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James River Sunrise

James River Sunrise
Turbulent clouds make for a brilliant sunrise over the James River in Richmond, Virginia

The Story of the Making of James River Sunrise

At the time of this writing, my family and I live in Northern Virginia, about half way between the suburbs of D.C. and West Virginia. I love to photograph my home state and as I’ve stated on many previous blog posts and on social media, my favorite location to photograph in Virginia is along the James River in Richmond.

I use several apps to track weather patterns and help me predict (with large margins for error, I must add), sunrise and sunset quality days in advance. If the odds start to favor a particularly good sunrise or sunset somewhere in Virginia, I start making plans for an image. Towards the end of February, 2018, I began noticing the potential for great sunrise color to the north and east of Richmond. I had had my eye on a particular composition on the river for some time, which utilized a boulder as a foreground element in a scene that faced in the exact direction where this great sunrise color might appear.

The elements that went in to this prediction were:

  • a weather front approaching from the North-northwest
  • due to arrive just at sunrise
  • clouds being pushed ahead of the front
  • low water levels in the river, which would allow the boulder to be clearly seen

Timing was everything. If the clouds arrived at just the right time, the sun would come up in the east in a strip of clear sky low on the horizon, which would allow that warm sunrise light to illuminate the clouds from underneath; perfect conditions for a spectacular sunrise. But, if the clouds arrived too early, they would block the horizon before sunrise and it would just be a grey morning. If the clouds arrived too late, there would be no sunrise color in the clear sky, or, there would be sunrise light on some clouds, but they would be either directly over-head or too far west of Richmond to be of use in the composition I was planning.

One of the apps I use to help in my weather predictions is named MeteoEarth and it has a very useful feature of showing you where clouds might be in a given area 24 hours in advance. And this app was showing that the clouds on the morning of February 28th had a very good chance of being in just the right position.

For me to be in position, I had to leave my house in Northern Virginia no later than 3:30 AM and I packed my camera gear and had everything ready by the front door the night before.

As I was quietly locking the front door that morning, I remember thinking that it felt rather humid. There was dew on the ground and on my car. It had been somewhat warm the days previous and I believe it had rained a bit the day before.

Remember how I said that the weather front that was going to create this hoped-for sunrise spectacle was approaching from the north? In February, that means cold air is coming with it. On the drive down to Richmond, I watched the outside temperature gauge in my car go from the low 40’s as I started south to the low 30’s and high 20’s as I approached the northern outskirts of Richmond.

In Richmond, I noticed that the early-morning commuters were going much slower than was normal; well below posted speed limits. The reason didn’t become clear until I started noticing a number of crashes pulled to the side of the roads and I realized that the 10+ degree drop in temperatures on a humid morning meant that surfaces were freezing over. Especially bridges.

As I carefully made my way south across the Tuckahoe Bridge that crosses the James River, I noticed that the lanes on the north-bound side of the bridge were almost completely blocked by a multi-vehicle crash. My attention was then diverted to the car directly in front of me as it did a complete 360-degree spin and crossed 3 lanes of traffic without hitting anything before colliding, practically in slow motion, with the side of the bridge.

I was able to make my way across with no incidents and was able to make it to the parking area near my intended composition with no troubles (4-wheel drive rocks!)

However, the need to slow down and drive very carefully used up a lot of the time I had before sunrise and I had to hurry to get my equipment to the location of the boulder. To capture the composition I had in mind required standing on one boulder that’s just a few feet away from the one you see in the image above. Getting there required using several boulders as stepping stones and this is when my morning almost came to a disastrous conclusion: the rocks were completely covered in a thin layer of ice! Fortunately, they were large rocks with fairly flat surfaces, so I was able to very carefully make my way to where I needed to be, using my tripod as extra support along the way.

 Once in position, with the tripod set, I realized another problem: if I set my backpack containing all my camera gear down on the boulder I was standing on, there was a good chance that it would slide right into the river. That backpack wasn’t the type that was designed to be easy to use while still on one’s back, but I somehow managed to maneuver my camera and lens out without causing any extra gear to slide out and be lost in the freezing waters.

As you can see in the image above, all the elements came together perfectly and the clouds overhead lit up in an amazing display of color. The reds came from direct sunrise light hitting the bottoms of the clouds. The blues came from the brightening sky above the clouds, which were quite thin at this point, shining through the thin parts.

This image is not a single picture, but a multi-row panorama: 21 images were taken, 3 rows of 7 images each. This allowed me to use a longer lens than would have been possible to capture the width of this scene in one image. The longer lens allowed the foreground rock to be rendered fairly large in the scene and allowed the background trees lining the James River to be larger in the scene than they would have been if I had used a super-wide angle lens.

As if the morning hadn’t been interesting enough already, as I was packing up my gear after capturing the scene and as the color was fading away from the clouds, a phenomenon known as a Roll Cloud moved across the sky from north to south. I was able to capture video of the event using my phone, but was unable to get my camera gear set up again in time to try to capture the enormity of the cloud, which literally spanned the entire sky from east to west. It moved through in a matter of minutes and the clouds which remained after its passing were smooth and grey. Not at all the interesting and chaotic clouds that had preceded the event. Here’s the video:

So the story of “James River Sunrise” is one of careful planning, careful driving, careful hiking, and a whole lot of luck coming together to put me in just the right spot to capture a beautiful scene at my very favorite photographic location.

If you made it this far, kudos to you for sticking with me for what was a MUCH longer story than I intended to write! Thanks for letting me share it with you.

Stephen Girimont

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