Consistently finding great photo opportunities isn’t luck, but neither is it a divine gift. It’s simply a matter of doing your homework. I take great effort to anticipate rather than react to my opportunities, to be in place before the shot happens. In my “Three Ps of Nature Photography” article this foresight is "P" number 1: Preparation.
When I scheduled my 2010 workshops way back in early 2009, I pulled out the lunar tables and figured out that starting my Death Valley workshop on January 29 would give my group at least one moonrise and two moonset opportunities. I checked the altitude and azimuth of the moon on these days and determined exactly where I wanted to be for each. It turned out Mother Nature had other plans for Aguereberry Point, my Death Valley moonrise location; a few days before the workshop She deposited enough snow above 5,000 feet to render all of Death Valley's high elevation vistas inaccessible. So I countered with a sunset moonrise on the dunes and all was well. But this was just a teaser—by far the two moon shoots I most looked forward to were a sunrise moonset at Zabriskie Point, and a moonset behind Mt. Whitney from the Alabama Hills at sunrise on our final morning.
Of course despite the need for careful planning, there is indeed a luck component to nature photography—while the moon’s position and phase can be computed with precision, the weather is a complete crapshoot. I wasn’t too concerned about Zabriskie Point because blue skies are pretty much the rule in Death Valley. But Mt. Whitney in January is another story—I’ve waited days for it to emerge from a persistent cloudy shroud.
So I was quite pleased on the final morning of my workshop to see stars overhead as the group assembled for our sunrise shoot. My excitement grew on the drive to the Alabama Hills, as in the faint light I could see a few clouds on the western horizon—not so many to threaten our view of Whitney, but enough to catch some of the rich color I always hope for.
When we pulled into the parking area near the Whitney Arch (aka, Mobius Arch) the sky was still fairly dark, but the group had learned long ago that this is great light for photography and they quickly scattered. Don Smith and my brother Jay (both assisting me on this workshop) stayed with the people who wandered toward the boulders south of the parking area; I went with the contingent that made for the arch (where we’d photographed the night before). When we reconvened later it was clear everyone was pretty happy with the sunrise light, lenticular clouds, and rich color we'd been blessed with. But to me what set the scene apart was that elegant moon I'd been looking forward to for nearly a year.
A few words about alpenglow
Mt. Whitney is famous for its sunrise "alpenglow," a pink cast that bathes the summit just minutes before sunrise. Alpenglow is really just a terrestrial manifestation of the rich pastel pink that appears right above the horizon opposite the sun just after sunset or before sunrise (it has other names, such as twilight wedge or belt of Venus). This glow is caused by the day's first or last rays of sunlight bending along the curve of the earth--most of the colors of the spectrum are scattered out by the atmosphere, leaving only the red near the horizon. Normally this color is seen only in the sky, but mountains that rise so far above the surrounding terrain that the sun's lowest rays are unobstructed, actually jut into this zone of color for a few minutes at sunrise or sunset. Just one more reason to rise a little earlier in the morning, and stay out a little later in the evening.
A little about my approach to this capture (for photographers only)
Whitney Arch pictures are so common as to risk being cliché. The cure for a cliché image is a unique composition and/or special conditions. As the sunrise unfolded I knew the special conditions criterion would be met and I worked to find a composition that did it justice (this jockeying is complicated by the fact that I always let my group get their shots first and then work around them).
I found that by moving left, lower, and farther back than I usually shoot here I could balance the moon with Mt. Whitney and the colorful lenticular cloud and frame them all in the arch. I zoomed as tight as I could without trimming the arch. Because focus was critical here I stopped down to f16 for extra depth of field (I try to avoid going smaller than this unless it’s absolutely necessary, as diffraction and lens optics at the smallest apertures degrade image quality). The texture of the arch is so important to this scene that I opted to focus on it rather than Mt. Whitney. I chose a focus point on the arch as far from my lens as possible (the back side a little beneath the cloud) to maximize my focus range. Before clicking my shutter I used my depth of field preview to confirm that all of my foreground was sharp.
I spot-metered on the cloud and found ½ second would ensure that I’d keep all the color I could see—I wasn’t concerned about the shadowed area under the arch going a little dark. After the capture I checked my LCD to be sure the moon wasn’t blinking (blown highlights) as I always like to get lunar detail in my moon images.
When a scene excites me like this I'm never satisfied with a single composition. So once I was satisfied I'd accomplished my original objective I bracketed a number of images, not for exposure but for compositional variety (wider, tighter, horizontal, vertical).
* Website: Eloquent Images
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