Have you noticed that the days are getting longer ?

Sun at Winter solstice, oaks and shadows Bahia Hills; Rush Creek Open Space Preserve, California

Probably not, but a few days ago, on the shortest day of year exactly at the solstice, I took advantage of the sun being at its absolute lowest zenith to make a series of photographs of shadows against a north facing hill.

Winter solstice, oaks and shadows Bahia Hills; Rush Creek Open Space Preserve, California

I hike this area regularly and have been noticing the shadows getting longer;  this year made especially dramatic because the early rains have made the grasses sprout and the hills turn chartreuse green.

At the solstice, here in the Rush Creek Open Space Preserve in Northern California, the sun’s zenith is only about 29° elevation, barely clearing the steep hill, which creates the longest shadows of the year.

To take advantage of this, I found a spot across from the hill so that I could look back into the slashing shadows, which combined with the back light of the low sun, made grasses glow.

Winter solstice, oaks and shadows Bahia Hills; Rush Creek Open Space Preserve, California

Then, using a telephoto lens and carefully composing the composition on the tripod, I had my dog Kona, pose on the little deer path running under the trees to make the photo especially personable and unique .

Winter solstice, Blue Oaks and shadows with dog; 121°: 38° 7′ 32.75″ N and 122° 31′ 55.189″ W

To emphasize uniqueness of this photo, and the ability for the camera to capture a fleeting moment in time, I used the GPS feature of my phone to note the exact latitude and longitude while looking Southeast at 121°: 38° 7′ 32.75″ N and 122° 31′ 55.189″ W.

If you were to take those GPS coordinates you could find this exact spot –  but it would never look like this again. This year we had such early rains in October and enough warm weather the hills may never be so green at the solstice.  And even if we do have similar conditions, this Blue Oak woodland (Quercus douglasii) will have changed and the shadows will never be the same.

To study these shadows even further, I wanted to see what they look from where Kona was posing, but looking due south directly into the sun.

Winter solstice, oaks and shadows Bahia Hills; Rush Creek Open Space Preserve, California

At this new angle looking up the hill about high noon, the sun is barely clearing the top of the hill, the back light effect is at it’s most dramatic, and the shadows are as long as they will ever be.

I have learned to appreciate bright sun in my photography.  Photo editors have urged me to capture the sun in my garden photography because viewers expect to see a sunny California. It is very difficult to do this in the garden where the shadows create problems, but out here in the native landscape, shadows can be quite dramatic, especially in the winter.

I have also learned to take advantage of digital photography in recent years. Digital files have a much higher dynamic range than film ever had, so it is possible to capture the detail in the highlights and shadows of the same photograph with a bit of manipulation in the post production process.

Before and After Slider


This dramatic effect, looking almost due south and into the sun while still able to capture highlight detail would have never been possible with traditional film, and it further illustrates the power of backlight.

Because I am looking south toward the sun, low in the sky due to the solstice, the light shines through the grass making it glow a bright green. Standing in the exact spot but looking north, away from the sun, the light is quite flat.

Looking at this direction, with the sun over the shoulder, is the way Kodak originally advised photographers to take pictures of landscapes, knowing that film could not handle the extremes of backlight.  But isn’t the backlight a much more interesting photograph?

To illustrate how the light changes depending on the camera angle to the sun, I created this 180° panorama from the above photographs. (The panorama was stitched together from four different photographs, with two other frames between the extreme north and south views above.)

Notice how the light changes, left to right, looking south to north, from back light to flat light.

It has often been said that light is everything in photography. There is nothing like shooting at the winter solstice to really see that power.

You may have noticed I use my dog Kona, in many of these photographs. You can follow us on our almost daily hikes on Instagram, Walks with Kona dog.