Mount Shuksan Blue Hour

Mount Shuksan: Blue Hour is Better, Sometimes

I’m used to paying for photographs. Sometimes in the form of itchy mosquito bites. Once I paid with a badly twisted ankle. More often I pay in numb fingers and toes in the cold.

Last week, staying up late to take photographs of Mount Shuksan under the stars, I expected the lost sleep, but I did not expect to pay by losing my place to sleep and my sleeping gear!

It all started when I noticed that sometimes even the most serious photographers miss great light.

Picture Lake and Mount Shuksan

When I came to the edge of Mt. Baker National Forest’s Picture Lake, it was 5:30pm and five photographers occupied an entire section of the boardwalk, the part with the least obstructed view of Mount Shuksan. They fully extended their tripods so that the camera conveniently came to eye-level, they snapped away and chatted loudly with each other.

Mount Shuksan at Golden Hour: 1/60 sec., f/13, ISO 400 at 14mm

One older man was gabbing about his “glory days” photographs while his camera blared away 3 shots every 5 seconds (I’m not joking, he was attempting an HDR timelapse). It gave me a headache. The sun wasn’t even close to setting yet, so I left.

I came back about an hour later and most were still there, waiting for the big moment when the setting sun would alight Shuksan with golden rays. Unfortunately, neither the clouds nor the sun cooperated, and the light on the mountain was far less spectacular than anyone expected. After sunset the air quickly became cold and dark, so they left.

Why Blue Hour is Better

But I stuck around. After eight o’clock, blue hour begun. Compared to golden hour, blue hour is less appreciated, the overlooked twilight cousin of golden hour. But sometimes blue hour—the time before or after the sun creates those nice warm hues—is far more interesting.

Blue hour shooting conditions are more challenging. Achieving proper focus can be a struggle in the low light, shutter speeds must be longer (so don’t expect to catch any action and make sure you have a tripod), and those dramatic tones and contrast of golden hour fade with the sunlight.

Fewer photographers get up early or stay up late to shoot during blue hour, thinking that once the golden light of sunset has subsided the best light is gone. But blue hour’s light is more diffuse, showcasing a distinctive atmosphere that is often out of the ordinary for nature photography, making me often prefer these images to their overdone golden hour counterparts.

Mount Shuksan at Blue Hour: 30 sec., f/9, ISO 200 at 38mm

Mount Shuksan after Dark

In the darkness, I sat alone listening to the robins and thrushes calling. A blurry bat swooped across the foggy surface of the lake. “Who. . . who whooo”—an owl called in the distance. I knew that my decision to stick around was worth it.

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Perhaps the best part about blue hour, as with all unappreciated things in life: you get them all to yourself. The peace, quiet, and darkness. Solitary and serene.

When Trouble Begins

Before my evening session, I set up my hammock, bug net, and pillow at my campsite. Then after 11pm, imagining my milky way dreams from my warm sleeping bag, I drove down the mountain thinking I’d be sound asleep in no time.

8 sec., f/3.2, ISO 8000 at 11mm. Made from 12 light frames by Starry Landscape Stacker.

But when I arrived at the campground late that night, something was off. First I accidently drove past my reserved site, where my hammock waited for me. . . but I couldn’t find it. Then it dawned on me. Someone else took my campsite.

How could someone else steal a campsite, the one I paid for and left my sleeping gear at? In a fury at 11:30pm I knew I shouldn’t try to wake up the offenders because it could turn into a shouting match. I figured they’d somehow made an honest mistake. I’ve long held that it’s seldom a good idea to try to solve problems while angry, especially late at night. Instead, I pulled my car onto the side of the road and tried to sleep. The best plan was to wait until morning and retrieve my things.

Mouse Trapped

But I couldn’t fall asleep. Still sore from backpacking, I wished that laying in the reclined front seat worked as well as sleeping on the airplane (which is saying something). To make matters worse, sometime after 1am, I started hearing tiny scurrying feet and high-pitched squeaks all around me. I jumped out of my car with a flashlight and looked everywhere, inside and out, but found no signs of mice. Was I imagining things?

Either way, I couldn’t stand losing sleep along the road any longer. At 2am, I drove the 3.5 hours home. Someone could take a minute and grab my stuff for me and let me pick it up later, right?

When the forest ranger told me her opinion over the phone later that morning “I would’ve gone in there and taken it back” all I could tepidly admit was “I know, I wish I could’ve.” She said they’d call me back when they found my stuff.

However, after a week I hadn’t heard an update. Still embarrassed, I called back—they didn’t have an update. All my gear must’ve been stolen.

My sleep, sleeping bag, bug net, and pillow—the most unexpected things I’ve had to sacrifice for a good photograph, so far.

(If you like my work and want to enrich your life or surprise a loved one, you can help me pay for a replacement outdoor sleeping arrangement by ordering prints and cards here.)

Would I do it again? Absolutely. But next time maybe I’ll swallow my non-confrontational thoughts and take back my gear.

Have you had to “pay” for a photograph or have another weird or embarrassing misadventure in the field? Do you prefer golden hour or blue hour? Let me know!