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I just got back from a trip in the Rockies. The tall and close mountains mean that the sun sets earlier than flatter places at the same latitude -- perhaps by an hour or so. The same applies to sunrises, depending of course on the precise location relative to the mountains.

Although I haven't paid a lot of attention to it, it seems to me that the sunset light in the mountains looks different than that on the plains. I'd say it's more blue (vs. red/yellow), perhaps brighter, and perhaps more direct.

I'm thinking that this might have something to do with the angle of the sun at sunset (much higher in the mountains) and how it relates to the atmosphere (thinner at that angle).

Does this really exist (or am I making this up)? If so, how does it affect landscape photography, especially as it relates to the "Golden Hour". Do locations surrounded by mountains even get a proper Golden Hour?

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Thanks for asking the question! If you're right, it certainly helps explain why (other than my own failings as a photographer or lack of formal training) I've never understood the whole Golden Hour thing. –  drewbenn Mar 14 '11 at 6:31
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Related: Alpenglow, when the mountains are still illuminated after the sun has set below the horizon. –  coneslayer Mar 24 '13 at 15:20
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5 Answers

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You're right.

The atmosphere has a prismatic effect, spreading white light out into its constituent colors. As the sun moves down to the horizon, you the viewer move into the orange-red band of light. The lower the sun can get, the more red the light will be.

The atmosphere is also a diffuser. The more of it there is between you and the light source, the more diffuse (less direct) the light will be. The higher you are, the less atmosphere there is between you and the sun.

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-1: "prismatic effect" is complete nonsense. The atmosphere just diffuses blue light more than red light, and at sunset/sunrise the light travels through more atmosphere (due to the shallow angle) so that most of the blue is commpletely diffused. –  Michael Borgwardt Feb 28 at 13:31
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Mountains definitely affect the timing of sunrise and sunset. As you mention the sun will drop below a mountain earlier (and rise a little later) than it would on a plain. Still the light can be very beautiful. I am not sure if the length of the good light is affected by mountains, but it is certainly worthwhile to arrive at your location about an hour before sunrise/sunset to make sure to capture the great light.

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There's a tool called The Photographer's Ephemeris which allows you to calculate sunrise / sunset times taking into account terrain, although you have to be reasonably precise about where and when you want to take the shot. –  Maynard Case Mar 14 '11 at 17:26
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I live in Colorado, and spend a lot of time around the Rockies. While the mountains do indeed have an effect on the time and length of sunrise and sunset, I wouldn't go so far as to say they eliminate Golden Hour. The old adage that states golden hour hits its peak a few minutes after sunset holds truest in the mountains, although it may be more like 15 minutes after sunset rather than just a few minutes. Those brilliant, saturated yellow, orange, and red wavelengths will still illuminate the sky, and bring out all that brilliant detail in clouds, you just need to wait for it a little longer.

To demonstrate, this was taken of the Rockies Front Range in February this year:

enter image description here

The only modifications were a slight drop in the black level, to eliminate faint foreground detail that I didn't want. The rest, the color and saturation, is strait out of the camera.

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A low ceiling of cloud that the sun peaks under (like this shot) can do amazing things. The cloud functions as a giant reflector spreading unique pink-orange hues. –  Tristan Mar 15 '11 at 2:42
    
Awesome shot... though I was thinking about mountains much closer & higher. –  Craig Walker Mar 15 '11 at 3:16
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@Craig: At a distance, or in the mountains themselves, what I stated still holds true. If you were smack in the middle of the mountains, those clouds wouldn't have looked any different, they would have still been a brilliant orange. You might have lost a little bit of the yellowing of the sky, as your line of sight would be much narrower. This shot was taken about 15-20 minutes after sunset...closer to sunset, the sky was MUCH yellower, and the clouds were less saturated. Trade-offs, regardless of where you are. –  jrista Mar 15 '11 at 3:19
    
Good point. Thanks. –  Craig Walker Mar 15 '11 at 3:24
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You have two effects in mountains:

  1. When the sun is behind the mountain, your sceen is lit only by blue sky, and by reflection of sunlight from peaks. Late in the day there is very little light reflected from peaks, even though the sun may be 1-2 hours from sunset. Your lighting is bright blue sky. This light has less red in it than a similar period of time when the sun is below the true horizon in flat country.

This light comes from all the sky -- so it is difuse. There will be no sharp edged shadows very flat lighting. It will also be very blue.

  1. If you are even moderately high up in the mountains, the temperature color of the sky is very blue. sometimes as much as 12000K. This can create odd effects on winter snow scenes where snow in the sunlight has a yellow cast, while sun in the shadows has a blue cast.

If you are seeking 'golden hour' lighting, look for an application that will give you not only the time of sunset, but the azimuth too. With this, you can find a valley that lines up reasonably close to the sunset angle, which will allow the sun to get lower and redder while still providing direct illumination.

Another trick is to go into the mountains when there is fine dust or smoke in the air. Forest fires are ideal for this. These times can give you oddity -- golden noons. Of course you still have the issues of small shadows at noon time. Forest fires hundreds of miles away can have this effect.

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If anyone is interested, my colleague and I have developed a free tool for computing the actual sunrise and sunset times for any location worldwide, accounting for terrain. The image in the example is for Chamonix in France. I'm a photographer myself, and that was one of the reasons why we made this. Very useful when going on a shoot. Just go to suncurves.com to find your own location.

Here you see the terrain and the sun curve at Chamonix, using high-resolution terrain data for the computations.

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This is great. Thanks! –  Rmano Feb 28 at 16:45
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