Reading the Sky

I think I’m developing an uncanny ability to read the sky. I can tell when the sunset is going to be spectacular. As a landscape photographer, I am very interested in having beautiful skies with color and just the right kind of clouds in my photographs.

Five Palm Trees at Sunset, Palm Springs, CA

One afternoon a week or so ago, I looked out the window and saw the sky. It was still at least a couple of hours before sunset, but I thought to myself, if these clouds stay like this, it’s going to be an amazing sunset. The clouds did remain, and sure enough the sky was lit up with bright orange followed by deep magenta and red expanses of cloud formations. It was really amazing. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

Orange and yellow fill the sky at sunset.

I went to Palm Springs last month to photograph some of the landscape there. My primary goal was to make some photographs of palm trees, since they are so closely associated with Palm Springs. I had a couple of ideas in mind. I liked the idea of silhouetting the palm trees against the sky. I also wanted to make some photographs that featured both the palm trees and the surrounding mountains.

For the silhouettes, It didn’t matter to me what the sky was doing as long as there was deep color in it. For that, I simply had to photograph in the right direction at the right time. This is one of my results.

Palm Tree Silhouette, Palm Springs, CA

For the mountain photographs, I wanted to have a more interesting sky. On the day I was preparing to make my palm tree and mountain photographs, it was overcast all day. That wasn’t going to be good for my photography that evening. But I never give up in landscape photography, because you never know what can happen.

Later in the afternoon it was still overcast, and no shadows were being cast by any objects because of the fully diffuse light. I noticed a change in the conditions, however. At times the shadows of objects started to become more well-defined--still very hazy, but at least discernible. I looked up, and my sky reading ability kicked in. Even though the sun was still behind the clouds, enough light was filtering through to form these faint shadows. Yes, the clouds were just beginning to thin out. If this kept up without going too far, there would be enough light coming through to illuminate the clouds from below, and that would produce a beautiful display at sunset. I continued my wait now with guarded optimism and excitement for what might be coming.

I found my location and got situated 45 minutes before sunset. The conditions were similar to what they were an hour or two earlier, and I now had much higher expectations for the sunset. The mountains to the west block the sun long before the actual sunset time, and because I was located so close to the mountains, I could not see what was happening in the sky behind them. I waited patiently until the light show began, and it did begin! I started by making the photograph at the top of this blog. At this point the sunset light is mostly orange and yellow because the sun is still above the true horizon. I can’t see it because it’s blocked by the mountains, but the beautiful light was extensive enough for me to see it in the clouds above the mountains.

Three Palm Trees at Sunset, Palm Springs CA

Ten to fifteen minutes later, the sun had set, and now it was lighting up the clouds from below with beautiful magenta and red colors. Here’s the photograph I made then. I love when the sky puts on this kind of light show at sunrise or sunset. This time I anticipated these sky conditions, and thankfully they developed and allowed me to make these photographs.

Snow in the Mountains at Red Rock

This past January I was supposed to be going to Cathedral City, CA for an art show, but they canceled the show because of heavy rain that weekend. Cathedral City is just outside of Palm Springs, which is relatively close to Las Vegas. We also had a lot of rain here that weekend, and we got snow in the mountains of Red Rock Canyon.

Winter Morning at Pine Creek, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

Although I missed not having the art show, it gave me an opportunity to explore the mountains of Red Rock Canyon covered in snow, a rare event. Another uncommon event is to have the normally dry streams filled with running water. The streams flowed for several days following the storms. I’ve seen some of the runoff streams gushing with water before, as in this photograph.

Red Rock Runoff, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

But that was during a heavy rainstorm, and it was accompanied by flash flooding. The recent rain and snow were a light, steady precipitation that built up over multiple days. And because a lot of the precipitation was snow, the streams continued to be fed as the snow melted in the higher elevations and worked its way down the mountains. So in the end, I had an extended period of time to make these photographs. After only a few days, however, the flow of water in the creeks slowed considerably. That extended period really was only a short window of time to capture the maximum flow of water.

Things don’t always work out as we plan. In this case I missed my art show, but the consolation was the opportunity to make these unique photographs.

Gray Winter on Pine Creek, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

In My Own Backyard

A couple months ago in this blog article I joked about that great view of the Las Vegas Strip being taken from my bedroom window. That was a joke, but this photograph of the first morning light falling on the mountains at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is pretty close to being in my backyard. OK, again, not really, but Red Rock is only a short 15 minute drive away from me.

FIrst Light at Red Rock

FIrst Light at Red Rock

I love being so close to such a beautiful place as Red Rock. It’s great to be able to drive over there any time I want to hike, make photographs, or just relax on a scenic drive. It’s also a great contrast from the Strip, which is under half an hour away from Red Rock. The contrast between the excitement of the Strip and the serenity of Red Rock is striking.

On a Sunday morning in December, I woke up early to visit Red Rock. The weather lately had been allowing for beautiful skies at sunrise and sunset, and I finally had some time to take advantage of it. The sunrise was amazing, and the sky was spectacular. I made three photographs that morning, two of which are displayed here.

FIery Sky at Red Rock

FIery Sky at Red Rock

In the photograph immediately above, I am showcasing the amazing sky I experienced. The red and magenta clouds filled the sky and allowed me to create a beautiful photograph of the mountains with the colorful sky in the background.

The first photograph of this post was taken a little later than this one. By this time, the sky was no longer lit up with the red and magenta clouds in the second photograph, but now the golden sunlight was much more present on the mountains. I love the drama of this photograph. The light was perfect, and it was creating a dramatic contrast between the fluffy, soft blue of the clouds and sky and the golden, rigid, and sharp mountains of Red Rock.

On mornings like this one, the light changes very rapidly. There is only a short window of time during which the clouds glow with the red and magenta colors here. Before that, other areas of the sky are lit and colored in different ways. After that, the light starts to wash over the terrain as in the first photograph of this article. The rapidly changing light conditions provide a variety of opportunities for different types of photographs, each having a different feeling. For me, it’s a lot of fun to be in a place like Red Rock with the chance to take advantage of those opportunities and create some beautiful photographs.