The Laguna Crest is a terrific location for sunrise photos – the road that runs more or less along it is called Sunrise Highway for a reason: the views to the east from the road are largely unobstructed already, and even better from the Pacific Crest trail, which contours the landscape just before it drops into the desert here. The obstacle from going there more often for sunrise photos is of course the inertia of the human body in the early morning – in particular, my body. :-P
But there’s also the lure of the monsoon season and the moods it can create. After some back and forth in my head, I decided that it would be best to drive up there at night and just sleep for a couple of hours in the car. Waking at 5am and going for a short hike to a scenic overlook is certainly more desirable than starting the day at 3.30am, to include the drive…
Coming up on Sunrise Highway, the sky was almost clear (a bit disappointing) but a storm cell to the north was still lightning up frequently – I had to stop for a photo before finally going to sleep.
After the uncomfortable night (need to work on my car camping skills…) I almost overslept, but a passing car and the rattling noise it made on a nearby cow gate thankfully woke me up. A sip of coffee and a bite to eat got me ready to go and I took the northbound Pacific Crest Trail from the Penny Pines trailhead, hiking the short distance to the vista point I had “scouted” via Google Earth.
The views didn’t really line up as I had hoped for, but most of all, foreground subjects weren’t that thrilling. It certainly would have been better to scout the location I had picked in person, because it was difficult to see what would work and what wouldn’t in the semi-darkness of the breaking day… that’s simply lack of experience, of course – did I mention that I’m not really a good early riser? :-)
Once the sun began to tint the sky above the Salton Sea in an intensive red, it was still magical of course. To stand at that spot alone, looking east for miles towards the rising sun, I soaked in the immense solitude, knowing that there’s so very few other people around me. Some may call it loneliness, but at that moment, it was bliss for me.
The sun rose and quickly disappeared behind the monsoon clouds. Thinking that was it, I began my way back, when rays of light began to break through the clouds and dance on the barren desert landscape below (last photo). It was bright enough on the way back and I saw more wildflowers along the trail. I’ll add those to my online archives in the coming days and weeks.
Here are six photos from the morning. Some tech notes below the images.
Photos 2, 3 and 4 above are HDR images blended from 3 images with Lightroom’s HDR Merge feature, and then tone mapped in Lightroom with local adjustments (some graduated filters, some brushing). For scenes like these, that works quite well because the transitions between the bright and dark parts in the photo are quite even. I guess the same result could be achieved with a graduated filter on camera, but I prefer the added flexibility and precision of controlling the filter placement in post, on the computer. The possibilities to adjust multiple parameters, not just the exposure, is the biggest benefit of this technique – I often find myself adjusting the color balance for example, and playing with the Clarity and Dehaze effects (Dehaze is super cool to add drama to clouds, but it needs to be adjusted with care to limit artefacts).
I do not use auto-bracketing to capture the single images in a sequence for HDR merging though, because the D800’s auto-bracketing is limited to +/- 1EV exposure steps, and that stepping is just too fine. I’d capture a lot of frames in between the extremes that I’d just throw away at home, instantly.
For example, if I wanted a sequence from -3 through +3 with the D800, I’d come home with seven frames – just to throw three of them away, instantly. And that’s after letting Lightroom import them, render previews, and my online backup beginning to upload them immediately, of course. A nuisance. The D750 by comparison allows larger steps, and auto bracketing makes more sense there (for that very reason I only use the D750 for my real estate photography).
This however would still not free me from determining the correct “mid point” for the exposure series – the photo titled “Salton Sea Skyfire” is in the range of -4/-2/0 for example. Now I know from experience that I need at least a -3 exposure for sunrises and sunsets (hence the popularity of 3-stop ND grad filters), and I know that intensive reds require additional consideration. So I added another stop as a safety, which lead me to the -4 exposure as the first one, to capture just the red sky correctly.
Knowing this, I would have had to set my exposure compensation to -2 for a bracketing sequence that spreads out 2 stops around it. That’s just another step of thinking in a creative process, why would I want to add that? Time isn’t really an issue, I’m on a tripod and the camera doesn’t move, I have all the controls at hand. I also get the instant feedback on the display from the histogram. As soon as I see that my -4 guess is correct, I can adjust for the remaining two exposures manually, and all I have on the memory card then are the three frames that are necessary to capture the dynamic range.
Also, I don’t need to remember to turn auto bracketing off once I’m back to “normal” exposures (if you ever used auto bracketing you know exactly what I mean: “Wow why is this so underexposed? Weird! Wait why is the next one so overexposed now?! Oh wait…” :-)
Needless to say – I’d always use auto-bracketing hand-held. But on a tripod, I find it more convenient to just do that bit of work myself, without having to think more about where the exposure range will expand to, capturing unnecessary in between frames, etc.
Your mileage may vary, of course.Thanks for reading! You can stay up to date with my blogposts and subscribe via email (the subscription form opens in a new browser window/tab). It's easy as pie! :-)
All images and content © by Alexander S. Kunz, unless otherwise noted. No re-use without express written permission. Most images are available as prints and for commercial licensing. Please contact me with any questions. Prints and licensed images are NOT watermarked, of course.
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