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Rainbow over Lookout Peak

Rainbow over Lookout Peak, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

Rainbow over Lookout Peak, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

The summer monsoon had been soaking the San Juans for several days, and I was not optimistic when I left my campsite under leaden skies half an hour before sunrise on July 24, 2022. I drove a short distance to some flowers I had scouted the previous day and got out of my truck. At first glance, the situation looked hopeless. I debated whether I should give up on shooting sunrise, fire up the stove, and make breakfast. Then I looked straight up at the heavily overcast skies. “That’s interesting,” I thought. The rising sun had found a tiny hole in the murk and was shining dull pink light on a small patch of clouds.

I suppressed my desire for hot coffee, mounted my Sony a7R IV on my tripod, attached a Canon 24mm tilt-shift lens using a Metabones adapter, and composed a landscape-orientation image. Tilt-shift lenses, among many other movements, let you tilt the lens forward. That, in turn, tilts the plane of focus so, for example, it runs from the closest flowers to the distant peaks, dramatically increasing the image’s depth of field. Set up is tricky, however, because you are juggling two variables: the distance at which you focus and the amount that you tilt. Ideally, you will focus at the correct distance so that tilting the lens brings both flowers and peaks into focus. If you miss, however, you don’t know which variable you got wrong, which forces you to zero the tilt mechanism, try a different focus point, and tilt again. If you change from landscape to portrait orientation, you have to start over. Switching back and forth repeatedly when the light is changing rapidly and different parts of the scene are lighting up is challenging. If you screw up, you can blow a rare opportunity.

A few minutes before sunrise, a soft warm glow illuminated the peaks. Fortunately, the morning was very still. I grabbed a few frames and checked the sharpness throughout the frame. Perfect. Then, to my surprise and delight, the clouds began to light up. I knew that light wouldn’t last long, so I hurriedly switched the camera to portrait orientation, refocused, tilted, and fired. Success! The image showed beautiful color on the clouds and sharp detail throughout the frame.

The warm light vanished from the clouds just minutes later. I thought the show was over. Then the peaks began to light up once more. I switched back to landscape orientation, refocused, tilted, and fired. The images were sharp everywhere. Then, to my utter delight and astonishment, a faint rainbow materialized. Frantically I switched back to a portrait orientation, knowing that the rainbow would probably only last a minute or two. Fortunately, my very first shot showed excellent sharpness throughout the frame. Seconds later, the rainbow was gone for good. My years of practice with Canon’s tilt-shift lens had paid off with the only image I’ve ever shot of a rainbow over rugged peaks lit by sunrise light with beautiful wildflowers below.

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