A vibrant sunrise paints the clouds above a group of boulders in the Alabama Hills in California.
Picture of Stephen Girimont

Stephen Girimont

Owner, The Intimate Landscape, Fine Art Prints

Sunrise in the Alabama Hills

Always look behind you and be willing to run...
A vibrant sunrise paints the clouds above a group of boulders in the Alabama Hills in California.

I’ve written before about the need for photographers to be mindful of what is happening around them. It’s important to not get trapped in only paying attention to what is in front of their lens. Even though I have plenty of experience with this, it’s still sometimes difficult for me to heed my own advice.

The image featured here, “Alabama Hills Sunrise,” is a case in point. I have an application on my phone that can predict where sky color may appear at sunrise or sunset. On this morning, the sunrise color was predicted to appear over the Eastern Sierra Mountains, west of Lone Pine California. I spent the hour before sunrise looking for a composition that would have the mountains in the background. I carefully placed my camera and tripod in position and began waiting for the sky color to pop.

This is the danger time for a photographer: when the effort invested in finding a composition conflicts with capricious reality.

The sky on the eastern horizon began to glow in one of the most remarkable sunrises I’ve ever seen. Amazing reds and purples on the clouds with beautiful light blue sky behind.

Did I immediately react and find a composition with that eastern sky in the background? No, I did not. Instead, I convinced myself the color would move from east to west and eventually paint the clouds above the mountains. Did this happen? No, it did not. But I kept waiting and hoping because I’m obstinate that way. I resisted making any change in my composition for so long that I almost missed getting any image at all.

I finally came to my senses and realized that the sky color was NOT going to move to the west. Mumbling choice words of frustration, I grabbed my gear and ran as fast as I could about 50 yards east. I quickly created a new composition using a group of boulders as the foreground to that brilliant sky.

One hour finding a composition in the pre-dawn darkness.
Ten minutes agonizing over whether I made the correct decision.
Three minutes to abandon that initial composition and create a new one.
An image and a memory that will last a lifetime.

In hindsight, I have to laugh at myself at how hard it was for me to react to reality. Especially when I consider how weak my initial composition really was. Here’s what I found so hard to abandon (I shot this image after the sky show was over just to have a record of it):

It might have been a good image. Maybe?
It might have been a good image. Maybe?

Even with a brilliant sky over Lone Pine Mountain there in the background, I don’t think this would have been a strong image. Compositionally, what I was going for here is known as a near/far composition. The gnarled wood plant in the foreground serves as the “near” component of the composition while the mountains are, naturally, the “far” component. The cactus and the bushes in the middle distance don’t really do anything to support the image, do they?

Here is a Google Maps satellite view of the area of the Alabama Hills where I was that morning. I was initially set up at the red X facing west before realizing what was happening and running as fast as I could with all my gear to the position of the green X.

I was at the red X. I needed to be at the green X.
I was at the red X. I needed to be at the green X.

The phone application I mentioned earlier is called “The Photographer’s Ephemeris.” An add-on app called “Skyfire” is what I use for the sunrise and sunset color predictions. Where color may be in the sky is shown in various color shades. The warmer the color, the more likely there will be good color in that part of the sky. Here is a screen shot showing the area outside of Lone Pine California for sunset on the day I’m writing this post: March 29th, 2020:

An example of the Skyfire plugin for The Photographer's Ephemeris
An example of the Skyfire plugin for The Photographer's Ephemeris

In the display above, the pin is set to Lone Pine, which is just east of the Alabama Hills. The area around Lone Pine and to the west is colored in cool blue, which indicates a small chance for sunset color there. There is a patch of yellow and red color to the southeast, over Panamint Springs in Death Valley and illustrates a much higher chance of sunset color in that area.

On the morning of my sunrise shoot in the Alabama Hills, the map was showing pretty much the opposite: the red color was just to the west of Lone Pine and the cool blues were in the east. However, reality was the complete opposite. All the color was indeed to the east of Lone Pine and none of it drifted over to the west over the Eastern Sierra Mountains.

I am fully aware of the need to be flexible and to expect the unexpected. And yet, it is situations like this that show me just how close I can come to missing out on an opportunity for a gorgeous image.

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