Alpenglow – what is it?

Recently several people have asked me what alpenglow is, and what causes it. This term was probably popularized among photographers by Galen Rowell, who wrote about it and demonstrated it wonderfully through many of his fantastic landscapes. The term refers to the reddish pre-dawn and post-sunset lighting effects sometimes seen on mountain peaks. There is some debate as to whether it also refers to the light cast directly by the sun at the moment of sunrise or sunset, or if it only refers to an indirect red cast on the mountain top while the mountain is still in the earth’s shadow. Either way, it is a beautiful sight to behold.

Mt. Whitney glows red in pre-dawn light, Alabama Hills, CA
Mt. Whitney glows red in pre-dawn light, Alabama Hills, CA

I got a chance to see intense alpenglow recently when I visited the Alabama Hills on the eastern side of the Sierra. In the photo above, you can see the intense red of alpenglow touching the peak of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental US.

Why is alpenglow red? The longest and slowest moving light waves in the visible spectrum are red. As light travels through our atmosphere, the faster wave lengths (blue) are absorbed – only the red penetrates. Alpenglow is an extreme version of this light absorption because of the increased amount of atmosphere light has to travel through at this time of day. Here we have the sun rising on one horizon (east), striking an object on the opposite horizon (west). The red wave length is the only end of the spectrum that makes it through all that atmosphere. The fact that there are no features obstructing the sun as it rises across the Nevada desert, combined with the fact that the peaks of the eastern Sierra rise over 10,000 feet straight up, make the Alabama Hills one of the best places on earth to view alpenglow.

Light from the rising sun creeps down the face of Mt. Whitney at dawn, Alabama Hills, CA
Light from the rising sun creeps down the face of Mt. Whitney at dawn, Alabama Hills, CA

Here we have another shot of Whitney taken less than four minutes after the first photo. Here the darker purple of the earth shadow moved down the face, and the red color was more orange as the sun rose above the eastern horizon. Even though it was only four minutes later, there was less atmosphere for the sun light to traverse, shifting the color away from red and toward the shorter wavelengths.

A change of scenery

In a post a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned making corrections to your background while still in the field. Another trick you can sometimes employ is to get a different look by changing the background completely. This works best when using long telephoto lenses (400 mm and up).

A great egret poses in soft evening light, preparing to fish for dinner
A great egret poses in soft evening light, preparing to fish for dinner

The great egret in the photo above was perched on a short fence, and eying the water below. He seemed to be looking for the best place to fish for dinner. I was directly in line with the angle of the sun, so as to reduce any side lighting on the egret. The foliage of a berm far behind him created a solid, even color.

I got several head poses that I liked, but since my subject was being so patient, I wanted to see if I could get a completely different background. The berm was not very high, and the evening sky above it was a nice light blue. I moved to the right and lowered my camera until I was close to the ground. This removed the berm from my background completely, and gave me the photo below with a background of sky.

A great egret poses in soft evening light, preparing to fish for dinner
A great egret poses in soft evening light, preparing to fish for dinner

Because my lens was a long telephoto, I didn’t have to move far to change my background. This is great when my subject is wildlife, and they can decide to end the photo session at any moment. However, I use the same idea even when photographing friends with shorter lenses. Taking the time to look around for different background options can give you different variations on the same subject and can lead to new, interesting photos.

Instant photo correction – always watch your back (ground)

Have you ever taken a great photograph, been really excited about it, only to get it onto the computer and see that some distracting background element ruined it? I have learned this lesson too many times. Yes, you can spend time in photoshop and mask and clone and clean and and and…. It takes a lot of time (and photoshop skill).

A couple of weeks ago, I got the chance to actually modify my behavior based on this lesson. I was photographing snowy egrets by the water, and had my tripod legs low and splayed out, so as to get my camera close to the ground. I saw a juvenile black-crowned night heron perched atop a short fence, and took the following picture.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron.  A small strip of sky is visible at the top of the frame.
Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron. A small strip of sky is visible at the top of the frame.

I was really focused on its head angle and exposure, and was pretty happy with the result, when I scanned the entire frame and noticed the background. The shallow depth of field gave me a nice solid green, except for a sliver of blue at the top of the frame. While the photo was still good, the sky at the top detracted from the even background. No problem – luckily I had noticed this issue while I was still behind the camera. A quick adjustment to my tripod legs raised my rig to eye-level with the bird, eliminating the sliver of sky, and improving my photo. The resulting image is below.

By moving the camera up, I was able to eliminate the sky, and create a solid smooth green background.
By moving the camera up, I was able to eliminate the sky, and create a solid smooth green background.

No matter what type of photography you are doing, it always pays to stay attentive to everything in your frame. Usually by simply moving up, down, left or right, you can improve the shot and save yourself a ton of work on the computer.

Competition breeds creativity

Before the digital storm swept through the world of photography, shooting film was an error-prone process for the uninitiated. It took patience and overcoming a steep learning curve to succeed as a professional photographer. If you didn’t learn lessons from past mistakes and quickly correct them, you were soon out of a job. As a result, only those who could consistently produce salable images succeeded, and the number of top-tier professionals was small.

Thanks to the digital photography revolution, the number of photographers that can produce fantastic images has exploded. There are two reasons for this. First, the ability to adjust camera settings on the fly while reviewing the results on the camera’s LCD, coupled with the fact that so many more images are salvageable in post processing has created a more forgiving environment in which to achieve great images. The photographer no longer has to pre-visualize in the same way, and pre-calculate the perfect exposure. Simply reviewing the LCD in the field can help correct and shape the next photograph. Second, the instant feedback of digital makes the learning curve of photography easier to overcome. The learning process becomes more interactive and immediate than when the photographer had to take notes in the field about his camera settings, and then wait until the film was developed before conducting a comprehensive review of his work. This instant feedback has helped to catapult more part time and hobbyists into the professional photography scene.

When I first started dabbling in digital photography, the community was small. Digital photographers were either gadget or photography fanatics (most of us were both). However, as digital photo technology developed quickly, picture quality started to improve, and the results began to be taken more seriously. More photographers converted from film to digital, and even more new photographers entered the fray. So what does mean for professional photographers trying to eke a living in this brave new world?

With advances in hardware and software within cameras themselves, the overall quality of photographs is improving. Cameras are “smarter”, and even snapshots have never looked so good. For photographers, it means that in order to differentiate ourselves, we have to push our creativity to the limit, and execute with technical perfection. No more “almost got it” shots will be acceptable – current camera technology is just too good. Also, the ability to make a living solely on selling stock is now in the past. With the advent of micro-stock (royalty free), and the ease at which digital files can be sent around the world, stock photography consumers are more likely to settle for a lesser photo at MUCH cheaper prices than a well-polished rights-managed image.

However, it is not all bad news for professionals trying to make a living from photography – there is a silver lining. Photography has never been more popular. With prices coming down and product quality going up, people are snatching up the latest cameras in record numbers. The good news is that because of increased demand, camera manufacturers will continue to invest in research and development of even better technology. That means being able to achieve shots we only dreamed of a decade ago. This provides us more time for creativity, and less emphasis on the technical precision required to operate the camera. Don’t get me wrong – we still need to know our camera gear backwards and forwards. But since many camera operations are now automated, we can spend more time on the creative and artistic aspects of photography to produce the shots that separate us from the pack.

A man raises his arms to the setting sun, Mission Peak, SF Bay Area, CA.
A man raises his arms to the setting sun, Mission Peak, SF Bay Area, CA.

I took the photo above in 1999 with one of my first digital cameras – the Olympus 500L. With a resolution of 1024×768 pixels (ALMOST a 1 megapixel camera), and the fact it could take external media cards (maximum card size was 8 MB), it was revolutionary at the time.