Monday, March 31, 2014

Sunrise Silhouette

This was a crystal clear dawn at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Utah. We had walked a short distance from our cars in the deep pre-dawn darkness, trekking over uneven sand and narrowly missing a sleeping and lethargic (thank goodness) rattlesnake.

This is a magical place at any time of day, but at sunrise it is especially spectacular. In the darkness when we arrived, virtually nothing was visible beyond the range of our flashlights. As the sky slowly lightened, dark shapes began to form all around us, like sleeping giants waking for the day.

Our Navajo Indian guide knew the area well, and skillfully guided us to just the right vantage point for sunrise. We set up our tripods in total darkness, made some preliminary camera settings, and waited.

Sure enough, right on schedule, the sun began to appear on the horizon. At sunrise the sun moves very rapidly and you have to be ready to shoot quickly.  You have just a few minutes before it is completely above the horizon and the light level changes radically.

My preference is to shoot sunrise before the sun even appears, and then again when it is just breaking the horizon. In this shot it had just cleared the horizon, but I was able to position myself so that the sun was partially blocked by the “totem” formation, causing the appearance of a starburst on the rock face itself. 

You can create a natural starburst easily by using a small aperture (f/16 or f/22 or smaller). As long as it is not too hazy and there is something solid between you and the partially visible sun, like a rocky outcrop, a building, or even the horizon, the starburst will appear all by itself.

Exposure at sunrise is relatively easy. I generally want rich color in the sky, and expose for that. It is fine for the foreground, in this case the rocks, to be silhouetted and without detail. As always, be sure to check the histogram every few shots since the light levels rise very quickly at sunrise.

Note that the sun is so bright that it will rarely have any color in the brightest area. As long as the other elements in the scene are interesting and have color, the pure white area of the sun is not a problem.

Focus is the other dicey thing at sunrise. I prefer to use autofocus, and try to find the edge of something dark like a rock or a tree against the slightly lighter sky to focus on. Look for a line between the dark foreground and the lighter sky to aim at. That will help the autofocus mechanism find something to grab on to. Live View is rarely helpful in very low light and I do not use it.

Shutter Speed 1/50 sec.  Aperture f/22.  ISO 200.  Lens: Canon 17-40mm f/4L, set at 17mm.  Camera: Canon 40D.  Gitzo tripod with ballhead.

TODAY’S QUOTE: “…day and night meet fleetingly at twilight and dawn…. Their merging sometimes affords the beholder the most enchanted moments of all the twenty four hours.”  --Mary Balogh, A Summer to Remember

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