Have you seen the time lapse twilight and night photography of Terje Sorgjerd? In his film, The Arctic Light, he shares a gorgeous high speed chronology of extended magical twilight hours he finds in the far reaches of Norway. In the spring sunsets and sunrises at this latitude can last for many hours.
Not counting people who live in such extreme latitudes as northern Norway, I don't think we get frequent chances to carefully study a magnificent twilight sky show these days. Many of us aren't awake and outside early enough in the morning to witness the sunrise. Much of our day in these modern times is spent indoors or within an urban landscape which significantly reduces how much time we spend viewing the sky. I have often noticed a faint warm glow coming through my east facing living room windows only to find I was missing a brilliant sunset in the sky to the west. Additionally, opportunities to linger in the twilight are commonly sacrificed to the pace of life, rushing from office to car with heads down or eating dinner while reading an iPad, sorting through junk mail and sending texts. Many of us can only remember a handful of times when chance and circumstance have enabled us to be in the right place at the right time to look up at the sky and be amazed.
As an outdoor photographer I have learned to revel in the light at the edges of day. I devote many mornings and evenings to searching for the conditions that will allow me to have an exhilarating sunrise or sunset experience just one more time. The process of photographing at the edges of day motivates me to watch with great interest and concentration. Some sky shows last for mere seconds, while others will linger for many minutes, colors changing and moving around the sky. I can only imagine witnessing a twilight that lasts for many hours, such as the ones Terje records in Norway.
Recently I came across a series of photographs I took during a spectacular sunrise in North Cascades National Park in Washington in the fall of 2010. It was one of those rare occasions in which the event played out over many minutes, allowing me to photograph it several times from slightly different vantage points. While I worked on each image individually I didn't notice how, as a series, they illustrate the anatomy and progression of light, color and pattern in a way that is hard to share any other way.
This is how that morning unfolded. Chip Phillips, David Cobb and I had camped in a dense wood below Cascade Pass near Sahalie and Pelton peaks and the stunning Sahalie Arm trail. The night before we had been dismayed at the sight of a fallen climber's body being lifted out of the mountains on the end of a rope beneath a rescue helicopter. It was still replaying in my dreams when Chip rose at 3:00 AM with the intent of hiking high above the pass before sunrise. David left camp second, about an hour later. I was last out of camp and wasn't far up the trail when the sunrise light began to show itself.
Cursing myself for sleeping too long, I made this photograph along the trail still low in the valley in near darkness. The first light was just beginning to illuminate the clouds and the dark features of the land. A long 15 second exposure at f/13 and ISO 640 recorded the dim landscape much brighter than it appeared to the eye. A second exposure of just 4 seconds captured a good exposure for the sky and the properly exposed areas of each were blended together using layer masking techniques.
Aware that the best light would come rapidly and that I wasn't in the ideal location, I ran up the trail, stumbling in the dark and breathing hard. The color intensified and I frantically searched for something to anchor the foreground of my next photo. I found a small mountain ash tree turning red with the coming autumn. At the same time I noticed the stream in the valley beginning to reflect the red-orange of the warming sky. Radiant light reflecting off the undulating under surface of the clouds back lit the foliage making it appear to be glowing from within. This wide angle, vertical composition turned out to be my favorite from that morning. I titled it Unforgettable Fire and it is now part of my print collection.
Satisfied that I had managed to take a good photo despite my late start I relaxed a bit. However, to my surprise, the color showed no signs of abating. I continued up the trail looking for other perspectives from which to photograph the scene. I scrambled around, struggling to find a composition as compelling as the last. While I didn't find another that felt as good, I kept stopping to shoot because the color in the sky continued to spread and intensify, accentuating the shapes in the clouds. In this image the brilliant reds and oranges overpower the rest of the scene.
Further along my ascent of the pass the colors began to shift from deep reds to lighter oranges and yellows and cool light began to filter through the cloud layer from above.
Finally, as the day brightened, the sun rose above the cloud layer. The under-lighting faded along with the color, leaving the clouds flat and gray from below but giving a glimpse of blue sky and higher clouds above.
That morning, as well as many others, have become important and indelible parts of my consciousness. Through photography I have become better at being acutely present and attentive during such magical twilight events, making them that much richer, meaningful and memorable. Having the photographs as keepsakes gives me the opportunity to relive the experience and see it again in ways I wasn't able to as I witnessed it.