A View From The Top

Think about the sun to plan your time in the mountains, and you’ll get your most inspiring shots from the summits
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Sunrise from the summit of Mount Sneffels looking southwest toward the Blue Lakes Basin, Mount Sneffels Wilderness, Colorado. 4x5 film camera

Summits are magical places. Reaching the summit of a high peak gives me the exhilarating, humbling and awe-inspiring experience of being a tiny speck on top of the world. To me, mountaineering is almost a metaphor for the human condition. It embodies, in concrete form, the way we reach for the sky, yet can only climb so high. In the spring of 2006, I began working on a series of images I hoped would capture these powerful emotions.

Most summit photographs I had seen were rather boring. How could that be, I thought, when the experience of reaching the summit is so enthralling? Then I thought about when those photos were taken: at noon, in midsummer, when the sun is as high in the sky as it will be the entire year. Most summit photos taken at that time of day show distant, hazy peaks almost lost in the white glare of the midday sun. In an attempt to give my images an impact that matched my experience, I decided to try shooting sunrise from the summits of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks.


A 180º sunrise-to-moonset panorama from the summit of 14,087-foot Windom Peak, Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM

But how? Camping on the summit is dangerous. Even if I could carry all the necessary food, water, and camping and camera gear as much as 5,000 vertical feet from the trailhead to the summit, I then would be camped atop the tallest lightning rod in the vicinity. I had already survived several terrifying, near-miss encounters with lightning strikes and had no desire to fry like a mosquito caught in a bug zapper. Even if the weather was stable, I'd likely spend a sleepless night, then greet the dawn with a killer case of acute mountain sickness.

Instead of camping on the summit, I began climbing peaks in the dark, with only the wind and stars for company. I started with 14,433-foot Mount Elbert, the highest mountain in Colorado, and immediately realized that I had set myself an enormous task. My initial estimate that I could do all 54 Fourteeners in two years quickly proved laughable. To reach the summit of a Fourteener before sunrise, starting from the road or a high camp, usually requires getting up at midnight or 1:00 a.m. Doing one peak at a time was exhausting; doing two or three in a row left me utterly wasted. But taking a rest day between climbs seemed like a waste of time, with summers so short, the list of peaks so long and the pile of work back in the office so pressing. Faced with these challenges, I've done sunrise Fourteener shoots in spurts, as time, energy, injuries and two back-to-back spinal surgeries have allowed. So far, I've done 40 shoots on 27 peaks. I'm now 54, and acutely aware that I won't be able to do these shoots forever.

Fundamentals Of Summit Photography
The view from any Fourteener summit is so overwhelming that it's easy to forget the fundamentals.

Foreground still matters. It's all too easy to make images that look like aerials, which often feel emotionally detached or aloof. Our natural assumption when viewing an image is that we're looking horizontally, not down into an abyss. The best way to convey a feeling of height is often to include a foreground ridge that starts at your feet and leads your eye down into the valley below.


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A 200º panorama looking west at sunrise from the summit of 14,309-foot Uncompahgre Peak, Uncompahgre Wilderness, Colorado. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM

The angle of sunrise also remains crucial. The view from the summit extends 100 miles or more, so some haze is inevitable. The best Fourteeners for summit shoots are often those surrounded by dramatic peaks that are close enough to see clearly through the haze and that are sidelit at sunrise. The portion of our visual system that allows us to see depth is actually color-blind. It works strictly on luminance values, which is why sidelit images, with their rich interplay of highlight and shadow, convey a sense of depth, while frontlit images often look flat.

Front light can work well just before the sun crests the horizon. On exceptionally clear mornings, the light from the sun, still below the horizon, takes a tremendously long path through the atmosphere from east to west, bounces off distant air molecules and returns to your eye. During its journey, the blue light scatters out of the beam. What you see is a pink band of light just above the western horizon. The bow-shaped band of blue sky between the horizon and the band of pink is called the twilight wedge. It's actually Earth's shadow. From the summit of a Fourteener, it can reveal the curvature of the Earth—though not for the simple reason you probably expect. (For a full explanation of this complex phenomenon, see my blog post at www.glennrandall.com/2011.02.01_arch.html.)


Moonset over Wetterhorn Peak from the summit of Uncompahgre Peak at sunrise in early March, Uncompahgre Wilderness, Colorado. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L IS USM

Think Wide
My first efforts at shooting sunrise from the summit weren't very successful. Somehow images with the normal 4:5 or 3:2 aspect ratio often failed to capture the expansive feeling of standing on a 14,000-foot summit. I decided to try shooting wide panoramas—really wide, such as a panorama that extended more than 180º, from the rising sun to the full moon as it set directly opposite the sun in the sky. Of course, the peaks in between the rising sun and setting moon would have to be spectacular enough to hold the viewer's interest across the entire width of the frame. I also knew I'd have to print the image big, say, five feet across, otherwise the peaks would look like molehills, not mountains. That meant I needed extreme resolution. Before 2009, I hauled a 4x5 field camera to the summit. Now I was shooting a 21-megapixel Canon EOS 1Ds-Mark III, which opened up a new possibility: stitching together many frames to create an enormous file that could top 1 gigabyte in size.

Digital capture had a further advantage. It allowed me to use HDR (high dynamic range) software to produce a panorama with the best possible shadow and highlight detail. I'd start by shooting three frames at each camera position. I'd merge the three frames shot from each camera position into 32-bit files in Photoshop CS5. I then could use the Photomerge utility to stitch the 32-bit frames together and create a seamless 180º, 32-bit panorama, which I could process in Nik Software HDR Efex Pro to retain shadow and highlight detail despite the extreme range in brightness across the scene.

The ultrawide angle of view from left to right meant I needed to be meticulous about setting up the camera so the plane of rotation was absolutely level and the camera was level both left-to-right and front-to-back. Even a small error would make a normally straight horizon curve up and down like a roller-coaster track. I also needed a system that would allow the camera to rotate around the nodal point of the lens so that foreground elements always lined up with the same background elements in the overlapping portions of adjacent frames. I have a Pano Elements Package from Really Right Stuff that lets me get everything level and position the camera perfectly in under a minute.

Look Down…At Least With Your Lens
I began studying maps, searching for a place where such a panorama actually was possible and soon realized that only a few peaks would work. I knew I couldn't just shoot a distant skyline with a telephoto lens. I'd end up with a print that was five feet wide and three inches high. For an ultrawide panorama to work, I needed either an interesting foreground, a view into the valley below, or both. Many Colorado Fourteeners have broad, nearly level summits big enough for a high-altitude football game. Shooting from their summits with a wide lens would produce a panorama where most of the frame was filled with nondescript talus and scree. There are no lush fields of wildflowers on the summits of Fourteeners. My best bet, I decided, was to be atop a rugged peak with a small summit that would let me look down at a steep angle into the valley below, so a 60-inch-wide print could be 20 inches high and still include something of interest besides the distant peaks.


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I ultimately settled on Windom Peak, a Fourteener in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, which is surrounded by the soaring granite peaks of the Needle Mountains. I had done a 4x5 shoot from the summit of Windom in 2006, so I knew the route—a big advantage when navigating by headlamp.

I took the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad from Durango to Needleton, then backpacked six miles in to the Chicago Basin and camped. The next morning at 1:00 a.m., I began climbing the peak. It was fortunate that I had brought an ice axe and crampons because, at 4:00 a.m., the snowfields at 13,000 feet were rock-hard, and there was no way to kick a step. Properly equipped, however, the climb was easy.

I had timed my shoot to coincide with the full moon, of course. On my first try, the moon was just barely above the horizon at sunrise, and its pale white disc was almost lost against the bright white sky near the horizon. I tried again the next day, when the moon was higher in the sky at sunrise and therefore stood out prominently against blue sky. That effort produced "Windom Peak Panorama," which has become my most successful "Sunrise from the Summit" image.

Keep Innovating
Even images shot at sunrise from 14,000 feet can become repetitive unless you strive constantly to innovate and improve. In January 2010, I shot sunrise from Quandary Peak, the first Fourteener I had done in winter. I followed it with a sunset/moonrise shoot on Mount Elbert later that month. In March, I shot the full moon setting over Wetterhorn Peak from the summit of Uncompahgre, a peak so remote in winter that I didn't see a soul for three days.

In the summer of 2010, I carried the idea of an ultrawide panorama still further and shot a 360º panorama of moonrise at sunset from the summit of Mount Eolus, a spectacular knife blade of a peak near Windom. Two days later, I shot a 360º panorama of moonset at sunrise from the summit of Sunlight Peak, whose summit is so small and so exposed that I refused to actually stand up on it.


Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm ƒ/1.4 G ED

Packing Light For A Summit Shoot
Glenn Randall has made the elite collection of 14,000-foot peaks his stomping ground, but you don't have to aim for the highest mountains to employ his tips and techniques for making dramatic photographs from a summit. Even modest mountains can offer spectacular photo opportunities.

Getting to the top of any mountain isn't a trivial task. You need to be in good shape, and you should take care to wear boots that offer good support and fit properly. The descent is often harder on your joints than getting up the mountain, so extra items like trekking poles or hiking staffs, particularly a hiking staff that doubles as a monopod, are options for helping to take the strain off your knees.

Keep your photo gear to a minimum. Be realistic about lenses and accessories. A single DSLR, one or two lenses, a polarizer and a graduated ND filter make for a good lightweight kit that will have you ready for just about anything. For the lenses, consider an all-in-one zoom or a wide-angle zoom and a telezoom. If you want to be a real minimalist, consider bringing a DSLR, a 24mm prime lens and a polarizer and an ND filter. Limiting yourself to a single focal length can help concentrate your creative process, and you may get your best images ever.

It's important to keep your gear light for several reasons. For safety, you'll also be hiking with water and some food, a GPS, a small first-aid kit and a jacket in case of unexpected inclement weather. These items take up weight and space. When you add in your photo gear, you end up with a significant amount of weight for an uphill climb. If you overweight yourself, you can be so worn out when you get to the summit that your creativity will suffer. The more photo gear you bring, the less likely you are to take the kind of inspiring photograph that led you to the mountain in the first place.

 

Although I hope to complete all 54 peaks someday, the goal was never simply to tick them off. Rather, the goal is to come back with outstanding images, and that means carefully considering elements like composition, sunrise and sunset angles and best time of year. Often, it means returning to the same peak for a second or third try. Regardless of how many peaks I eventually do, I cherish each opportunity I can create to climb another Fourteener in the dark and experience the joy of witnessing sunrise from the summit.

You can see more of Glenn Randall's photography, sign up for his monthly newsletter and learn about upcoming workshops by visiting his website at www.glennrandall.com.

15 Comments

    We miss Joshua Tree so badly – my wife and I are stuck in the east – you did a wonderful and a VERY patient job with this – thanks for making us homesick -awesomw photo.

    i have always wanted to do this.. you always see the long exposures in the desert for artistic “low light photography’ this image is text book.. nice job! long exposure..

    Great article! Thank you for the ideas — shall try them soon )))

    Anyway, my question is to the publisher: Glenn is talking that he took Canon 1Ds3 to the mountains with him — and yet you put a photo of a shameful Nikon D800 in the article. What the??? Don’t you think its too obvious who’s your sponsor and who’s paying you money to promote their inferior products?? That just simply damages your reputation, that’s all!

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