Rocky Mountain Sunset by Todd Henson

Rocky Mountain Sunset. The setting sun turns the Rocky Mountains into dark silhouettes engulfed in a soft orange glow.

Every so often you’re presented with a scene that leaves you speechless in its beauty. So you grab the camera and attempt to capture some of the magic playing out in front of you. A still image, even a video, can rarely fully capture such a personal experience, but we can still try to create something that will evoke some of what we see, of what we feel, hoping it will move others, even if not in the same ways it moved us.

Dreaming of Denver. I dream of Denver, facing west, watching the setting sun set the sky afire, rays of soft filtered light rippling over the silhouetted peaks of the Rocky Mountains. It brings warmth even on the coldest of nights.

Such was my experience one evening during a short trip to Denver, Colorado, many years ago. It was not a photography trip, but I did have my camera with me. I returned to my hotel room close to sunset and saw the sky lighting up outside my window. It was incredible, the colors and the light rays through the clouds, how they created silhouettes of the mountains. I wiped the window clean, put the lens to the window, and began creating images, trying to find which portions of the skyline seemed most compelling. There was so much to see, and the light was changing so quickly, I couldn’t capture it all. But in the end I was pleased with some of the images I did create.

Technical Talk

At first I tried using a wide angle lens to capture as much of the scene as I could. But this just pushed the mountains further into the distance, making them look smaller than I saw them. The mountains were such a strong element to what I was seeing I wanted to focus on them. So I switched to a telephoto lens to get in closer to the mountains, to capture the light playing through the clouds and over their peaks. These photos were shot between 190 - 200 mm.

The aperture didn’t matter much as everything was at such a distance depth of field wasn’t an issue. I chose f/9. Raising the ISO to 320 let me use a shutter speed of 1/320 second. I was hand holding the camera so I wanted a fast enough shutter speed to reduce the risk of camera shake introducing blur. 1/320 second seemed appropriate for a 200 mm lens on a crop sensor.

I was fortunate to have a room off the ground floor. I don’t recall exactly what floor, but it was the 3rd or 4th. This gave me enough height to look out on the mountains without anything distracting in the foreground. I did choose to include a small bit of foreground at the bottom of each image. I like the way this helped frame the scene, and how the setting sun created a rim light as it shone behind the foreground elements.

I hope this helps remind you there can be subjects worth photographing almost anywhere, even in your own hotel room.

Both of these photographs are available for purchase through my online store, run by Fine Art America / Pixels. You can find them under the titles, Dreaming of Denver and Rocky Mountain Sunset.

Dreaming of Denver

Dreaming of Denver

Rocky Mountain Sunset

Rocky Mountain Sunset

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 7 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 7 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 didn’t think to bring any gloves. This may have caused me to rush too quickly from frame to frame instead of taking my time to really think everything through. Thankfully, in this case it all worked out, but 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. So the lessons are to take is slow, and 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.

Skyline Drive Sunset is available for purchase as wall art or on a variety of products.