They say it’s the smog that makes Southern California sunsets so spectacular. Kind of makes sense, we all think of smog as a toxic mix of various deadly chemicals. It is easy to think of these chemicals being a myriad of colors and luminescent gasses reacting with each other spewing a gambit of colors. Maybe those molecules are represented by the colors of the periodic table give that impression, it’s easy to imagine. We all know that light illuminates color in objects especially transparent ones. Take a thick layer of smog, put the sun behind it and holy cow, you should get yourself one heck of a colorful sunrise or set. It all makes perfect sense.
As I learn more about light and how it behaves I started to think maybe there is just a little more to it than that. As it turns out, the whole line of thought is false. First, lets take a look at what it is that makes sunrises and sets more colorful in the first place. During these times (the golden hours) the sun’s light rays travel throughout the longest distances of the earth’s atmosphere. Light is made of different size wave lengths presenting different colors of the spectrum. The blue or cool side being the shorter, weaker waves. As these rays of light encounter obstacles, for example an oxygen molecule, the shorter waves of the blue spectrum get stripped away and scatter off into the atmosphere. This is also why the sky is blue. When it happens the intensity of the light ray decreases and visually light becomes orange/red and more saturated. Those orange and red charged light rays are what causes the vivid colors. Contrary to the myth, large particles of dust and pollution block too much of the light and colors tend to become muted and very low in intensity. In a spectacular sunrise or set the unadulterated light generally does not illuminate other colored objects but rather reflects off of objects like water and clouds.
How that light gets to these object is also important. Higher clouds like cirrus tend to show the most vivid colors. This is because the portion of the atmosphere closest to the earth’s surface known as the boundary layer contains most of the dust, haze and pollutants. Its density tends to dull the colors and lower the intensity to the point that lower clouds are not as vivid. In fact the very best light is those rays that pass just above the boundary layer and reflect off the higher clouds. This occurs just before or after the sun is in view. That gives credence to the saying “start early and leave late”.
Saying “its the smog that makes the sunsets so great” is just fine for the movies but in real life it is just not true. Lets give the myth its last rites and bury it for good.
Thanks to everyone who stops by. Until next week Happy Shooting.
I’ve never had much luck photographing Brandt’s Cormorants in the past. I don’t often see them in my usual areas and when I do they tend to be skittish. Seems like every time I get a shot of one it is either too far away or exposed too dark. That brings up one of the things that makes photographing this bird difficult. Very often, infact much of the time, I am photographing light colored subjects and seeing something dark like the Brandt’s requires a quick change in settings to get a proper exposure. I usally make a change in the right direction but in the few seconds allowed to get a BiF shot I almost always under expose by a good bit. The other issue is blowing out the highlights in the rest of the image.
When I was making my trips to La Jolla Cove this past Winter one of my goals was to finally get some decent images of my elusive bird. I didn’t want to just get the “in flight” and obligitory “hundreds on the cliff” shots, I wanted to get down and get some nice well exposed portraits. On the day that I took the photo above I had been shooting Gulls and Pelicans through the early morning. After some dufus wandered by scaring off all the other birds I took a break and came back to shoot the Brandt’s Cormorant. It was after 10am and the light was getting pretty harsh even though there was cloud cover that obscured the sun from time to time. One of the problems I ran into was that this one lone soldier spent most of its time hanging around with Western Gulls so I had a bunch of images of blown out gulls and the properly exposed Cormorant. Photoshop would be difficult for most of them so they now reside on my computer unprocessed. Like the one above, there were a couple that came out pretty well. Usually I would say (and do) set the exposure about a stop or more to the plus side but checking the exif data on this image showed 0-EV in apeture priority with spot metering. Normally in a situation like this I would do a manual exposure.
Brandt’s Cormorants are a coastal bird that live along the West coast of North America. Some live all year in the South and the ones in the North migrate South for the winter. The Brandt’s is named after German naturalist Johann Friedrich von Brandt who “discovered” them in the 19th century. They are average size in the Cormorant family and feed on small fish on the sea floor. They have been observed diving up to 40 feet to fish. During breeding season the have a blue throat patch. Adults have the striking green eyes. There are about 230,000 Brandt’s Cormorants along the Pacific Coast of North America.
You can see more of my photos at www.ronboyddesign.com