Best of the Tetons

Alpenglow at Snake River Overlook

Snake River Overlook Winter Stars and Sunrise :

A Sequence of Photos on a Cold February Morning

SRO Stars

Today, on my 64th birthday, I jumped up at 3:30 am. I looked out my windows to see stars and clear skies. A Winter storm and cloudy skies are on the horizon. The executive decision had to be made. I headed North to Snake River Overlook. I began shooting at 4:50 am under clear skies and abundant stars. Temperatures ranged from 0°F to -2°F, made a bit colder feeling by the light breeze.

For the night shots, I used my Nikon D5 with ISO settings ranging from 2500 to 6000 using a Nikon 24-70 lens. Midway through the “blue light” period, I switched over to a Nikon D850 body.

Snake River Overlook

During the darkest period (astronomical midnight), I typically adjust the White Balance to around 4000K which helps add a little blue to the otherwise gray sky. If shooting in RAW, it’s really not an issue, but I like to see the blue on the back of the camera while shooting. As the blue light period begins, I adjust the White Balance gradually up to around 5250K and usually switch to much lower ISO values.

Snake River Overlook

This is a desaturated version of the previous image. It’s probably closer to the reality of the scene. Occasionally, I make this kind of adjustment after I look at the images with “fresh eyes”…usually a day or two after I process them. It seems night photographers use a lot of “artistic license” and push the nigh time reality, especially when rendering the Milky Way. Personally, I’m okay with the saturated adjustments as long as it still looks like a night scene.

Snake River Overlook

This shot was taken at Snake River Overlook, looking North. The band of peach colored light at the horizon is from Bozeman, MT, 135 miles away!

The last time I tried to take photos at this time of the morning, clouds rolled over the range and effectively ruined my night shots. Normally, night photographers go out on “new moon” nights. Weather reports, when viewed the night before, can only be considered a “guide”. Fog can build up from below and clouds can completely cover the entire range, but I never know that until I make the commitment and get up early. It’s always dark when leaving town. I never know how the range is going to look until I get to about the entrance of Schwabacher Landing. Today it was good. Some days, I turn around and head on home or possibly to the Gros Ventre to wait for wildlife opportunities.

Crescent Moon

At 5:06 AM this morning, a crescent moon began to rise over the eastern ridge line. In reality. the crescent portion only covered 10-15% or so of the moon, but it still emits a fair amount of light. It turns into a ball of white in an early morning shot if the sky is still mostly dark.

Snake River Overlook

Crescent MoonLight from a crescent moon can actually be a good thing! The thin sliver of reflected light helped softly illuminate the mountains, yet let the stars shine through. A full moon, on the other hand, can wash out the stars and cast unnatural shadows.

I was fairly well bundled up this morning. I wore my heaviest wool socks, long underwear, warmest boots, long sleeve undershirt, long sleeve shirt, and two heavy jackets. When it looked like I’ll be actually taking photos, I opened a couple of “chemical hand warmers”, and I should have opened a couple of toe warmers. I was at the SRO parking lot at around 4:30 to 4:40 AM. The last shot I took there was at 7:30 AM. Three hours standing essentially still in that kind of cold is more than I can usually stand. I went back to the warm truck two or three times. I don’t like the idea of wasting gas while idling the truck, but I figure that’s a reasonable investment vs getting frostbite on my toes and fingers.

Rising Moon

I often ask SIRI, “What time is sunrise today?” or “What time is moon rise or moon set today?” It helps to know the times. Astronomical midnight ends at roughly two hours before sunrise (or begins two hours past sunset). Sunrise was at 7:26 AM today, so I could anticipate the faint beginnings of the blue light period at 5:26 AM. It usually takes 10 or 15 minutes to notice the change, however.

This link is included in the Navigation bar on Best of the Tetons either on the right side or at the bottom of each post on the site. Notice on the Sun & Moon page, the “blue light” period is divided into Astronomical Twilight, Nautical Twilight, and Civil Twilight of around 30 minutes each.

Blue Light Pano

This image was taken at 6:22 AM, or roughly an hour before sunrise, but still within the blue light or twilight period. I did almost no post production or processing in this one.

Light Touch

Same image, but with a little bit of post production.

Blue Light with a Touch of Pink

This is about where I would take the image. At this time of the morning, the snow capped mountains begin to glow—even more so with the rising crescent moon. Stars are still evident, but fading. This is actually one of my favorite times of the morning.

Alpenglow at Snake River Overlook

At 7:14, the sky began to show some pink and magenta with purple. This is a three shot pano taken with a Nikon D850.

Alpenglow: Morning’s Fleeting Phenomenon

This page can give you a little more information about Alpenglow. It is usually better here in December, January and February. In the summer months, most of the color is far to the south at sunrise.

First Light Alpenglow

This shot was taken at 7:22 AM. Changes at this time of the morning are subtle in real time, but are quite noticeable in the final captures. Official sunrise would be four minutes later, but the eastern mountains delays that by a few minutes. In this photo, the very top of the Grand was starting to pick up some morning glow.

Morning Light

This shot was taken at 7:30 AM. I got a few more shots, then the light dulled.

I usually capture “pano sets” while at Snake River Overlook. When at 24mm on my 24-70mm lens, it takes only two shots to capture most of the range and a few trees on either side. At 50mm, using a full frame camera, it can take three horizontal format images. At 70mm, it often takes four and even five shots. When I get a spectacular sunrise, I turn my camera to vertical orientation and take seven to ten captures—usually tilting up slightly to get more of the “once in a lifetime” sky.

Crop Options

Once stitched in Lightroom, I know I can create Virtual Copies and crop the scene either wide or into smaller chunks. There’s a lot of data, especially when captured on a 45.7 megapixel Nikon D850. (Click any of the last four images to view them much larger!) Note: The Featured Image at the top of the page is a 2×3 crop of the pano image set taken at 7:14 AM.

Panoramic Images: Tips for Getting More of the Tetons in a Shot

Amber Period

This morning, a cloud crossed in front of the sun and dulled the light while I was at Snake River Overlook. I folded up the frosted tripod and headed south with visions of foxes, moose, and wolves roaming around the sage flats near Kelly. As I was driving, the cloud moved out of the way—lighting up the Teton Range with amber light. I pulled over and snapped this quick (somewhat uninteresting) shot. Most of the pullouts along the Highway lack much in the way of a foreground subject , which at least for my tastes, makes Snake River Overlook more appealing. (see link below)

Anatomy of a Teton Landscape

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Comments (13)

  1. Susan Salinas

    Amazing shots!

  2. Jackie Ireland

    So Awesome!! Thanks for sharing,

  3. robert b kraszna

    Happy Birthday Mike,

    With these images you’ve inspired me to attempt night photography for the first time.
    Thank you,

  4. jeff c birmingham

    Great shots mike We’ve been trying to get this night time stuff down. Thanks for the help!!!

  5. I was just setting my alarm for a trip over the pass to the park tomorrow morning when I read your Best of the Tetons … and as is often the case, I got motivated by my buddy Mike Jackson. I reset my alarm to make sure I could get there before sunrise. The weather may make it another trip without any photography but it is worth the risk. Thanks for a needed motivation. Lazy Randy

  6. Chittaranjan Desai

    Super information along with sparkling images! Happy Birthday Mike!

  7. Beautiful shots. I could never even think about being in that cold for that long. So, I’m glad you did and have these awesome shots to share.

  8. Happy birthday young man!!

  9. Lowell Schechter

    Mike , outstanding images of night time photography. I really like your descriptions of all the images you took , including adjusting the white balance to enhance the color. Looking at these images you can feel the cold and crisp air. You certainly were quite ready to photograph this beautiful landscape. Those hand warmers are a life saver.

  10. Jan Lewis

    Hi Mike, Beautiful shots. I have an unrelated question… do you use any of the new Tamron tele-extenders that are compatible with the G2 lenses? If so what are your experiences. I’m considering the 1.4x

  11. Hi Jan, No…I didn’t buy a 1.4 TC for the Tamron lens. The lens is already a F/5.6-F/6.3, fairly slow. The 1.4 TC would cut the aperture by almost 1.5 stops. I’ve never had much success with a TC on a zoom lens, though they can work fairly well on a prime lens. A 1.4 TC turns the lens to a 200mm to 875mm (rough numbers) and if you are shooting with a 1.5 crop factor lens, the range is 350mm to 1300mm (equivalent). That’s a lot! But it means you add a ton of chances for camera shake and heat waves on long distant shots. Adding a TC to an F/2.8 70-200mm lens might make sense if someone wanted to extend that lens.

  12. Jan Lewis

    Thanks Mike. I sort of came to that conclusion as well after watching a few videos. I have just ordered the new Tamron 100-400 to use as a more portable zoom when I can’t carry the 150-600. But it is also not “fast” so I figured it wasn’t worth the fairly high price of the newer TC that Tamron now has. Thank you for getting back to me!

  13. Tammy L Hoover

    Great images Mike. Thank you for sharing. And — Happy Birthday. What a place to celebrate !!!!

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