Ansel Adams famously quipped “a good photograph is knowing where to stand.” And he’s not wrong. Your perspective can shift everything about the scene in front of you. It can make small things look big, or it can make big things look small. Where you stand can create collisions and visual confusion in your frame, or it can create space and visual flow.
I have photographed Mt. Whitney from every angle: north, south, east, and west. And in my opinion there is one spot in particular from which this magnificent peak looks best. It’s a spot not far from Movie Road in the Alabama Hills. From there, Whitney is not blocked by any boulders or other peaks. You can see almost the entirety of its massive east face, along with Keeler Needle and Crooks Peak. In fact, the whole Whitney ridgeline is visible, all the way over to Mt. Muir. From this vantage point, Whitney rises above a series of diagonal ridges which form a perfect natural cradle for the mountain. In short, it’s the best view of Mt. Whitney there is.
I had been wanting to capture a powerful sunset photo from this spot for many years, but the image constantly eluded me. For a sunset shot of Mt. Whitney to work, conditions have to be just right. And in particular the light has to be exceptional. The difficulty is that at sunset all the light is coming from behind the mountain, creating an extreme contrast of highlight and shadow. And because there’s no light falling on the mountain itself, it typically looks dull and boring. Case in point: I shot this same composition the night before. But although the sunset turned a delightful crimson, Mt. Whitney was totally backlit, rendering it so washed out and two-dimensional it looked like a cardboard cutout.
Now, depending on your point of view, I’m either a glutton for punishment, or an optimist. So when storm clouds began building on this particular afternoon, I once again drove to this special spot in hopes of a sunset photo.
Upon arriving it was immediately obvious that the light was special. A layer of low clouds perched above the summit of Mt. Whitney. And though they were full of interesting shapes and textures, they were thin enough to let warm light trickle through from behind. Farther east, an enormous cumulus cloud was hovering over the valley. It was floating by itself high in the sky, catching a lion’s share of the intense afternoon sun. The light reflected off this cloud and filled the granite amphitheaters below, bathing them in a diffuse, gorgeous glow. With the light coming from two directions at once, the scene took on immense dimensionality. As I pressed the shutter and captured this frame, I was blown away by the new perspective this light was giving me. Even now when I look at this photo, I feel like I can reach out and feel the depth and texture of the mountains.
In the end I realized that what makes this image work is the convergence between standing in the right spot, and seeking extraordinary light.