wheels 90 degrees gained just enough traction to free us and I gingerly rolled the car downhill and onto the open space. Yay! Once on level ground, and with only a little bit of slip/slide drama, I pivoted the car into the Y and turned around to face the direction we’d just come. Now for the hard part. Looking for the first time toward freedom, we came to grips with the chute that had deposited us: Not only was it steep, at the steepest point it curved hard-left, but banked hard-right—not exactly a design that would be embraced at Daytona.
I inhaled and goosed the gas—we shot upward, fishtailing like a hooked marlin before losing momentum and coming to a stop a mere fifty feet closer to freedom. This time the car was skewed 45-degrees to the road, its left-front fender in the shrubs on one side, its right-rear fender in the shrubs on the other. When I gave the car gas the tires spun hopelessly.
Facing defeat we started strategizing Plan B—with an hour of daylight remaining and no cell service, we’d need to walk up to the highway and hope to flag down in the rain a good samaritan willing to drive two disheveled, mud-caked strangers back to civilization (about 45 minutes away), then hope to summon a tow truck that would extricate us.
While Don trudged up to the main road, I stayed with the car, licking my wounds and feeling pretty foolish. Sitting there it occurred to me that since the road was too narrow for a tow truck, and the distance and tight curve would make winching difficult, even a tow truck wouldn’t guarantee freedom. Watching Don head back up the hill to seek help, I decided to give extraction one more shot. I put the car in reverse gave it more gas and cranked the steering wheel back and forth violently until the tires broke free. So far so good. I took my foot from the brake and let gravity and the rutted road return me to the clearing. Once there, I gave the pedal a gentle nudge in reverse and made it all the way to the back side (another 20 feet) where there might be a little more gravel and less mud, and most importantly, a little more room to gather momentum.
With a small prayer I slipped the transmission into in first and floored the accelerator, rocketing forward with enough forward speed to avoid much of the fishtailing I’d experienced earlier. Past the crumpled shrubs and protruding rock I shot. As the road steepened my momentum slowed and I could feel the wheels spinning but I just kept my foot to the floor. Approaching the curve I felt the car start to tilt right and slow almost to zero but somehow the tires maintained just enough grip to avoid a complete stop. I rounded the curve and surprised Don, who retreated up the road and turned to cheer me forward. By now the fishtailing exceeded the forward motion but I didn’t care as long as there was still forward motion. A short distance beyond the curve the road leveled and much of the mud turned to rock—I was free! Not wanting to stop until my tires kissed pavement I lowered my window and high-fived Don as I shot past and onto the highway. At the top we just couldn’t stop laughing, both at the foolish predicament I’d created, and our utter disbelief that we’d made it out.
Returning to the scene of the crime (March 2014)
Despite the memories, I’ve added this location to my Maui workshop rotation. In my 2014 workshop I took the group here on our final sunset before heading to Hana. Walking down the road this time I still couldn’t believe I’d attempted to drive it at all, let alone in a pouring rain. (I’ll never completely understand how we managed to get out of there.)
But anyway…. The group quickly scattered and I found myself over on the far side of the point with several others. Dark clouds scooted overhead, intermittently dumping rain that sent us scurrying to nearby sheltering rocks before stopping as quickly as it started. Between showers I worked on compositions that featured reflective pools sheltered from the crashing surf by volcanic rocks, hoping for a colorful sunset that would reflect in the smooth water. Given the predominant cloud cover I wasn’t particularly optimistic, but spent my wait-time working out compositions just in case.
This was my first shoot with my backup camera, the amazingly compact Canon EOS SL1 (pressed into service after my 5DIII did a Greg Louganis into a creek in the Iao Valley that morning). Not only was I able to take advantage of the relatively static conditions to craft compositions for later, I was able to use the time to familiarize myself with this camera that I’d only used once before.
So I was ready when, much to my surprise and pleasure, the sun broke through just in time to paint the horizon pink, I was ready. I clicked a number of frames of the various compositions I’d found earlier, timing each with the crashing surf and varying my shutter speed for different wave effects.
Posted on January 31, 2013
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Previously on “The Road to the Racetrack”
Racetrack Road approaches from the north and skirts the west side of Racetrack Playa in the shadow of Ubehebe (yuba-he’-be) Peak. We crested the saddle above the playa’s north perimeter and dropped out of the gray soup that had confined our world for about two hours. Before us spread the entire Racetrack Playa, its surrounding mountains draped in clouds that cascaded down their slopes like slow motion waterfalls. The light rain that had barely required windshield wipers stopped completely. Descending the saddle’s south side into the basin, our view was monopolized by the Grandstand—a cruise ship size chunk of adamellite (a dark, igneous intrusive rock similar to granite) jutting from the paper-flat playa. This is what the submerged portion of an island looks like. As we rolled past I couldn’t help thinking that the Grandstand would be a far more sought-after subject were it not for the moving rocks that take top bill here.
As much as I’d loved to have stopped to photograph the Grandstand, it was late afternoon and I was anxious to locate the main attraction before the good light came and went. The drive to the south side of the Racetrack is just one mile, but the road’s extreme washboard surface is a natural speed inhibitor; every time my speedometer nudged toward fifteen miles per hour our SUV started bouncing like an off-balance washing machine and I had to back off. Doug, Jay, and I had chuckled when the Stovepipe Wells grocery clerk told us that the rocks had mysteriously disappeared from the Racetrack, but I’ll admit to taking advantage of our slow speed to (anxiously) scrutinize the playa as we skirted its perimeter—what if it was true? Vibrating along, I saw a couple of grapefruit-size rocks trailing short tracks just west of the Grandstand, but nothing like the rocks we’d come for.
We finally stopped at the playa’s extreme south end where a couple of photographers were photographing a handful small rocks just a couple of hundred feet from the road. These rocks just didn’t seem natural to me—partly because of the nearby tire tracks marring the playa’s surface (the selfish ignorance of humans in nature never fails to disappoint me) and partly because they were so far from any rock source (these things don’t just drop from the sky). Standing there on the playa’s southwest edge, it was clear that the rocks we sought could only originate from the base of the steep mountain abutting the southeast corner. And indeed, looking more closely in that direction, we could just make out a large accumulation of black dots that could only be rocks. The playa’s utter flatness can be disorienting, but given that the Racetrack stretches one mile on its long, north-south axis, I estimated that the east side was about a half mile away. So off we set.
The playa’s color and chalky dust reminded me of a flour tortilla; its surface is a jigsaw of round polygons about three inches in diameter, separated by shallow cracks that have been filled in by the fine dust. When dry like this (there was no noticeable accumulation of the nearby rain) it’s an easy surface to walk. After ten minutes we arrived at the first rocks, toaster- to microwave-size, each with its own straight, curved, or zig-zag track. Eureka! We immediately spread out, claimed a specimen of our own, and went to work. Initially the best light was on the southwest horizon, where a hole in the clouds, obscured by Ubehebe Peak, passed enough sun to illuminate the low overcast (see the image in my previous post).
Soon our attention was drawn to the playa’s north end, toward the Grandstand, where a shaft of golden light had started skimming the dark hills and firing up the clouds there. I quickly circled the rock I was working on to swing my camera in that direction. As the shaft warmed it stretched further, eventually extending from edge to edge. As the light seemed to reach a crescendo Doug, who was set up about a hundred feet away, called out, “That almost looks like a rainbow.” I looked closer and sure enough, there was indeed a (quite faint) prism of color splashed above the sunlit hills bounding the playa’s northeast edge.
The one frame with my polarizer properly oriented for the rainbow that I managed to get off is at the top of the post. You have to look closely to see the rainbow (it’s there, I swear); careful examination reveals that the rainbow moves from green on the outside (left) to red on the inside (the shorter wavelength colors that would be left of green aren’t visible), meaning that our angle of view only gave us the fainter, outer band of a double rainbow. By the time I’d set up my next composition the light faded and with it the rainbow. Visions of a full rainbow arcing above the Racetrack dashed, we nevertheless couldn’t help feel that we’d been granted a very rare treat in this land of interminable blue sky.
The rest of our trip, though not without its moments, was anticlimax. After sunset we walked back to the car and ate dinner (soggy sandwiches for Jay and me, ramen noodles for Doug-the-chef), then went back out in the dark for a moonlight shoot without stars. By then the clouds had thickened and dropped, making it difficult to get anything that really looked like night. After a very restless night (one hour awake for every hour asleep for me), we rose for “sunrise” (or more accurately, “fogdrop”). While not quite spectacular, the low clouds swirling above the playa, spilling down the mountains in the thin light no doubt gave us unique images (that I haven’t had time to get to). And on the drive back we were able to see the terrain that had been completely obscured by clouds on our inbound trip, the highlight of which was several miles of joshua tree forest we’d been completely oblivious to earlier. In fact, despite my extreme need to be back in Furnace Creek in time for my workshop (that started at 1:00 that afternoon), at one point we encountered a scene with nearby joshua trees juxtaposed against distant, fog-wrapped mountains that we couldn’t help stopping to shoot for fifteen minutes or so.
After depositing Jay at his car in Stovepipe Wells, Doug and I made it back to Furnace Creek by 11:45 and managed to clean up, have lunch, and set up for orientation with time to spare. Piece of cake.
Posted on August 1, 2012
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In my previous post I wrote about California’s extremes. I used Badwater in Death Valley to illustrate, but of course there are many more examples. Case in point: the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains, just east of Bishop, across the Owens Valley from the Sierra Nevada.
The more heralded, heavily traveled Sierra gets most of the rain and snow from the Pacific, rendering the White Mountains a high elevation desert. With very little water to sustain foliage, fierce winds scour the White’s rocky surface unchecked. Water (and foliage) also moderates temperatures (lower highs, higher lows)–without water’s moderating effect, high temperatures in the White Mountains are higher and low temperatures are lower than corresponding elevations in the nearby Sierra.
Enter the bristlecone pine, a hardy conifer that has evolved to not only survive in these extremes, it thrives. Thrives to the point that it is generally acknowledged as the oldest living thing on earth (older, even, than Larry King). Some bristlecones approach 5,000 years old; the tree in this image is around 4,000 years old, give or take a millennium (due to, believe it or not, concerns about vandalism, individual bristlecone ages aren’t revealed).
The Schulman Grove Discovery Trail is a one mile loop with great access to some magnificent trees. It’s a very well-marked, heavily used trail, but it’s quite steep. And at over 10,000 feet elevation, it will definitely test your lung capacity. At just about the halfway point of the trail, you’ll find a magnificent bristlecone pair, well worth the effort to get out there. The trail here loops around these trees, providing 270 degrees of perspective.
The most popular view here, the view that seems to attract the most photographers, is close and looking up at the trees against the sky. But this evening I liked that the (often obscurred by haze) Sierra crest was clearly visible, and saw that the sky had potential for color, so I picked a more distant vantage point up the trail a bit. From there I could isolate the tree against the mountains and compress the distance somewhat with a moderate telephoto.
Using some scruffy yellow shrubs to anchor my foreground, I decided a vertical composition allowed me to compose the tree a little tighter. It was about 75 feet away, which meant at f16 and 75mm, focusing just a little in front of the tree gave me sharpness from 25 feet to infinity (as reported by the hyperfocal app in my iPhone). The color came late, after many photographers had packed up and headed back to the visitor center. While the sunset didn’t paint the entire sky, it very conveniently peaked in direct line with my composition. I love it when everything comes together.
Posted on July 17, 2012
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.
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.
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.