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Winter Sunrise on Longs Peak

Winter Sunrise on Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Winter Sunrise on Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Longs Peak rises abruptly about 9,000 feet above the plains to the east. To a landscape photographer, that spells opportunity. Let me explain. The color of sunrise light is primarily controlled by two factors: the clarity of the air and the distance the light travels through the air before striking an earth-bound subject. As sunlight travels through our atmosphere the blue light scatters out of the beam by a process called Rayleigh scattering. The light that continues straight ahead is red or orange. The longer the path length through the atmosphere, the more effective the sorting of wavelengths. At noon the sun is high in the sky and the path length through the atmosphere is short. Relatively little scattering occurs, so we see the light as white. At sunrise and sunset, however, the path length is far longer as the light travels obliquely through the atmosphere. By the time light from the rising sun kisses the east face of Longs Peak, it has entered our atmosphere far to the east, skimmed the surface of the ground somewhere in eastern Colorado, then traveled back up through our atmosphere to reach the 14,259-foot summit of Longs Peak. That path length through our atmosphere is roughly half again as long as the path length for a subject out in eastern Colorado, which means the light is proportionally warmer in color. The effect is made even stronger because the rich orange light on the east face of Longs Peak is set against the complementary color of the deep blue sky.

Longs Peak may offer landscape photographers a golden opportunity, but only at a price. I got up at 1 a.m. and hiked in the dark for four hours to reach Chasm Lake at sunrise, barely making it in time after losing the snow-covered trail and wandering far up the slopes of Mt. Lady Washington before realizing my mistake. In my haste upon reaching the shore of the lake I tried to take a shortcut to my shooting location and plunged through the thin ice. Fortunately, the water was only a foot deep, so I got a boot full of icy water but didn't soak my camera gear. I finished setting up my 4x5 just as the light was peaking and didn't breathe easy until I'd exposed several sheets of film and knew I'd captured the remarkable display of natural light in front of me.

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