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Getting Lucky with a Sunset

Getting Lucky with a Sunset
Sunset lights up some clouds above Horseshoe Bend in northern Arizona.

The Story Behind the Image Horseshoe Bend Sunset

Horseshoe Bend is a very famous feature of the landscape near Page, Arizona, just south of the border with Utah. It is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, and I think half of them were there when I pulled into the parking area one April evening a few years ago.

This particular evening was the first time I had visited Horseshoe Bend in something like 6 or 7 years. That last time, I had almost had the area to myself; there couldn’t have been more than 10 people there. THIS time, however, wow! Now, granted, the last time I was there was in the early morning to capture a sunrise image and this time I was there in the late afternoon, which has to be the busy time for the location. But still. The difference in number of people was quite striking.

When I made the trek from the parking area to the cliff ledge that is the viewpoint for the bend, there were so many people around that I didn’t even think of trying to jockey for position. There was about an hour and a half to go until sunset, so I simply lay down my backpack and tripod a good distance away from the canyon ledge and settled down on a not-so-comfy rock to see if I could out-wait the crowd.

I wasn’t feeling particularly anxious about getting crowded out of a shot because I didn’t really have high hopes for any sort of sunset. The clouds were pretty much covering the sky and all indications were that it would be a bland, grey sky at sunset. 

I was there primarily to practice a technique that I was working to perfect known as a multi-row panorama. I was at the start of a week long photography trip in the Page, Arizona area and I knew I would have other chances if nothing panned out on this particular evening. So, I settled in to people watch and spend an otherwise pleasant evening surrounded by the wonderful countryside of northern Arizona along with a couple hundred thousand other like-minded people. (I exaggerate, of course. Couldn’t have been more than 50 thousand, tops.) 😉

As I had kind of hoped, the crowd began to thin out rather significantly a bit after 5:00 PM. The lure of dinner is strong in those who are not otherwise consumed by a desire for sunsets and dramatic views. Along with the thinning crowd came another hoped-for, but not expected, change: the clouds were starting to thin out.

After claiming a spot at the canyon’s edge and setting up my tripod with the panorama head and camera, I grabbed my phone and started checking out the conditions on several weather apps. Using the cloud-tracking feature of the app MeteoEarth, I could see that there was a chance that the clouds might thin out enough for there to be gaps of clear sky to the west and if the timing worked out, we could be in for some decent sunset light on the clouds over the canyon. And, as you can see in the image above, that’s exactly what happened.

The clouds did not begin to light up until after the sun was just below the horizon, which meant that the color in the clouds wasn’t going to last long at all and what little light remained at the bottom of the canyon was going to be gone well before that, so I had to hurry as best I could with capturing the  images for the multi-row panorama.

A multi-row panorama is a collage of individual images, each one a small piece of the eventual whole, taken over the two dimensions of the width and height of a scene, which are stitched and blended together using software to form a larger single image. There are many reasons why a photographer would want to make use of this technique, but the main one is the resulting resolution in the final image. The more individual images it takes to capture the entire scene, the higher the resolution of the finished product. 

Another benefit to the technique is that it allows a photographer to capture a given scene using lenses of a longer focal length than could be used if the scene were to be photographed in one shot. Super-wide angle lenses typically have optical defects due to the physics of bending light through the many layers of glass such a lens design requires, so longer focal length lenses typically have better optical quality. Super-wide angle lenses can also introduce optical distortions, especially when angled up or down, such as when shooting a scene from the top of a canyon. In other words, a multi-row panorama allows a photographer to capture a wide-angle scene with much higher resolution, better image quality, and without the distortions that would be typical when capturing the scene in one image.

A major disadvantage of the technique, especially when attempted after sunset, is the amount of time it takes to capture the entire suite of images required. Each individual image captured for this scene was taken with an exposure of one-half second. I shot 60 images to capture the entire scene, 15 images per row, 4 rows in total, and it took just over 6 minutes from the first exposure, at the upper left corner of the scene until I shot the last image at the lower right.

6 minutes to capture a scene after sunset. As you might imagine, the light was pretty much gone by the time I was done. This is why I started with the first row being the sky, as I knew the light wasn’t going to last and I needed to capture that color as quickly as possible. The raw images of the river at the bottom of the canyon were pretty much completely black. But I was shooting with a camera system known for the amount of information it can capture in the shadows, and it was pretty easy to adjust the exposures on the computer to bring out those details. I could have adjusted the exposures on the camera as I was shooting, but that would have taken even more time to capture the scene and would actually have made it more difficult to blend the scene together in the computer later.

The end result was a great image of the canyon under an unexpectedly fantastic sky with enough resolution to create wall-sized prints. Scroll back up to the image at the top of this page and look for the little black dot in the river to the right. That dot is actually a boat with two people fishing in it. Here’s the dot when viewed up close:

I never noticed the boat at all while I was there. It was only when working on the final image that I noticed the dot and wondered if I had somehow picked up a dust spot on the camera sensor. When I zoomed in to get rid of it, I was simply amazed.

I really got lucky with the sky on this evening. Not only was there much more color than I could have predicted earlier that afternoon, but the shape of that middle cloud mimicking the bend in the river below? Could not have asked for anything better.

Stephen Girimont

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