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Photographing the Red Rocks Country
The Magic of the Golden Light
By David L. Brown
Photo 1 - This photo made in Professor Valley, up the Colorado River from Moab, was made near sunset, catching the “golden hour” light that is so often seen here.

One of the things that’s special about the Moab area is the quality of the light. That’s one of the reasons so many photographers are drawn here. The effect is especially noticed early in the day, and particularly during the evening “golden hour” just before sunset.

There are several reasons for this. First, the clarity of the air gives the light a purity not seen where air is murky or dusty. Second, the red rock landscapes are themselves colorful, just waiting to be illuminated by golden rays. Photo 1, taken in nearby Professor Valley, illustrates the “golden hour” at its best.

The reason why the effect is so strong near sunrise and sunset is because at that time the sun’s rays pass through a lot more air than when the sun is straight overhead. As the sun reaches the horizon, its light is passing through perhaps a hundred miles or more of atmosphere. This filters out more of the blue end of the spectrum, resulting in the “golden hour” effect.

Photo 2 - To illustrate the difference between pictures made earlier in the day, this photo was made a few hours before sunset.

Landscape photographers have always known that the most vivid colors can be captured early and late in the day, and the quality of the light is an important reason. It’s also true that when the sun is overhead there are fewer shadows to provide shape to objects in the landscape. The result is pictures that are flat and less colorful.

To demonstrate this, Photos 2 and 3 were made in the heart of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. I made Photo 2 several hours before sunset, and Photo 3 just as the sun was setting. The difference is striking.

While we speak of the golden hour, the most truly dramatic effects are seen in a period of minutes, just as the sun is hovering on the horizon. Sometimes for a brief moment the light turns deep blood red, producing truly dramatic images.

Photo 3 - I returned to the same spot as the sun was setting to make this picture in the Needles District of Canyonlands. The difference is clear.

With no time to waste, the photographer must anticipate where the light will appear and be ready ahead of time. It’s a great pleasure to wait with your camera set up, watching the sunset begin to take shape. It’s truly a magical time, and there are always variations so we are never sure what the combination of light, sky and land will present. As a photo guide, I take my clients to where the action is, viewpoints where the light will bring the landscape to glowing life.


David L. Brown is a landscape photographer who has led photo tours from his base in Moab since 2015, now as Printworks Photo Tours. His fine art prints can be seen at Printworks Gallery, 1105 S. Hwy. 191. He invites you to visit or call at 435-355-0121.

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