Denali: Capturing Great Morning Light

Denali at Sunrise

Denali at Sunrise, Denali National Park, Alaska

Mastery of light is a key to great photography of any kind. Anticipating great light in order to be in the right place at the right time is one of the keys to great landscape photography. I was searching for great light on Denali (or Mt. McKinley as it is called in the lower 48).

One key to shooting outdoors is to know what kind of subjects looks best in the kind of light you have, and to anticipate where you need to be and when for the kind of light you want for a special subject.

Light has color temperature (warm, cool, or neutral), direction (front light, side light, backlight, top light, or directionless), quality (hard to soft), and intensity (bright to dim). These come together in all kinds of combinations. Knowing how to choose the right subject for the existing lighting conditions will dramatically improve your photography. The kind of light that is perfect for one kind of subject can make another subject look dreadful.

Landscape photographers love the “Golden Hours” before and after sunrise and sunset due to the potential for warm light. If you are also facing north or south, you get the added benefit of sidelight (as you face your subject, the light source is to your left or right) which casts long shadows revealing the shapes and textures of the landscape.

I wanted to capture Denali in several kinds of light, one of them being warm sidelight with dramatic shadows. For this kind of light I needed to be north or south of the mountain at sunrise or sunset. The park road ends on the north side of Denali. I preferred sunrise due to the angles of the ridges, especially “Pioneer Ridge” which zigzags its way down the northeast side of Denali.

Just the right amount of clouds (or particles in the air) at sunrise and sunset will intensify the warmth of the light. Too many clouds and you get no warmth at all. Too few clouds (or not enough particles in the air) and the light isn’t warm enough. This means keeping an eye on the weather forecast.  It can also mean getting up at 3 or 4 am to check the clouds so you have time to get to your location if everything looks just right. Don’t be surprised if things look just right when you head out and everything changes by the time you get to your location (or vice versa). Mother Nature can be capricious.

If you go to Denali National Park, be forewarned that the summit of Denali is wrapped in clouds an average of 4 days out of 5.  It is so high that it creates its own weather. Denali can be hidden for weeks at a time, or visible every day for a week or two.  80% of the “one day visitors” don’t get to see the mountain. It’s best to stay in the area for several days to increase your odds. We were very fortunate. We were there for 5 days and saw Denali some time during the day for 4 out of the 5 days.

Early one morning, Bob, my brother-in-law and photo buddy  (along with several other photographers), were near the end of the park road and looking south at Denali. We were at Reflection Pond.  (I took photos with and without including the pond.) The other preferred location near the end of the park road is Wonder Lake. Wonder Lake is larger and grander. Well named Reflection Pond has more likelihood of a less ripply reflection of Denali. If the air is calm, head for Reflection Pond. If not, go to Wonder Lake.

The amount of clouds was just right.  In a matter of minutes the incredibly warm light turned the white snow to shades of yellow, gold, and orange, and the sidelight created great looking shadows, enhancing the ridges and textures. Camera shutters went off like crazy.

My cameras did not have spot meters so getting the right exposure could have been tricky. If the camera metered any of the shaded area of Denali, it would throw off the exposure and wash out the sunlit areas.

When I can’t zoom in and meter a small area of the frame with the lens I am using to take the picture, here’s a little trick I often use. I use one camera meter with a long lens as a light meter for the other camera. Both cameras have to be set to the same ISO.

I took the camera and lens that I used to take the above image and put them on a tripod. I put my 100-400mm zoom lens on my other camera and used it to zoom in on and manually meter one sunlit area of the mountain (without any of the shaded area in the frame). I added 1/2 to 1 stop of light (exposure compensation) to what the meter reading said to keep the sunlit areas of the mountain light in tone. Then I took the exposure readings and used them on the tripod mounted camera. The light was constantly changing so I would meter with the camera with the long lens, and set the other camera accordingly.

If you only have one camera body, you can meter with a long lens and then switch to the shorter lens to take the picture. It’s less convenient but certainly workable.  Or you may have a zoom lens with enough zoom range that you won’t need to switch lenses between metering and shooting.

If you are going all the way to Alaska, a second camera is a must. Cameras can and do quit and that would be a tragedy on a trip of a lifetime. Compared to all the other costs of your trip, a second camera doesn’t seem so expensive. Your second camera can be a less expensive model that is compatible with your lenses. Or you can rent a backup camera for the length of your trip.

On a one day trip, the park service buses arrive too late at the end of the road to capture Denali in the early morning light. To capture Denali at sunrise you will need to take a park bus the day before and camp overnight at a park service campground. Or stay at one of the lodges/cabins at the end of the road (most of them have their own buses). I highly recommend the three or four night stay at Camp Denali, the only lodging at the end of the road where you can see Denali from your cabin. All the other commercial places to stay are at a lower elevation and you can’t see Denali without hiking to another location. Due to the location, lodging anywhere at the end of the park road is very expensive.


You can order a print of the above photo in the Alaska gallery at

More information on learning to read the light, matching your subjects to the light, metering, exposure compensation, and landscape photography are in my highly rated book, Digital Photography Exposure for Dummies (5 stars at  Apogee Photo Magazine and Digital SLR Photography magazine (the UK’s biggest photography magazine) both gave my book their highest rating. You can learn more here and buy it here at Amazon’s discount price.

Light, Science and Magic is a superb book devoted entirely to the science of photographic lighting. You can learn more (and buy it)  here.

John Shaw’s Nature Photography Field Guide is one of two books that are a “must read” for anyone wanting to do nature and landscape photography. The other book is Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light. More of my favorite landscape and nature photography books are here. In my library I have two floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with photography books (and more photo books in other places). The books I select for my photography store are the best of the bunch.

Camp Denali – My two page review of Camp Denali.

Kantishna Air Taxi – For a spectacular flight around Denali (weather permitting). Tell Greg I sent you.

Denali National Park – The NPS site.