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Twilight Glow over Capitol Peak

Twilight Glow over Capitol Peak, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado

Twilight Glow over Capitol Peak, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado

As a full-time professional landscape photographer for the last 17 years, I have been privileged to witness many spectacular displays of natural light. The most beautiful ‒ and most rare ‒ occur in one of two ways. Sometimes the sun will find a narrow gap between dense clouds and the horizon right at sunrise or sunset. The dense clouds block the bright, white light from the sky around the sun, allowing a pure, undiluted beam of colorful red or orange light to blast through the gap and ignite whatever it touches. The light in the second situation is much more subtle but equally beautiful. Sometimes at twilight, when the sun is below the horizon but it's not yet dark, the invisible sun will make a broad band of clouds just above the horizon light up pink or orange. These clouds are pretty, of course, and sometimes worth a photograph in their own right, but it is their effect on the earthbound landscape that is truly extraordinary. During an ordinary twilight, when the sky is clear and the sun is below the horizon, the light source for the land is the blue sky. Photographs taken at that time have a cool and somber hue. If a band of clouds near the horizon light up, however, the clouds themselves become the light source for the mountains and valleys below. A soft golden glow envelopes the land even though no direct sunlight is striking anything.

Over the years, I have photographed Capitol Peak from the Ditch Trail many times at sunset, when colorful light can illuminate the mountain's dramatic northwest face. At sunrise, Capitol Peak is completely shadowed, which normally I would consider unappealing. I decided to do my first sunrise shoot there because I noticed after taking some compass bearings that my foreground aspen should get early light, though they would still be shadowed at the moment of sunrise, when the color of the light is at its richest.

By sheer good luck, a band of clouds to the east, well outside my frame, light up a vibrant orange 15 minutes before sunrise. The light bouncing off the clouds made my foreground aspen glow like the embers of a campfire. By the time the light reached the high and distant cirrus clouds, even more of the cool tones had scattered out of the beam, and the remaining light made the cirrus blush pink. The glow faded well before the actual moment of sunrise, which proved to be quite ordinary. Only half a dozen times in my career have I witnessed this form of the rarest light of all. Twilight Glow over Capitol Peak captures one of the most memorable examples.

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