Up before the crack of dawn

Getting out of bed before sunrise is difficult. Especially on a cold winter morning when temperatures are in the single digits.

As a nature photographer, it benefits me to get outside before the sun comes up. That is when the warm colors of low angle sunlight can illuminate the undersides of clouds. It is also a great time to see wildlife.

Since we are discussing valuable morning time, I hope you noticed the part above about getting outside before sunrise! Ouch! Even on cold winter mornings?

Even though I am motivated on most mornings to get outside and photograph the early morning light, today was not one of those days. Looking out my bedroom window, I could see the sky above the Sangre de Cristo mountains turning pink.  Nice, but just another sunrise/sunset photo.  After a few minutes, the interior of my home is lit up with a bright red glow.

Morning scramble to get the photo

In half an instant, I am scrambling to throw some warmer clothes on, grab my tripod and camera on the way out the door.  Sprinting to a favorite tree on my property’s backside, I make it to a good spot to take photos. I made it!  Whew!  Composing the photograph, I realize my camera battery is dead.  Argh!

At this point, I have to stick with the plan; otherwise, I would have just dashed out of the house for no reason other than to convince my neighbors that I must be crazy! I sprint back across the frozen field to my house to get a fresh battery, turn around and run back to my tripod a few hundred yards away, all the while watching the colors of the sky begin to mute.  I have just enough time to take a few photos (one is presented below) before the intense light fades.

Dawn light preceding a winter storm and prompting me to get out of bed.  December 10, 2020. Santa Fe, New Mexico

Red sky at night sailors delight; Red sky in the morning sailors take warning

A winter storm was forecast for the next few days.   I knew that the dawn light this morning would be good, based on the adage “Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning”.  Yesterday I photographed from sunrise to sunset.  A couple of days earlier, I put in another sunrise to sunset day in the field.  How many photos do you really need to get Ed?

Nature photography, and most things in life, are based on quality and not quantity.    To make an awesome photograph, you have to respond when the conditions are perfect. The same mindset and taking action at the right time that often is not planned into a schedule applies for skiing powder days or fly-fishing a hatch.  Gee, I think I will schedule a day next week to go photograph beautiful sunrises and rainbows.  Nope.  Nature photography does not work that way.

Nature does, however, give us some tips on when conditions might be good for photography.  The adage, “Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning,”  is a good tip.  Why?

Storm systems normally travel from west to east in the mid-latitudes on Earth.  They move in this direction due to the jet stream.

The nitrogen (78%), oxygen (21%), and argon (1%)  molecules that make up our atmosphere scatter blue light more than red light.  Blue colors are essentially scattered out of the low angle rays of sunlight passing through the atmosphere at sunrise or sunset.  Rays of sunlight that travel through long pathlengths of the atmosphere are red in color.

Moonset in the Belt of Venus over Bishop, California

Moonset over the Sierra Nevada, Bishop, California.

Low angle sunlight from the rising sun in the east lights the underside of storm clouds moving in from the west over the Sierra Nevada.  The deep blue band below the pink clouds is the shadow of the Earth on the upper atmosphere.  Even when there are no clouds to reflect the warm colors of low angle sunlight to our eye, the upper atmosphere can reflect some pink to us, resulting in the Belt of Venus.  This photograph shows pink light from both the Belt of Venus and warm light reflected from thin clouds’ undersides.

When these rays of sunlight that traveled long distances through the atmosphere and became warm in color, illuminate incoming storm clouds’ undersides, they reflect the warm light to me.

Now that the storm is here, it is dark and grey outside. Any sunlight is either blocked by clouds or reflected from water vapor — for all colors of the visible spectrum.  The sun is higher in the sky now and only travels through about 11 miles of atmosphere, versus thousands of miles at sunrise/sunset.

Colorful sunrise over Monument Valley

Technicolor Sunrise Over Monument Valley, Arizona

A sunrise over Monument Valley that I was glad I got outside early to witness these amazing colors.

This morning’s sunrise has renewed my motivation for getting up before the sun comes up.   To see the underlighting of clouds, I have to get up before the sunrises. Once the sun rises above the horizon, the brilliant colors diminish for two reasons.  The sunlight’s pathlength through the atmosphere is less, so less scattering of the blues and cooler colors.  Before sunrise, the low angle of light is better at lighting up the parts of clouds that reflect light to us, that is, the undersides of the clouds.

Rise and shine!

When it is evening, ye say, fair weather: for the heaven is red. And in the morning, foul weather today for the heaven is red and lowering.”
(Matthew 16:2-3)

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Black bear cub resting its head on tree branch in the rain.
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