Skyline Drive Sunset - The Story Behind the Image / by Todd Henson

Skyline Drive Sunset

The Story

I enjoy meeting up with my folks every so often and going on a day trip. Several times a year we head out to the Green Valley Book Fair, a seasonal book fair, to see if they have anything new that season. Shenandoah National Park is not far from the book fair so we often end up driving through the park over Skyline Drive, enjoying the scenery. Many of these trips don’t result in any photographs, especially during the summer when the sun is still very high in the sky. But sometimes we hit a cloudy day, or we arrive closer to sunset, so I almost always bring my gear along just in case.

Me framing a shot in the snow

On this particular winter day the sun was setting around 5 pm, so the timing was perfect, and snow had fallen in the mountains earlier in the week. Many of the pull offs on Skyline Drive offer very nice views of the valley and mountains in the distance. We found one such pull off and then waited. When the sun began to set I got out of the car and set up my camera and tripod. I was using my wide angle lens to capture as much of the beautiful scene as I could, but even at 16 mm (on my crop sensor) it wasn’t enough.

One way I know to capture more of a scene is to shoot a multi-image panorama. To do this I mount the camera vertically on the tripod, then rotate the camera horizontally between each shot, creating a lot of vertical images that later get stitched together in post-processing. If you’d like more details about creating panoramas in Lightroom see my post Panorama of Cruise Ships at Bar Harbor, Maine.

When I had everything ready I waited and watched the sky, how the light was changing, how the colors were shifting. The sky lit up just after the sun dropped below the horizon. We were fortunate the sky was full of interesting clouds, and the snow on the distant mountains helped them stand out more than they might otherwise. When the sky lit up I began shooting. It took 8 frames to capture the entire scene. I shot each frame, then rotated the camera just a little to the right making sure to overlap the previous image.

The individual images I captured are shown below. Click on an image for a larger view, and to cycle through the set.

Later, at home, I opened up Adobe Lightroom and merged the 8 vertical images into a long horizontal panorama. I made a few artistic tweaks (dodging, burning, vignetting, etc), then called the image finished.

The Lesson

I’m pleased with the results, but I did learn some lessons while shooting. It was cold that afternoon, and I think I rushed too quickly from frame to frame, introducing just a touch of vibration and losing a little sharpness. Since then I have kept this in mind when shooting panos and attempt to slow myself down, to concentrate on what I’m doing, taking whatever time is needed to get the best source images I can. And the second lesson is to always bring gloves when there's snow in the mountains!

Always try to learn from your shoots. It’s a great way to grow as a photographer. Recognize your own mistakes, accept them, and learn from them. I’ve no doubt I’ll continue making mistakes. I just hope they are new mistakes that give me new opportunities to improve my photography.