When the clouds clear up!

On a wet autumn evening, when the clouds are all over the sky and thunderstorms frequent, only a handful of people want to venture out. For photographers, these are opportunities to be encashed. Beautiful photographs can be made. With a plan to capture some beautiful fall pictures, I stepped out with a group of friends. Leaving the comfort of dry place behind, we trekked on a muddy path, with our feet wet, mud everywhere but spirits high! After all, we were in the lap of nature.


Clouds in the Valley

(An old photograph from the region where were enjoying the nature. The clouds were almost similar – both in the valley in front and covering the distant peaks, along with occasional thunderstorms and drizzle)


My aim was to photograph the snow covered Himalayan peaks when the late evening sun hits them. From near Natadol, a sleepy little village, the view can be fabulous. On a rainy day like this one, the chances of clouds clearing up, for a view of the hills, were very rare. However the fun is not just in the photography but going for the long walk in the nature, enjoying the company of friends and whatever wild creatures may come along. Maybe, I could spot some nice birds or butterflies. Maybe even a deer or a fox. I had a 135mm prime lens mounted on my camera. For friendly animals this is usually enough, with a little bit of cropping. For distant birds, no. 135mm is too short for the small birds. Yet, I would have been happy to just see them. Maybe, the leaves on some trees would have turned yellow and orange and I’ll manage a nice landscape. I trotted on towards my friends who had gone a little further. With an open mind, enjoying every passing moment, I was happy to be there.

Protecting my camera from occasional water drops and drizzle, I walked along on the path, occasionally stopping to admire a stray earthworm or the last bit of wild flowers before the cold weather sets in. These are the last few days when these mini creatures and tiny flora are still active. Very soon, Uncle Frost will find his way to these hills and freeze everything. The earthworms will go deep into the soil. The flowers will wither away, giving way to seeds which will lie peacefully asleep under the cover of frost and snow, only to wake up in the spring. Once in a while, my line of thoughts broke and I could hear some musical bird songs. A different kind of bird which I could not identify. Looking around, I could not even see it. There’s a saying that goes around in the forests and these trekking routes. If you can see a pair of eyes, rest assured, there are another hundred eyes watching you.

The rain stopped and with a few gusts of strong wind, the clouds started to clear up. The majestic Himalayan peaks started to show up.

Lit by the sun which was near the horizon, the white snow peaks wore a distinct warm glow. For such a scene, I find it better to use center weighted metering rather than evaluative metering modes (3D Matrix). In simple terms, the evaluative metering considers the white peaks similar to bright white lights and ends up blowing out the details. (Metering Modes). Even with center weighted metering, I had to dial in -1 EV exposure compensation. (Exposure Compensation). For this scene, I knew that an aperture of f/5.6 would give me good enough depth of field. The shutter speed was of no consequence as long as the hand shake did not show up. I therefore used Aperture Priority mode for this photograph and the ones after this.



Clouds clearing up on the peaks

(Clouds clearing up on the peaks. The atmospheric haze still hides their features. The mountains in the central part of the frame with their fine gradations of shades add impact to the composition.
Captured on Nikon full frame with 135mm lens at f/5.6 and 1/250 sec at ISO 100 on Aperture Priority mode. Metered using center weighted average and -1 EV dialed in. Post-processed on Affinity Photo)


The wind was cold and fresh. I could smell the autumn. Yes, to me, autumn has a distinct smell which is a mix of moist earth, dried leaves, crispy cold air and faint smells of early autumn wild flowers. I had lost track of time on this particular day and was feeling hungry too but when I saw these mountains, for the next hour or so, I totally forgot about that. Photography can be quite engaging.

For the next photograph, I wanted to show the fine gradations in the foreground mountains with more stress. I changed the exposure compensation to -0.3 EV from the earlier -1 EV. This may have blown out the snow covered peaks earlier but now I had mounted a graduated ND filter on the front of the lens. This prevented the peaks from getting blown out. At 100 ISO, with the same center weighted metering, the camera calculated a shutter speed of 1/400 seconds at an aperture of f/5.6


Snow covered peaks

(Snow covered peaks now appeared still clearer. Shutter speed of 1/400 helped in a sharp image by taking care of any mild hand shake that could have occurred. Image was cropped a little in Affinity Photo.)


The sun was now about to set. We moved to yet another location. The sky was changing with every passing moment. The birds were flying back to their homes. Maybe it was time for us also to return.

By now, the clouds had further cleared up. The peak of Nanda Devi was also now visible. This was hidden till now. The sun had already set but the tops of the mountains were now lit by a pink light. This was the Alpenglow phenomenon. The sun was no longer directly lighting up the mountain tops. It was the reflected light that lit up the mountain peaks. The sky was relatively dark (though not as much as is needed for a good Alpenglow) and even the foreground hills were covered in darkness. (Time of the day)


(Pink peaks – Almost an Alpenglow lighting up the peaks of Trishul and Nanda Devi. f/5.6, 1/160 sec at ISO 400)


It was quite dark now. To capture the Alpenglow, I had to either reduce the shutter speed further or open up the aperture. Opening up the aperture would have been easier but there was a slight chance of the foreground softening up. So, I left the aperture at 5.6. The calculated shutter speed was too low for me to hand hold the heavy 135mm lens. So, I opted for Auto-ISO. The camera set the shutter speed at the nearest safe value of shutter speed, going by 1/focal length method. So at an ISO of 400, I was able to use a shutter speed of 1/160 sec.

For those of you wondering, I was not carrying a tripod. Since we were walking around, carrying a tripod would have been extra weight. Anyway, we were not planning to wait till it got really dark.


Capture the Alpenglow

  1. Focus on your subject. Even if you are planning to use a small aperture, focus on the main element itself. Even with deep depth of field, there is still always a single plane of focus – the plane where everything is actually in focus. So, forget hyperfocal focusing and focus on your subject even if your aperture is small.
  2. Use a moderate aperture to get the best out of your lens.
  3. Use a shutter speed that keeps your camera stable. A golden rule is to use shutter speed faster than the inverse of focal length being used. Sometimes with optical stabilization / vibration reduction, shutter speed can be lowered… but not always. I think I have written about this sometime earlier too about why sometimes the OS/VR may fail.
  4. Use the lowest ISO that you can, while managing a moderate aperture and a shutter speed that keeps the camera steady. Remember, mild camera shake appears as softening of the image and not necessarily blurring of the image.
  5. Tripod is your best friend. If you are not planning on a long walk or a trek, use a tripod.
  6. Click raw and post-process.
  7. Noise reduction is most important in such images, if the ISO used was high. (Remove Noise, Add Grain)
  8. Use sharpening at the end to further enhance your image. (Sharpening)


Further Reading:
Capturing Sunsets
Glimpse of the Peaks (opens in a new tab)

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