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Photographing the Red Rocks Country
Chasing the Magic Light: Why Some Photos Look Best when the Sun is Low
By David L. Brown

Fig.1Landscape photographers tend to be up early and stay out late. They consider the middle of the day as a time to scout for scenes or catch a nap. That’s because the warm rays of the early morning or late afternoon sun bring scenes to life in a way that noontime light can never match.

That’s especially true here in the red rocks country because the tones of russet, bronze and rust come to life when the sun illuminates them with warm light. That is why landscape photographers do some of their best work during the “magic hour” or “golden hour” times when the sunlight is filtered through the atmosphere from close to the horizon.

Fig.2During the middle of the day, when the sun is high in the sky, the light is blue, giving everything a less exciting look. Sure, you can use a warming filter or add color saturation in Photoshop, but the result is not the same. In part this is because the midday light is also “flat,” due to the angle of the sun.

Here are two examples to illustrate this point. The two pictures in Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 were taken in September near Horsehoof Campground during an overnight trip into the heart of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

Fig. 1 was taken in the middle of the day, and the result is merely a record of the spires and “needles” for which the area is named. Incidentally, this picture was made with a warming polarizing filter that partially offset the blue cast of the light. There is nothing wrong with this picture, and any photographer could be proud of having taken it.Fig.3

But look what happened when I returned to the same spot later, as the sun was just beginning to set in the west (Fig. 2). The scene comes to life with glowing color. Plus, the light is angled from the side to create patterns of highlights and shadows that bring out details in the rock formations.

This is the secret of photographing during the “magic hours” of early and late in the day, and it’s clear to see why serious landscape photographers are early risers and often stay out in the field until the last rays of sunset fade from the sky.

Fig. 3 offers another example of the power of the golden light to bring the red rocks country to stunning life. This image was also made near Horsehoof Campground, and illustrates the vivid colors that are brought out by the beams of the setting sun.

Incidentally, little if any color warmth was added to these examples in Photoshop. For an example of what can be done in post processing, see Fig. 4. This picture was made during the same trip among the Needles, and was shot not only during mid-day, but in the shade of an overhanging ledge. The original was flat and had a blue cast. I achieved an acceptable image by adding contrast and tweaking the colors in Photoshop.

Fig.4Fig. 1 – This picture was made during mid-afternoon with the sun high in the sky. The scene is in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, taken at Horsehoof Campground in late September. The photo is “flat” and has muted colors due to the high angle of the sun and the blue cast of the light.

Fig. 2 – The same scene as in Fig. 1, but made as the last rays of daylight illuminate the red rock fantasyland. The warm colors and dramatic side lighting make a far more pleasing photo than in the first example.

Fig. 3 – Another picture made as the sun was low in the sky. Again, the vivid colors and detail makes the red rocks seem to glow.

Fig. 4 – In this example post-processing in Photoshop was used to bring out the colors of these Anasazi hand- and footprints. In this case the original was flat and had a blue cast due to the time of day and the shade of an overhanging ledge.

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