Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sunrise Layers

June and I got up at 3:30 AM Saturday, jumped in the car and drove 1 1/2 hours to Carvers Gap on the Tennessee - North Carolina state line then took off up the Appalachian Trail towards Round Bald to be there for sunrise.   We were hoping for some clouds to make the sunrise dramatic but when the sky started in lighten there were no clouds in sight.   When the sun did come up over the mountains of Western North Carolina the sky was very bright but the mountains and grassy bald we were standing on was still very dark.  No digital camera can handle this extreme tonal range from dark to very bright without the darks being almost black or the sky being totally white or "blown out".

To handle this I used a combination of two techniques - graduated neutral density filter and High Dynamic Range or HDR.

The Graduated Neutral Density Filter or ND Grad is dark grey on one side and clear on the other.  I placed the filter on the front of my lens with the dark grey on the top to block much of the light from the bright sky and the clear portion on the bottom so I didn't darken the already dark grasses and mountain ridges.  I used a 2-stop ND grad, which cut the light from the sky to 25%.  That wasn't quite dark enough.  I think I need to get a 3-stop ND Grad for my camera bag for these conditions.

I also took three different exposures of the same image shown below

As metered by the camera

-2 stops darker

+2 stops brighter

The first exposure was almost good enough but some of the sky was blown out, meaning there was no information there only bright light.   A 3-stop filter would have fixed this but I didn't have one.  When I got back home I used HDR Efex Pro from Nik Software to combine the three images.   The software will basically take the properly exposed parts from each image and blend them together to make one High Dynamic Range or HDR image.   I use HDR Efex Pro because it allows me to create HDR images that are realistic and close to what my eye was able to see.

Once I had the HDR image I did a little additional editing in Adobe Lightroom to crop it, adjust the tone curve, update the color balance, add a little edge vignette and sharpened the photo.  Here's the end result.

This is not what I was hoping for when we got up at 3:30 AM, but I do like the layers of green, blue/grey and orange. 

We spent the rest of the morning, which there was still plenty of, hiking the Appalachian Trail to Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Grassy Ridge Bald.   The Rhododendrons and Flame Azaleas were in full bloom and beautiful.   Photos from our hike are available in the Blue Ridge Gallery on

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