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Sunset Sunburst, Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Dome

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 12 March 2010 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.

In a place where the spectacular is commonplace, Sentinel Dome stands out. At 8,000 feet Sentinel Dome rises high above Yosemite Valley, rewarding anyone who makes the one mile trek with a 360 degree visual buffet. From its summit, rotating 360 degrees clockwise from west-to-east you can savor Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, North Dome, Tenaya Canyon, Half Dome, and Nevada Fall , Mt. Starr King, the Sierra crest (and a host of peaks to numerous to name), the San Joaquin Valley, and even Mt Diablo (in the San Francisco Bay Area) if the conditions are right.

With its unobstructed view of the eastern horizon, Sentinel Dome may just be the best (easily accessible) place in Yosemite to photograph sunrise. But it's also a great sunset spot, and it's where I happened to be on this early summer evening a couple of years ago. When I arrived, about an hour before sunset, the sky was a flat gray, with terrain to match. But on the western horizon was a gap in the clouds that offered an unobstructed view of blue sky beyond. I knew before the sun set it needed to pass through the gap (duh), and when it did it could (fingers crossed) illuminate the entire sky.

I used the time until sunset to evaluate my composition options, ready my graduated neutral density filters, and anticipate my exposure settings. As I prepared, a thin haze formed on the horizon, a potential problem if it thickened enough to obscure the sun, a potential benefit if it remained thin and cut the sunlight slightly. The fact is, all the anticipation and preparation in the world won't guarantee success; at best it will merely improve your odds of success.

But since that stuff's beyond my control, I continued trying to improve my odds. I knew when the sun popped from beneath the clouds, and again just before it disappeared behind the horizon, I'd have an opportunity for a sunburst (possible when photographing a bright point of light with a small aperture--I like f16 or smaller). Like many overused photographic techniques, sunbursts images risk being cliché, but sometimes they're simply the best way to handle compositions that include the sun. To reduce the dynamic range between the sky and the shadowed Yosemite Valley, I decided to stack two graduated neutral density filters to remove five stops of light from the bright sky. (In post-processing I would dodge and burn a little to smooth the transition.)

Fortune smiled on me that evening, as the clouds remained translucent enough to allow the sunlight to set the sky ablaze all the way to the eastern horizon. The magenta hue in the granite is reflected from the sky above and behind me. The color intensified further after the sun disappeared, but I liked the sunburst (cliché or not) and decided to go with this version.

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Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

Barbara Kile from Ft. Worth, United States

The sky looks like liquid gold! Great capture.

12 Mar 2010 5:38am

Didier DE ZAN from somewhere, France

Beautiful shot

12 Mar 2010 6:01am

Julie from Easton, United States

Another beautiful shot, the sky is amazing and the addition of the waterfall really is cool!

12 Mar 2010 7:23am

KriKridesign from Cully, Switzerland

just magic...love it so much...

12 Mar 2010 8:16am

LM from Aix en Provence, France

That s always a pleasure to see your photo, Congratulation again

12 Mar 2010 8:24am

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

Marvelous colors... it's so magic !

12 Mar 2010 9:04am

Vitor Martins from Lisboa, Portugal

Very beautiful image. I like the composition, but the sky is amaizing.

12 Mar 2010 9:10am

Stefan from Thiersee, Austria

Great composition, fantastic photo!

12 Mar 2010 9:47am

Marie LC from Dauphiné, France

Nice work ! love colours and frame

12 Mar 2010 10:35am

Michelle from Elverson, United States

Stellar image, one of my favorites of yours.

12 Mar 2010 1:21pm

Aidan Hammond from Seoul, South Korea

Great shot

13 Mar 2010 12:31am

Paul from summerside, Canada

Very nice great job

13 Mar 2010 1:25am

Sandy Weston from Madison, Maine, United States

Amazing shot and love the processing! I like the purple shadowed areas :)

13 Mar 2010 3:30am

@Sandy Weston: Thanks, Sandy. Not too much processing here--I dodged the shadows a bit, but I wanted them dark. And with five stops of GND above the horizon line I had to dodge and burn a bit to hide the transition. I also added a slight wiggle in curves to bump the contrast. The magenta cast is the sky color reflected by the granite. In general I think the best processing is the least processing.

Bill Hawkins from United States

I'm constantly amazed at the images that you're able to capture. I can only hope to emulate a small portion your vision and skill as a photographer. For me, this is a truly inspirational image.

13 Mar 2010 4:59am

@Bill Hawkins: Thanks, Bill.

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

a stunning composition and extremely well controlled and balanced light indeed! i like the starburst - it really gives the entire scene some sparkle and and an added hook for the eyes to latch onto.

13 Mar 2010 10:07am

Catherine Chambers from Davis, United States

I'm almost afraid to ask how high up that is.....

14 Mar 2010 6:35pm

@Catherine Chambers: Sentinel Dome is at 8,000 feet, about 4,000 feet above the valley floor. It's not particularly precarious; while the slope is quite steep (you definitely feel the last 200 yards in your lungs), it's not so steep that you can't walk up (nothing like the hike to Half Dome), and the top is flat. I've been coming here since I was a kid, and a couple of years ago my mom hiked up here.

Self-Indulgence from Chicagoland, United States

Your rocks rule here! I mean that liquidly golden sky and that half star of sun is beautiful too but something about the texture and light on the rocks, that pale purple glow has touched the rock fancier in me :)

15 Mar 2010 5:38pm