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Earth Shadow, Four Treatments. January 15, 2012

Posted by littlebangtheory in Art and Nature.
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6 comments

Sunrise/sunset photos depend to some extent on clouds and atmospheric interference for their emotional impact.  The best clouds are high sheets (cirrus clouds) with distinct patterns and textures; the sun often breaks below them as it sets (for instance,) its light traveling a maximum distance through the atmosphere before reaching our eyes, filtering out many of the shorter wavelengths and leaving a preponderance of red light to bounce between earth and clouds and give the view its glory.  Lower, thicker clouds such as cumulus are likely to show as dark blotches rimmed with golden light, which can also be nice, but that has a much more somber emotional feel.

The hardest skies to take to the photo-bank are the clear ones, where the landscape benefits from the warm, rich glow of that last “golden hour,” but the skies simply fade to the pale blue of a lost lover’s eyes.

That might be emotive to you, but is likely to underwhelm viewers who never knew her.

That is the perpetual bane of desert photographers, especially those of us who have to pay big bucks to get there, burn scant vacation time, and come home with sub-optimal shots for our efforts because we can’t hang around waiting for the infrequent cloud cover to creep in.  The cactus may be in bloom, but a boring sky yields a B+ photo at best.

So here’s what I do to salvage the heartbreak of beautiful, clear skies:

Get to the highest point you can, and turn around.   Look away from the setting sun.  Finding a nice foreground element in these conditions means that it will be warmly lit until the sun drops below the horizon, rather than being back-lit, which requires fancy filter work and substantial post-processing in Photoshop to recover the dark areas and get the balance right.

And behind your chosen subject, you’ll get to watch the blue of the sky deepen to a band of lovely warm light, pink or orange or magenta, and below that, a darker band of indigo and violet and midnight blue.

This is “Earth Shadow,” a term I first heard from my photo mentor Lizz Bartlett.  It’s literally the Earth’s shadow, your  shadow, creeping up the dome of the heavens as the sun “moves” in the opposite direction.  And the red band results from the light you’re seeing having passed through all of the air between you and the sunset, then most of the air between you and the opposite horizon, then all of the air traveling back to your eyes (or, hopefully, your lens!)

The total effect can be a satisfactory salvaging of an otherwise unsatisfactory shoot.

Here are four examples of Earth Shadow shots, all taken at a farm in a high meadow in Windsor, MA.  A few dark blobs (Cumulus turdis ) clung to the rim of the western horizon as the sun set, so I turned Eastward.*

[*Ed. – In fact, the little pansy couldn’t face into the stiff wind with the temps in the single digits, but don’t expect him to admit that…]

I found a pair of old, storm-damaged maples and, feeling no need to leave my vehicle*, shot these from the driver’s seat, hand-held at a too-large fraction of a second (thank Gawd  for Canon’s excellent image stabilization technology) and a relatively high ISO, like 2000.

[*Ed. – See, I told you! ]

The sun had actually left the foreground by this time, so there was indeed some post-processing done to these, but I hope they’ll still demonstrate my main point.

I’m calling this one, “Barn Hiding Behind Maple:”

The Earth Shadow hasn’t yet progressed to the indigo stage, but it will, and soon.

Here’s a fun one I titled, “Barn Arriving Too Late to Save a Damaged Tree:”

I thought that was funny.  Note the rising line of shadow beneath the rose band.

Here’s a shot of the second tree, titled simply, “Goodnight, Tree:”

I waved, but couldn’t pick myself out on the horizon.  Dang.

And finally, showing the full effect, “Goodnight, Barn:”

That was the last shot of the night; I rolled up the window and headed for home.

I hope that didn’t come off as a mediocre joke which takes all damned night to tell.  But you know, I try to frequent the websites of much better photographers than me, hoping to learn something.  And guess what?

They’re mostly stingy bastards. Excepting those writing “How-To” columns for photography magazines and for manufacturers of filters such as Singh-Ray, my favorite filters, they’ll say nice things to your face, but don’t expect any useful tips beyond, “Shoot lots.”

That’s not bad advice, but as I learn, I hope to do a bit more to “pay it forward.”

G’night.

Oh, and by the way, none of these shots have anything more than a circular polarizer affixed to the lens; the blowing snow and hand-held format didn’t really allow for it.

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