Updated: Feb 14, 2021
Careful planning is a hallmark of my approach to landscape photography. One example of planning that I use in many of my workshops is a demonstration of how to use the Photographer’s Ephemeris and Sun Surveyor to calculate the best day to shoot the full moon setting over 14,259-foot Longs Peak from the summit of Twin Sisters, an 11,427-foot peak on the eastern outskirts of Rocky Mountain National Park. See my review of Sun Surveyor for a primer on the procedure. April 20th turned out to be one of the three best days in 2019 to make this image.
During my preparations for the shoot I realized that the summit of Twin Sisters might provide an opportunity to make some images I needed for the second edition of The Art, Science, and Craft of Great Landscape Photography. Recently I’ve become interested in clear-sky glow shots, my name for images taken roughly 20 minutes before sunrise or after sunset when a strong golden glow develops along the eastern or western horizon. If conditions are right (see my blog post on the science of glow light), that golden glow can be so strong that it overpowers the blue light from the sky above and illuminates the landscape in the opposite direction of the sun. In addition to offering a great view of the east face of Longs Peak, Twin Sisters also provides an unobstructed view of Colorado’s eastern plains. The summit of Twin Sisters seemed like the perfect place to make pairs of images, taken back to back, one looking east at the golden glow, and one looking west at the mountains lit by that golden glow.
I got up at midnight and hiked to the summit on a snow-packed, icy trail. As it turned out, I had allowed too much time for the hike, so I arrived on the summit nearly two hours before sunrise, in time to shoot Longs Peak illuminated by moonlight. Then an orange glow began to develop along the eastern horizon. Although the forecast had called for clear skies, clouds began gathering as the glow intensified. Soon the clouds to the east were lighting up in vibrant shades of orange and red. I certainly wasn’t getting the clear-sky glow shot I had envisioned, but it looked like I might come up with something even better. I shot frantically, first looking east at the plains (figure 2), then west at Longs Peak (figure 3), now awash in magenta light, then back again. (For comparison, check out figure 4, which shows Longs Peak lit by white light about two hours after sunrise during a fall color shoot several years earlier.)
Then a spectacular lenticular cloud over Longs Peak lit up orange as the moon dropped below a band of pink clouds just left of the summit of Longs Peak, exactly where Sun Surveyor had predicted it would be (figure 1, top of page). I abandoned any effort to shoot what was happening along the eastern horizon and concentrated on nailing the marvelous scene to the west. Delighted at my good fortune, I shot until the light faded and the moon vanished below the horizon, then slipped and slid back down the icy trail, berating myself for not bringing micro-spike traction devices for my boots. Although I had shot the full moon setting over Longs Peak on three previous occasions, none had been even remotely as stunning as this one. And even though I hadn’t gotten the pairs of clear-sky glow shots I had hoped for, I was able to make pairs of cloudy-sky glow shots that were certainly worthy of including in the book.
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