Waiting for the Light

I was on the Sunset Point at the rim of Bryce Amphitheater of Bryce Canyon National Park, awed by the jaw-dropping view in front of me. Sure, I had seen pictures of these colorful, fantastic hoodoos countless times, but nothing could replace the experience of me really been there, seeing these nature wonders though my own eyes.

This was my first visit to this mesmerizing landscape.  I went straight to the Sunset Point.  The name suggests this must be an ideal location for sunset shots, or so I thought.

So I was here, standing by my camera and tripod, waiting, waiting for the light. The right light.

Light is the most essential element of photography.  Poor light makes the best landscape in the world flat and uninviting.  On the other hand, great light turns an OK scene into something extraordinary.

The arches, pinnacles, and hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are indeed extremely impressive — especially in the winter time. The colorful formations contrast beautifully with the white snow on the ground. The soft warm light of the setting winter Sun nicely illuminated these fascinating formations, turning rocks into gold.  It was the so called golden hour — the first and last hour of sun.  Any landscape photographer will tell you in a heartbeat that this is the light you should aim for. The soft, warm, low-angle sunlight can play magic.  This is the light that makes great landscape photographs.

I made a few exposures.  “Not bad”, I told myself.  The light was wonderful.  However, there was another voice coming from the back of my mind: “Where are those magical, intensive red colors that I saw in the pictures of Bryce Canyon?”   To say I was a little bit disappointed is not exaggerating.

Bryce Canyon at Sunset. Canon 5D Mark II, f/11, 1/13 sec, ISO 100, 165mm, Lee 3-stop soft GND.

The sun went down, throwing everything surrounding me into a giant shadow.  The entire landscape appeared dull and lifeless.  Tourists were leaving. I did not pack my gears.  Years of experiences in the field told me that I should wait.  About 30 minutes after sunset, during a period I called the edge of light, the sky often takes rich red and magenta tones, and landscape basks in very soft and super saturated light.   The colors may not so obvious to our naked eyes, but films and digital sensors will record the extremely beautiful light. This is actually one of the best times to shoot landscape, especially for American southwest. The colors and light change rapidly so one has to work very fast during this period of time. Preparation and pre-visualization is the key to success.

An hour had passed. My waiting for the ideal light finally paid off. The clouds in the sky turned into rich, vivid red and purple hues.  The hoodoos radiated with intensive, glowing red. This was a truly magic moment, and the moment was fleeting.  The colors quickly disappeared after I made just a handful of frames.

Bryce Canyon at Dusk. Canon 5D Mark II, f/11, 2 sec, ISO 100, 25mm. Lee 3-stop soft GND.

Both pictures in this post have identical processing settings –— same white balance, same contrast, and same saturation value. And they were from the same location. What a difference an hour made!

And the moral of the story is: Don’t pack your camera when the Sun goes down. The show may have just started.

11 thoughts on “Waiting for the Light

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  4. Where is “Valley of the Bones” in New Mexico? I am a New Mexico painter and I would like to visit that spot, but I’ve never heard of it & google doesn’t turn anything up for me.

    Your work is stunning, thank you for sharing!!

    • Trish,


      “Valley of the Bones” is an unmarked spot inside the Bisti Wilderness area. I cannot remember how long it took to hike to there from the parking lot. I guess it was a hour, maybe more. In desert the rich colors will be gone a few minutes after sunrise, so you either have to hike in the darkness in the wee hours, or do some back-country camping inside the Wilderness, to witness the magic of first ray of sunshine hitting these rocks.

  5. I wondered if it was out there! Sounds like some camping is in order….though I bet this spot would look great in the golden hour too, that time just before sunset that makes even the dusty adobes glow like gold.

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