Capturing Golden Light

Published in the February 2012 issue of Australian Photography magazine

It’s no secret that good light is a fundamental ingredient in landscape photography. Take a look at any successful landscape photographer’s portfolio and you’ll see that a lot of the photos were captured around sunrise and sunset. That’s not to say that good landscape photos can’t be made at other times of the day or night – they certainly can – but there’s something about the golden hours around dawn and dusk that can really set a landscape image apart from the pack.

This spot is a 40 minute walk from the car park in Gibraltar Range National Park, NSW. I spent some time looking around here on the previous day so I had a good idea of the lie of the land and possible compositions which could be put to use at sunrise. Canon EOS 5D Mk II, 17-40mm lens @17mm, 0.6s @ f/13, ISO 100.

Capturing photos at these times of day can require a little planning, especially if your target location is only accessible on foot. Most of our national parks and reserves provide great photo opportunities but a lot of the more picturesque spots are located some distance from the nearest car park. Think about the high lookouts or secluded waterfalls you’ve visited in the past – it’s not unusual to have to walk anything from five minutes to several hours to reach these places. In order to photograph more remote locations at their best you need to think about how to get yourself and your camera gear there and back safely. There’s always the option of sleeping out on location overnight, but in a lot of cases (especially in winter) it’s more practical and easier to hike there in the dark before sunrise, or hike home in the dark after sunset. Sounds a little scary if you haven’t done it before, but with the right preparation and equipment it can be a safe, productive and exhilarating experience.

What’s on offer?
What is it about sunrise and sunset which makes them ideal for landscape photography? The obvious answer is “the colours!”, and that’s certainly a very big part of it. I doubt there are too many people who are immune to the beauty of a sky full of reds and yellows, particularly if it’s framing a rugged and natural landscape scene. Some of my favourite landscape images rely heavily on the colours of a setting or rising sun to elevate them above the ordinary.

With a good torch and some care it can be easy to rock-hop along open riverbanks in the dim light before sunrise or after sunset. This image of a reflection on the Mann River in northern New South Wales was taken just before sunrise after a 15 minute walk from camp. Canon EOS 5D Mk II, 17-40mm lens @21mm, 1/8s @ f/13, ISO 100.

But there’s more to it than that – one of my favourite things about shooting around dawn and dusk is the ‘softness’ of the light. There are no harsh shadows to contend with, less chance of blown out highlights (unless you point the camera straight at the sun), and a vibrant quality to the light that is less about colour and more about the way it seems to make natural scenes glow. I’ve experienced a lot of sunrise photo sessions where there was little or no colour in the sky but the resulting images had a quality and atmosphere that far outstripped anything I could have taken in full daylight.

The third part of the equation for me is more esoteric but I’m convinced it helps make good photographs – and that is the feelings that are stirred when you witness a sunrise or sunset. Few things inspire me more than watching the sun come up over a wild scene, or watching the last rays of sunlight fade as the sun sets. We humans have a closer relationship with the natural world than many of us ever tap into, and dawn and dusk are prime times to feel this innate connection. All very Zen I know, but if you are really moved by the scene you are photographing there’s a good chance this will be captured in your photo and conveyed to the viewer.

Proper preparation
One of the first things to do when you've decided to visit and photograph a new location is to sit down at your computer and hit the web. The internet is really useful for finding accounts and descriptions of your target area, as well as local weather forecasts and tide times if you're near the beach. National park websites usually include maps, track notes, distances and walking times, and Google Earth is great for getting an overview of your planned course. If you have a GPS – and I'd strongly recommend that you get one - you can key in coordinates of your destination and other features along the way like track junctions, crests of hills and creek crossings. I always search in Google Images as well to see what sorts of photos others have been taking in the area. Another handy tool is the Photographer’s Ephemeris which will give you the times and directions of sunrise and sunset (and moonrise and moonset) for any location on earth.

It’s always best if you can visit your chosen location in full daylight before attempting it in the dark. This will give you an idea of any difficulties along the way, track junctions that might confuse you, and how long it will take to get there. You can also spend some time looking around for likely vantage points and compositions that might not be obvious in the dark. Of course this applies mainly to sunrise shoots – with sunset shoots you can walk to your location in full daylight and have a good look at your surroundings before setting up your gear.

Now that you have a good idea of where you’re going and what it will be like when you get there, it’s just a matter of packing your backpack and hitting the track. If you’re planning an early start, get everything ready the night before. Check and clean your camera gear, fill your water bottles, pack some food, and make sure your walking clothes and boots are close at hand and ready to go. It’s worth making a checklist for essential items like raincoat, first aid kit, map, compass and sunscreen. Whatever you do, don’t leave any of this preparation for the morning of your departure – you don’t want to be fussing around trying to pack your kit or find your socks in the dark at 4am on a cold, frosty morning when your sleep-addled brain is still recoiling from the sound of the alarm clock.

The other essential part of your preparation is to make sure someone knows where you’re going and when you plan to return. You can nominate a friend or family member, a park ranger, or other campers if you’re staying at a national park.

 Cold mornings are no excuse to stay in bed! This frost on Surveyors Swamp in Gibraltar Range National Park, NSW, melted away within minutes of the sun peeping over the horizon. Canon EOS 5D Mk II, 17-40mm lens @19mm, 3.2s @ f/14, ISO 100.

Equipment advice
Let’s start with the obvious – if you’re going to be hiking in the dark you will need a good waterproof torch. A powerful headlight will do the job, but I prefer a small hand held torch – I just find it easier to direct the beam where I want it rather than having to swivel my head to aim the beam. A lanyard is a good idea so you’re always connected to the torch. I always carry a small headlight as well, to use when I’m setting up my camera and tripod in the dark, and most importantly to be able to see the dial settings on my camera and the focus ring on the lens. Both torches come in handy when trying to compose the foreground elements in a scene in the half light.

A sturdy tripod is a must to counter the long shutter speeds you will often need to use just before sunrise or after sunset. There’s nothing more frustrating than putting in the hard yards and getting some great light at a remote location, only to later discover that your flimsy tripod was being buffeted by the wind and none of your pictures are sharp. A robust and heavy tripod will provide the best insurance against camera shake, but will also make you curse if you have to carry it any distance. Mid-weight carbon fibre tripods are an excellent compromise – they are relatively expensive but the good ones have a high stability to weight ratio that will ensure everything stays very still. In stronger winds it’s worth hanging extra weight off the tripod to help keep it steady – I carry a small mesh bag I can load with rocks or gravel to do the job. Other measures to avoid camera shake are to always use a remote shutter release, and to set your camera shutter to ‘lock up’ position before taking a shot.

Technical aspects
Sunrise and sunset present some particular difficulties for photographers. At either end of the day, light levels can change very quickly so if you’re shooting on manual settings make sure to recheck and adjust the exposure before every shot. At a given aperture setting, it might only take a few minutes for the optimum shutter speed to drop from 20 seconds to 1 second as sunrise gets into full swing. If you’re taking a multi-shot panorama on fixed manual settings, work quickly so the light doesn’t change too much between the first and last shot in the sequence.

It pays to work quickly and efficiently during the whole shoot – the best light at sunrise and sunset only lasts a short time, maybe 15-20 minutes, so you need to make the most of your time. My definition of ‘best light’ generally falls within the 10-15 minute periods either side of sunrise and sunset, but this can vary depending on clouds, mist, rain, and on the particular scene you are shooting. I always try to anticipate the exact moment that rays begin to spread across the landscape at sunrise and have made some of my favourite images at this time. Always remember to look behind you too – there is a lot more to ‘golden hour’ photography than just pointing at a setting or rising sun. Some beautiful lighting effects can be captured at 90 or 180 degrees to the sun.

The time of day you choose to shoot a landscape scene makes a huge difference to the feel of the image. At sunrise this rock face in Cania Gorge National Park, Qld, glowed vibrantly with reds and yellows, while the softer tones of sunset produced a much more tranquil and ethereal feel. Canon EOS 5D Mk II, 17-40mm lens @17mm: sunrise 0.5s @ f/16, ISO 100; sunset 20s @ f16, ISO 100.

Composing a shot in the half light while you are waiting for the sun to come up can be a little difficult, but human eyes quickly become accustomed to pre-dawn light. A good torch is very helpful here, both to be able to see what’s in the frame and to ‘paint’ some extra light into the foreground if necessary. With dusk shoots, the aim is to arrive early enough so that you have plenty of time and light to find and fine-tune compositions. As mentioned earlier, a small headlight will come in handy to see the dials and knobs on your camera and lens when light levels are low.

Long shutter speeds are a fact of life in low light landscape photography but this is generally not a problem if your camera is fixed to a good tripod. The exception is where you have flowing water or vegetation swaying in the breeze and you want to keep the motion blur to a minimum or freeze it completely. Be aware of any such movements in the scene and adjust your aperture and/or ISO to allow a faster shutter speed if desired.

The other problem with long shutter speeds, and with increasing the ISO to counter them, is the higher levels of noise you’ll get in the resulting image. Digital sensors are much better than they used to be at minimising noise at high ISOs, but the results are still noticeably better if you can keep the ISO below 200. Having said that, it’s generally better to push the ISO a little higher to ensure a sharp image and then deal with any excessive noise using software, rather than set the ISO too low and run the risk of an overly blurred image. It’s all a balancing act and the decisions about how to capture the best possible image are in your hands.

There are plenty of things to think about if your aim is to chase the golden light. The best way to get used to sunrise and sunset photography is to get out and do it – pick a spot you know well, plan and prepare, and just go for it. Don’t give up, because you’ll likely find you need more than one or two attempts at any given location to get a great result. It’s easy to sit back and think about all of the difficulties, or complain that it’s too hard to get out of bed on cold mornings, but there are some magical photographs waiting for anyone prepared to put in the effort. You might even find you like it.

When I climbed up Mt Ngungun to shoot this sunrise scene I was met with a brooding but colourful sky which cast a lovely glow over the countryside - I also got soaked with heavy ran on the walk back down! I've been up there several times since, but haven't seen anything to match the light on that first morning. Canon EOS 5D Mk II, 17-40mm lens @20mm, 6s @ f/13, ISO 100.

My checklist for sunrise or sunset photo hikes includes:
• DSLR camera, with wide angle and medium telephoto zooms
• Tripod and remote shutter release
• Graduated ND filters, plain ND filters, polarising filters
• Several microfibre cloths
• Compact umbrella
• GPS, maps and compass
• Mobile phone
• Personal locator beacon (registered with AMSA)
• Raincoat, hat, first aid kit, insect repellent and sunscreen
• Torch
• At least 2 litres of water (plus some water purification tablets)
• More food than I think I’ll need

Other considerations
Always be prepared for bad weather. This means making sure you have the means to keep yourself and your gear dry, and to allow you to keep taking photographs even if rain sets in. My current approach to photographing in the rain involves a hiking ‘dry-bag’ that will slip over the camera, lens and tripod head, and a compact umbrella. The dry-bag keeps everything dry while I look around and get into position to take a photograph, then it is slipped off the camera under cover of the umbrella to make the shot. There are lots of other approaches to wet weather photography using plastic bags or purpose-made camera bags that have a clear window for the lens, but my system has worked well so far.

A telescopic hiking pole is a useful addition to your kit if you plan to do any serious walking, day or night, but it has the added benefit in the dark of guarding against spider webs. In some areas, orb spiders get very busy at night building their webs across walking tracks – while their bite is supposedly not dangerous to humans, the instant panic of being caught up in a web with a large spider crawling over your face shouldn’t be underestimated! The best defence I’ve found when hiking in the dark in spider-rich areas is to brandish my hiking pole Long John Silver-style, as though I’m expecting a front-on attack at any moment. That way, the head-height webs that escape my torch beam usually bear the brunt of an aluminium pole, rather than my face. But there’s no need to give the spiders a hard time unnecessarily – if you can duck under a web, do it.


Moffat Head
A River Runs Through It


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Tuesday, 19 October 2021

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