Artistic Light in the Land of Enchantment

(Part 1 – Sky Lighting)

The unique light and landscape of New Mexico has attracted artists for centuries.  Colorful sunlight paints subtle tones on the landscape and clouds here.  Each sunset is different, and yet almost every evening the sky turns into a work of art.

Why is the light in New Mexico so spectacular and attractive to artists?

This is the first in a series of blog articles where I discuss atmospheric light and how it affects my photographic pursuits.  With a little bit of scientific discussion of light we will look at why the light in New Mexico is so artistic in nature.

To be clear, magical lighting also occurs in other regions.  In fact, I think that wherever one lives, there is beautiful light specific to that area.  One learns through experience the special lighting that can occur at different times of the day and year in their local area.  Perhaps it is a soft glow in the clouds, or even blankets of fog that roll in from the ocean.  Each place has its own beauty and the local landscape artists work to convey the emotions of that light in their work.

In New Mexico, however, dramatic lighting occurs way more than I have seen anywhere else.  Not only does spectacular sky light occur in New Mexico on a regular basis, it is also unique in the shades of colors illuminating the clouds and landscape.

Vizzy Running the Peaks.

Sunset light illuminates virga and the undersides of dark thunderclouds over Nambé.

Some of the important factors that allow New Mexico such magnificent atmospheric light include:

  • Mountains that create interesting cloud formations which reflect the warm hues at sunrise or sunset,
  • Clear, pure, dry, and cold air that efficiently scatters shorter wavelengths (blue), leaving reds in the light illuminating clouds and the landscape,
  • Rainstorms that transmit some sunlight through rain curtains (i.e., virga),
  • Towering thunderclouds at sunset that reflect warm colors,
  • “Light tunnels” through the clouds on the horizon at sunrise/sunset that block the disc of the sun but let colorful rays of light pass through,
  • Cold, still, and pure air at high altitude that promote ice crystal refraction of sunlight — resulting in rare ice crystal displays,
  • Storms with distinct cloud layers separated by clear sky where sunlight can shine under light clouds,
  • Localized rainstorms over the Sangre de Cristo mountains at sunset are conducive for rainbows.

As we like to say in New Mexico, “If you do not like the weather, wait a few minutes”.  It is rare here for the sky to be socked in for long periods of time. During the transition time of storms building or clearing, I often see the best light.

The Road Less Traveled

Dramatic natural lighting over the Sangre de Cristo mountains {cloud shadows, anti-crepuscular rays, underside ligthing of clouds, virga, mountain shadows on clouds, and multi-level clouds illuminated by warm sunset light}, Nambé, New Mexico.

New Mexico is at a relatively high altitude.  Santa Fe is about 2,000 feet higher than Denver!  The air here is very clean and dry.  Clean, dry air is more efficient at scattering light than humid air and dirty air.

Light scatters differently from particles of different size.  When the size of the scatterer is smaller than the wavelength light, shorter wavelength light is scattered the most.  Air molecules are 1000 times smaller than the wavelength of light.  In this situation Rayleigh Scattering occurs, named after Lord Rayleigh who explained this scattering that is inversely proportional to the wavelength of light to the 4th power. The visible spectrum, what our eye can see, ranges from violet (shorter wavelength) to red (longer wavelength) colors.

The sunlight reaching our atmosphere has more blue light than purple though.  This is due the spectrum of light coming from the sun, the fact that nitrogen and oxygen absorb more of the ultra-violet and violet light than the other colors, and our eyes are less responsive to violet.

As sunlight scatters from air molecules in the atmosphere, the blue light scatters more than other colors.

So what does “scattering” actually mean here?  By scattering I mean redirected and deflected into different directions from its initial path.  The shorter wavelength blue light is scattered almost ten times as much as the longer wavelength red light by the atmosphere.

We see all that scattered blue light when we look up at the clear New Mexico sky at miday.  You have probably noticed the deep blue skies of New Mexico — due to the clear dry air here.

If the sky is not clear, and instead is full of dust particles, or water vapor, then the scattering particles (dust or water droplets) are larger than the wavelength of light.  In this situation all colors are scattered by the same amount.  White light is composed of all colors.  We see a white sky when these particulates, vapor, and aerosols are in the air.

At low sun angles, sunrise / sunset, the path length of sunlight through the earth’s atmosphere is much longer than at midday.  Over this long path length the blue light is scattered out of the forward direction. Red light is scattered much less than the blue light.  After such a long transit of the atmosphere the sunlight is reddish in color.  Clouds and mountaintops (alpenglow) are illuminated by red light that has traveled even further through the atmosphere.

Layers of Light

At low sun angles different topographic elements receive varying levels of light.  Some mountains and cliffs can be in full shade next to those in full sunlight.  Here the warm light illuminates yellow sandstone against a dark blue stormy sky — these opposite colors really bring out color contrast and vibrance to the eye.  The combination of rich, warm colors in the rock and strong cool colors in the background sky is typical on summer afternoons in many scenes in New Mexico.

We know that blue light scatters more than red, and during sunrise and sunset the light that illuminates the landscape and cloudscape has warmer colors since it traversed a long path through the atmosphere.  All the blue light is scattered away and red-orange light remains.

When this warm light illuminates mountains and clouds in the foreground the landscape comes alive.  Warm colors juxtaposed with distant cool colors of purple mountains and indigo storm clouds makes for a whimsical scene.

When complimentary colors, those opposite each other on the color wheel, are juxtaposed in a scene we find them pleasant.  They bring out more color contrast and help the image come alive.

In New Mexico the low sunlight travels from distant horizons and illuminates mountains and clouds that tower above the desert floor.  The Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) mountains are named from this effect.  Deep red sunlight at sunset lights up the tops of these mountains with bright red color above the dark green forests in the shade.  Red-green are complimentary colors on the color wheel. Complimentary colors in scene provide harmony and excitement.  New Mexico’s landscape and sky light seem to be designed with complimentary colors in mind.  Yellowish-orange rock against a turquoise sky; and red alpenglow on snowy summits above dark green forests are examples of New Mexico’s palette of complimentary colors.

Sangre de Cristo Glow

Red warm light illuminates the snowy peaks above Santa Fe in the classic “Sangre de Cristo” (Blood of Christ) lighting.

Mountains generate interesting and patchy cloud formations in New Mexico.  The dry and thin air often dries up rain before it hits the ground (virga).

Curtains of virga at sunset glow with translucent reds, pinks, and purples.  I always search out virga when the sun is low.  The ideal is when virga hangs below thick dark storm clouds and the sunlight scrapes the underside of the dark clouds while also shining through the virga.

Purple Haze is All Around

Underneath towering cumulonimbus clouds the lighting can be bizzare.  This is especially true when there is a gap that sunlight can travel below the cloud at sunset.  Warm light from the sun contrasts against the dark cool colors of the storm cloud.  As the sunlight skims the underneath of the cloud it experiences varying thicknesses of cloud.  The thinnest sections transmit the warmer (pink) colors whereas the thicker traversals result in dark cool tones.  Looking north-west at sunset over Alcalde, New Mexico.

Prairie in the Sky

As the sun sets over the Jemez Mountains it lights the underside of cumulus clouds with warm tones.  The sun star is caused by diffraction, the bending of light, by a small aperture in the lens.  Cloud shadows project across the sky.  Looking west towards the Jemez Mountains at sunset from the High Road to Taos, New Mexico.

Storm Clouds over Redonda Peak

Clouds of different altitude and density provide a great canvas to reflect sunlight. Here two thin low altitude clouds in the foreground reflect the warm colors of sunset while the more distant thunderclouds provide cool colors in the background. Looking east at sunset over Redonda Peak, Santa Fe National Forest.

As a nature photographer living in Northern New Mexico, I am immersed in an ongoing classroom, learning about natural light.  The lessons share a common theme of transition and the associated nuances of light.  Transitions from clear sky to an incoming storm, or a storm clearing to blue sky, a sun rising, or setting, teach me just how diverse the palette of New Mexico is.

Slight variations in the angle of the sun, whether or not sunlight can light the underneath of clouds, and the interaction of sunlight with the high mountain atmosphere were the main themes in this article.

In the next article in my series on The Enchanting Light of New Mexico, I discuss the evolution of light during sunsets.

Lenticular Glow

A large lenticular cloud, formed by winds over the Sangre de Cristo mountains, lights up with red light at sunset.  This high altitude cloud (up to 40,000 feet) is illuminated by light rays that traverse a very long path through the atmosphere.  Blue light is scattered out and away from these rays, resulting in the warm red-orange tones. Looking east over Redonda Peak and Santa Fe Baldy at sunset.

3 replies
  1. Bob Prickett
    Bob Prickett says:

    I have three photos from 2 different times and places in New Mexico that show vapor trails casting shadows on upper level clouds above the vapor trails themselves. The only explanation is sunlight reflected off the earth but I have never seen it before or since. I know 2 of the pics were taken at about noon. Is there anything published about the conditions that produce upwardly projected shadows?


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