Photographs taken at the beginning and the end of the day are often most stunning because of the amazing light that happens on the cusps of the day.
But because the mountains don’t start at your doorstep, sunrise and sunset photography is usually thought of as the domain of the backpackers, or the crazies at the very least. The first time I spoke with a group of photographers I’d never met, we were asked, “what’s the last thing you shot?” When my turn came around I told them I had photographed sunrise at Mt. St. Helens that very morning. They asked if I had backpacked and I said “no, I just drove out there in the morning, shot the sunrise and went to work afterward.” They stared at me at as if I had just come back from my daily visit to the moon. But if you plan it well and do it right, you can easily photograph the sunset, the midnight stars and the sunrise without the pain of lugging a tent and overnight supplies along for the ride. These are the crucial additional items (other than the 10 essentials) one needs to bring in order to have a successful night/morning of photography:
-Primary light source and at least one or two backup light sources. I carry 3 after multiple trips where both of my light sources died (loss of batteries and dead bulb) and I was forced to rely on the glow of someone else’s headlamp to avoid tripping off the trail. Spare batteries also help but if the headlamp dies and it’s dark it can be hard to find the spare batteries in your pack.
-Layers and more layers. Particularly in winter, temperatures can drop rapidly and what was a 40 degree day can becomes 10 degrees in the middle of the night. Especially at elevation.
-Bivy sac or light sleeping bag. I don’t always do this but have made it a habit in conditions where I know the weather is likely to shift around a lot, or in cases where I know I might want to catch a nap between sunset & sunrise. You can also use this to sit on while you wait for the light to get good.
-A tripod. This is essential for sunrise and sunset and night photography, as trying to hand-hold most twilight shots will simply result in a blurry photo even with the slightest of shakes.
-A buddy. I will sometimes do solo sunrise and sunset trips, but they are made enormously easier if someone else is along to take over the driving, or to talk you awake or to tell you that that sound in the bushes was not in fact a bear but a rock falling down the slope (toward your present location).
-A Location. Driving until you get somewhere random is not usually the best choice here. Staying up all night staring at a dark mountain, then seeing the sun come up behind it is great, but makes for lousy photos most of the time. So first you’ll need to decide if you are shooting sunrise or sunset. This will determine where to position yourself for the lovely light.
I photograph mountains primarily and so I spend my time deciding where the sun will rise, which flank of the mountain it will hit first, and what the conditions will likely be at that location. Maps are very helpful, as is The Photographer’s Ephemerus since in our location the sun rises across a very different section of sky depending on the season.
In my next section I’ll go into more specifics of shooting sunrise and sunset including which to choose, returning in the dark and weather considerations.