The Magic Hour

Capturing Alpenglow with Photographer Jim Salge

It takes a long night of hiking to a spot on the mountaintop, but to photographer Jim Salge it's worth it.

"I sit there patiently, watching the stars fade and listening to the birds wake up," Salge says.

What he's waiting for is alpenglow – an optical phenomenon that creates a pink glow that suffuses snow-covered mountain peaks at dawn.

Photographers call it the "magic hour" or "golden hour," though the maximum moments really only last a few minutes as the sun rises. Salge says the light goes from bright pink to dull orange to yellow then white: "It's fleeting, momentary and beautiful."

Enough so that Salge will climb through the cold and snow in the dark of night to be in position for those moments. "I start out at 1 or 2 a.m. in full winter gear carrying a minus 20 sleeping bag," he says, adding "it's not easy, but it's completely worth it."

It's way easier to get the shots at sunset, which has its own moments of alpenglow, but Salge prefers mornings. "The air is cooler so there's more mist, more humidity that makes the sunrises more intense." he says.

"At higher elevations you see the first rays of sun long before the valley does, and the longer the rays are the brighter they will be. The brightest alpenglow occurs when a cold front is coming in and pushes clouds over most of the sky but not the horizon."

Winter is better than summer for alpenglow, Salge says: "It's not very intense in the summer because the rocks and trees absorb the light. In the winter, especially with snowpack, the light is reflected back."

The shots need a long exposure, from 3 to 10 seconds, so he's happy if he can get 20 shots or so on his treks. (See Salge's tips for shooting alpenglow below.) The shot shown here was taken at Conway Lake with the White Mountains in the background. Wildcat Mountain is another of his favorite spots.

Salge's passion for alpenglow came from his early experiences on Mount Washington. His first job out of college was as an intern at the Mount Washington Observatory; he continued working there as an observer for five years. He says it gave him a special perspective: "I would watch as the rest of New Hampshire would go into shadow and witness the most spectacular sunsets."

These days the Epping resident is a full-time physics teacher but he and his camera travel to distant places whenever he has the opportunity. "This summer I left in the middle of the night to get a shot at the Portland Head lighthouse at sunrise and got home before my wife knew I was gone."

Salge says the magic hour "not only creates an intensely powerful picture that gives those who see it feeling of serenity, it also brings me peace and joy."

How to Capture Alpenglow

  • Follow the forecast: Alpenglow occurs on the mountains anytime you have a clear horizon, but it's intensified by the humidity and clouds of an incoming storm.
  • Get there early, stay there late: The light responsible for the alpenglow hits the mountains before the sun rises or after the sun sets in the valleys below. Plan on taking your best shots a few minutes before the scheduled sunrise time.
  • Put the sun to your back: Alpenglow occurs as light from the sun hits the high mountains. If you position yourself with your subject between you and the sun, you won't see any alpenglow. The east faces of mountains exhibit the best alpenglow when the sun rises in the east.
  • Use a tripod: Though the light from the alpenglow seems bright on the mountains, the landscape is overall very dark. To capture this light display, the camera needs to keep the shutter open for a long time.
  • Expose for the glow: The camera has a number of different settings that it uses to try decide what exposure to use. If you let the camera decide how to capture the scene, it will often overexpose the light on the mountain.
  • Use filters: If you don't capture alpenglow correctly in the camera, it's very difficult to "fix" the scene in Photoshop. For the best results, use both a polarizing filter and a graduated neutral density filter in front of the lens to control the light coming into the camera and to properly balance the scene.
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