The twilight edge

Gary Hart Photography: Moonlight on the Water, Garrapata Beach, Big Sur

Moonlight on the Water, Garrapata Beach, Big Sur
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
6 seconds
ISO 100

I sometimes hear comments and questions that make me think people believe pro photographers have “secrets” that enable us to photograph things the amateur public can’t. Let me assure you that this is not true. What is true is that successful landscape photographers have an understanding of the natural world that helps us know where and when to look for our images, and we know that often the best pictures aren’t in the same place as the best view.

For example, it’s hard to deny the beauty of a sunrise or sunset. But it seems that most people are so mesmerized by the scene facing the sun that they miss exquisite beauty in the other direction. The next time you find yourself out photographing (or simply enjoying) a sunrise or sunset, do yourself a favor and check out the world behind you. Beneath clear skies you’ll see the earth’s shadow, often called the “twilight wedge,” overlaid by the pink “Belt of Venus.” I call the sky in this direction the “twilight edge,” not only because it’s found at the day’s leading or trailing edge, but also for the advantage it gives photographers who understand how easy this under-appreciated (and oft missed) perspective is to photograph.

Unlike the view toward the rising or setting sun, where cameras struggle to expose the full range of shaded subjects against a bright sky, the scene opposite the sun is bathed light that has been bent, scattered, colored, and subdued by its long trip through the atmosphere. While not as dramatic to the eye as an electric crimson sky or throbbing orange sun, a camera loves the long shadows and warm tones away from the sun.

But the great light doesn’t begin at sunrise, or end at sunset. When the sun is about ten degrees or closer to the horizon, the sky in the opposite direction is bright enough to fill the landscape with soft, shadowless light that makes photography a breeze. And while the scene may appear quite dark to the eye, a long exposure and/or slightly higher ISO (like 400 or 800) will reveal the world in a way that’s impossible in daylight. Case in point:

Before Sunrise, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California

Before Sunrise, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California
This is a 30 second exposure at ISO 400, captured about 30 minutes before sunrise on a windy Eastern Sierra winter morning, when the world was still dark enough to require a flashlight to maneuver.

Twilight components

Above the shadowless pre-sunrise/post-sunset landscape, when the sun is around six degrees or closer to the horizon (civil twilight), soft bands of color stacked like pastel pillows materialize. The blue-gray band earth’s shadow directly above the horizon earned its “twilight wedge” designation because you can sometimes see the earth’s curve in the shadow, giving it something of a wedge shape. At sunset, the gradual upward motion of the shadow gives the appearance of a wedge being driven into the darkening sky.

Above the earth’s shadow, but not quite high enough to receive the full complement of solar wavelengths, the atmosphere basks in the slightly brighter pink glow of scattered sunlight. In this region the shorter wavelengths have been dispersed, leaving only the longest, red wavelengths—the Belt of Venus. You’ll first see its pink stripe high in the pre-sunrise sky, descending and brightening as the sun rises, until the pink is finally overcome by the first rays of sunrise; after sunset the pink band starts low, climbing skyward and darkening, eventually blending into the oncoming night.


A particularly striking sunrise/sunset phenomenon is the “alpenglow” that spreads atop mountaintops that rise so far above the surrounding terrain that they jut into the BoV, assuming its pink glow. My favorite place to photograph alpenglow is the Alabama Hills, 10,000 vertical feet below Mt. Whitney and the Sierra crest, but alpenglow paints peaks throughout the world.

Alpenglow, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra

Alpenglow, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra
From my vantage point the sun was still well below the horizon, but Mt. Whitney, 10,000 feet above me jutted into the scattered pink rays of the rising sun.

Moonrise, moonset

Quite conveniently, the earth shadow and Belt of Venus also happen to be where you’ll find a setting (at sunrise) and rising (at sunset) full moon. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that the full moon (more or less) rises in the east at sunset, and sets in the west at sunrise. Many of my favorite images use just such a moonrise or moonset to accent an empty but colorful sky.

The image at the top of this post is a recent attempt at a sunrise moonset. I was in Big Sur last week to help my good friend Don Smith with his Big Sur winter workshop. Don and I guided the group down to the beach much too early to photograph the moon, but the extra time allowed everyone to search for a suitable foreground.

With the tide quite high, many of the beach’s most photogenic rocks were partially or completely submerged, but we certainly weren’t lacking for subjects. Don helped half of the group work the rocks along the south part of the beach, while the other half followed me north. Just a couple of hundred yards up the beach we found a pair of boulders amidst the crashing surf. Taking care not to scar the pristine sand with footprints, we spent the rest of the sunrise moving around, framing the setting moon with these and a couple of other nearby boulders.

I clicked the frame here extremely early in the window of usable light, when the foreground was just bright enough that capturing usable detail didn’t require overexposing the moon (remember, if I can’t capture the entire scene with one click, I won’t shoot it). Vanquishing this extreme dynamic range was aided by the amazing sensor of my new Sony a7R (thank you very much), combined with my trusty Singh-Ray 3-stop hard graduated neutral density filter.

Even with those advantages, I still needed to massage the shadows up and highlights (the moon only) down in Lightroom and Photoshop. The advantage of photographing the scene this early was the ability to capture the moonlight reflected on the ocean, something I’d have lost if I’d waited for the foreground to brighten.

A Gallery of the View Opposite the Sun

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh your screen to reorder the display.

 Photo Workshops

Gary Hart Photography Death Valley Photo Workshop Group

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A perfect end to a perfect day

Winter Twilight, Yosemite Valley

Winter Twilight, Yosemite Valley

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A few weeks ago I led a one day trip to Yosemite for a class I teach two or three times a year. This class usually fills, but this time I only had six students (about half the usual size), I suspect because many people saw a storm was forecast and decided to stay home. Sigh. As much as you hear me say that the best conditions for taking pictures are usually the worst conditions for being outside, I don’t think anything will express it more clearly than a picture (or four) from that day:

<< Click the image to view a larger version and read the blog post >>

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

Autumn Reflection, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

El Capitan and Fresh Snow, Yosemite

El Capitan and Fresh Snow, Yosemite

Snow on Autumn Leaves, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

Snow on Autumn Leaves, El Capitan and the Merced River, Yosemite

About today’s image

I’m going to strike preemptively and say a few words about the image at the top of this post, mostly for those who don’t regularly read my blog. I say “preemptively” because I know I’ll get the skeptical “that doesn’t look real” comments. If you read me enough, you not only know that duplicating human reality with a camera is impossible, you know why it’s impossible. Therefore, photographers’ truth becomes their camera’s reality, a very different thing indeed.

For example, check out the exposure settings: Four seconds at f11 and ISO 400 should be a pretty good clue that it was quite dark when I captured this (about twenty minutes after sunset), much darker to my eyes than this image conveys. So while this wasn’t “real” to my experience, it was very much “real” to my camera.

The blue/pink sky is the result of a “twilight wedge,” Earth’s shadow descending on the landscape as the sun drops below the horizon behind me. The twilight wedge is missed by many casual sunset watchers because it’s opposite of the sun (at sunrise it ascends in the west, opposite the rising sun), and usually a few minutes separates the sunset color in the west and the wedges pink and blue pastels. Particularly pronounced on clear-sky evenings, a twilight wedge is never more vivid than when it follows a storm that has scoured the impurities from the air.

On this evening, my group watched late afternoon light warm El Capitan and Half Dome and, right at sunset, nicely (but unspectacularly) color the clouds above Half Dome. As this color started to fade, when the dozens of photographers shoulder-to-shoulder at the Tunnel View vista started to pack up, I told my group if they stuck around they’d be in for a treat. As we waited for the show to begin, I reminded everyone to forget what their eyes saw and simply expose enough to make El Capitan a middle(ish) tone.

We were the only ones remaining, about five minutes later, when the sky above Half Dome took on a pink cast that deepened as the light faded. As the pink started to throb (I swear, that’s how it looks), the detail in the valley floor was reduced to dark shapes. No longer receiving direct light, the entire landscape was bathed in this shadow-free, omnidirectional skylight that our eyes struggled to keep up with. But our cameras, with their ability to accumulate light, returned images that revealed a world devoid of the troublesome contrast that usually plagues photographers here, and where the highly reflective clouds, snow, and even a nearby solitary deciduous tree seem to glow with their own light.


Gary Hart Photography: Twilight Fog, Tunnel View, Yosemite

Twilight Fog, Tunnel View, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
1.6 seconds
ISO 200
48 mm

Yesterday I spent an incredible day in Yosemite, guiding a group of photographers from the Sacramento area. When I schedule these trips, I do my best to time them for nice conditions, but of course there’s no guarantee things will work out. Yesterday they worked out. Big time. Not only did we catch Yosemite Valley at its fall color peak (it’s late this year), we found everything blanketed with fresh snow that continued to fall lightly, and intermittently, throughout the day. I have lots of images I can’t wait to get to, but until then I offer this one from a few years ago, chosen because it’s quite similar to the scene with which we wrapped up the day yesterday.

Much like last night, the view on this spring evening was a classic Yosemite clearing storm. I arrived at Tunnel View to find El Capitan and Half Dome, partially obscured by swirling clouds, teasing the audience like exotic fan dancers; a carpet of plush fog twisted along the valley floor. With sunlit clouds and granite above a shaded valley, the light was tricky, but as the sun dropped, so did the contrast and photography became simpler. Eventually the direct sunlight left Half Dome entirely, but patches spotlighted El Capitan right up until sunset. While the clouds never achieved brilliant sunset pinks and reds, they radiated an ethereal gold that intensified over several minutes before fading.

When the sunlight left entirely, as if on cue, the fog hugging the valley floor expanded, slowly obscuring the scene like a curtain signaling the show’s end. With the view gone, the crowd packed up and headed to wherever they needed to be; suddenly I was alone. But I’ve photographed Yosemite enough to know that it’s a mistake to try to predict the conditions in five minutes based on the conditions now, so I stayed, hoping for an encore. As quickly as it had closed, the foggy curtain pulled back, unveiling Yosemite Valley once more, this time illuminated by the magnificent pink and blue pastels of a twilight wedge. By now the sky was quite dark, but all the faint, shadowless light that remained needed was a bit of extra exposure to reveal more of the most beautiful view on Earth. (This is a 1.6 second exposure at f7.1 and ISO 200, with my usually present polarizer removed.)

Even though this image adds to the seemingly infinite number of Yosemite Tunnel View pictures in my own portfolio and others, it remains one of my personal favorites. It’s one of the images I think about every time I consider leaving a scene, and it’s what I showed the group last night when some suggested leaving. So we stayed and were among the very few rewarded with memories of Yosemite Valley’s sweet encore for the drive home.

Yosemite photo workshops

A Gallery of Yosemite Weather

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

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