July 14, 2009 – Valnontey River and Gran Paradiso

Valnontey River and Gran Paradiso Peak

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

This is the 2nd picture I’ve posted from the hike that Julie and I took in the National Park in northwestern Italy, Parco Nazionale Gran Paradiso. (The first one was the first ever Picture of the Day, as it turns out.) Neither this one nor the other one are among my favorite pictures from that hike, but this one in particular does a good job of illustrating something that can be really frustrating in landscape photography: the angle of the sunlight.

First of all, I suppose I should mention that you’re looking at the Valnontey River, and the Gran Paradiso massif. Gran Paradiso is a huge mountain/series of mountains that forms part of the border between Italy and France (Actually, I just checked – that’s a total lie, it’s not even close to the border. Whatever). It’s similar to Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco in a lot of ways, it’s just not as tall. (And doesn’t have a couple of ski resorts on it, and doesn’t have a tunnel bored through the middle for automobile traffic.) It’s inside a large national park in Italy that Julie and I visited a few years back when we were in Italy for Trevor and Heather’s wedding. We stayed in a very small village called Valnontey inside the park for a two nights/one day. We used that day to go hiking up the Valnontey Valley (named after the river, as was the village) toward Gran Paradiso itself. The trail follows that river up the valley for awhile, then doglegs left straight up the valley wall. It then circles around the basin high up above tree line. Beautiful trail, lots of glaciers and such right there in front of you. I *LOVED* it.

So, back to the point. I’ve already “spoken” about the difficulty of taking pictures right around midday, when the light is the harshest, and why that causes difficulty in taking what I feel are great pictures. But the angle of the sunlight is also a huge factor, one that can be extremely difficult to overcome. For most “regular” pictures (where you’re not using the sun for certain dramatic effects like providing backlighting or as part of the context), it’s nice to have the sun either be behind you or at least to one side or the other. This way, as expected, it’s illuminating the subject matter. The character of that illumination (color of the light, presence/absense of shadows, harshness) varies based on the time of day (and is usually more amenable to pictures later in the afternoon or very early in the morning), but the fact is, it’s there.

However, when the sun is *behind* the subject (and is essentially shining toward you), it causes difficulties. The most obvious one is that, in the case of a mountain, the side you’re looking at is then dark, but that’s not the issue here. Here, you can see that haze becomes a much bigger issue. I mean, you can still see the mountain, but the detail just isn’t super-crisp. All of the haze basically washes out all of the contrast. I mean, it’s of course still possible to take a fantastic picture even without the contrast, but speaking personally, I think that a big part of the reason mountains make good subject matter is because of all the rugged details that give them their character. They’re all unrelenting and rocky and stuff, know what I mean? So, the only time the the big, super rocky, glacier-carved mountain was illuminated such that you could make out all the detail was super early in the morning. When you’re hiking of course, it looks just as awesome and amazing as you can imagine, but that detail just doesn’t turn out so well in the camera. Thus, it’s frustrating.

As I hinted earlier though, that particular angle of the sun can definitely be used for good, it’s not always evil. For instance, a nice warm afternoon glow coming from behind can illuminate things like trees or flowers quite nicely. Or, a dark ridgeline silhouetted against a bright sky can be quite powerful. (That’s another problem – when the sun is behind the subject, the color of the sky gets totally washed out, so it becomes a mushy light blue or white, as opposed to the nice hard blue that you can otherwise achieve.) But, that’s not the effect I was going for here.

I don’t feel like I really expressed the ideas in my head about this subject that well, which is unfortunate. In my mind, I had all of these super eloquent and interesting points I wanted to make, and I just don’t feel like they got transferred to this picture of the day post. Oh well. Maybe next time.

Map: http://bit.ly/YeBly (Somewhere in the valley anyway…)

Notes: Canon EOS Rebel XT, Tamron 28-300 mm lens. 1/500s, f/4.5, ISO 100. Focal length: 32mm.

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