Poring over low contrast pictures the day after we got home from Sequoia reminded me once again of the folly of taking landscape pictures in the middle of the day. I’ll eat, drink, take a nap – or do photo studies of moss, but I’m not going to take landscape pictures in the middle of the day any more.
I’m going to make the picture the priority. First, I’ll go take sunrise pictures, then come back and have breakfast, or I’ll take sunset pictures, then come back and have dinner.
Ted Ayers rousted us out before sunrise, then kept us out until after sunset on the Owens Valley trip a few weeks ago, and the effort was worthwhile. I took some of my best landscape pictures during those times.
Even though we went up a day early, we didn’t have time to find a good location for sunrise or sunset photography. The valley fog moved in early Friday afternoon and covered the sky, so we couldn’t see the sunset. Sunrise the next morning was without any clouds or color, too.
The bottom line: sunrise shots are not easy to get. You need extra time to do some scouting. Also, you should determine approximately where and when the sun will rise in the morning, taking into account the geographical features that may interfere with elements of composition, subject lighting, etc.
You have to be able to locate your shooting site and set up your equipment in the dark by flashlight. You may have only 15 minutes of shooting once there is enough light. Of course, you must use a tripod, small apertures, long exposures, and be ready to bracket exposures and compositions rapidly. The best morning light can occur anytime between the first lavender rays of dawn and a couple of minutes before the brilliant yellow sun rises over the horizon.
The sunlight skimming through the earth’s thin atmospheric layer and lighting the underside of clouds during sunrise is missing the shorter wavelengths of blue light because that’s filtered out by microscopic particles in the atmosphere. At the same time, the longer wavelengths of red light get through. As soon as the sun rises above the point where the light isn’t skimming through the thin layer of atmosphere, the blue light wavelengths return to create white light again.
This same phenomenon occurs in reverse at sunset. Picture opportunities at this time start a few minutes before the sun dips below the horizon, and last as long as the sun shines through the atmospheric layer and up under the clouds.
Take pictures of sunsets first. It gives you time to prepare while it’s still light out. If you use a film camera, try using Kodak E100SW or E100VS film, and use the raw setting for digital cameras if you have one. Using a split neutral density filter, or layers in Adobe Photoshop, are other advanced techniques for sunrise/sunset photography, but I’ll cover that in another column.