Single Shot Sunrise with an X-T1

· 21.December.2019

Pushing the dynamic range of his beloved X-T1 to its limit Steve Thomas shoots a single-shot high-rise sunrise and cloud inversion over Thailand.

As sure as eggs is eggs there will be a whole bunch of shaking heads out there at the mere thought of shooting a highly contrasting sunrise in a single exposure, especially given that we’re all told that bracketing and then combining the files into an HDR image is the only way to go in such situations – or is it?

There’s a remote mountain outpost in the far north of Thailand called Phu Chi Fah, which is a 1,400-meter high cliff-top summit that towers above the Mekong River and the Laos border. It’s an imposing place at any time of the year and in any light, although from December through till late February (the cold season) things become even more impressive as there’s often a cloud inversion carpeting the mountainous landscape bellow, and the sun rises straight out from this fluffiness.

Over the years I’ve shot this many times, and always had other concepts in mind; like hiking and biking selfies, silhouettes and more. Unfortunately the practicalities involved are always very restricting, and getting things just right on a picture perfect day never seemed to happen.

And then on one very special morning things unexpectedly came together. It’s a trip that requires a sleepover in the village bellow, and a very early dark morning trek along often-slippery trail.

I know the route well, and the potential shooting spots. These can be tough to find in the dark, especially when the grass is overgrown – and you really do need to be carful here as it’s a near sheer drop down to the valley bellow. On a previous visit I did also have the wind blow my tripod over as I set up a selfie; luckily it just about snared on the long grass and I managed to haul it back up the ledge to safety.

Throughout this chilled clear season there are often hordes of tourists also making the same sunrise trek. Should they spot a guy with a tripod they tend to flock like gulls to a dead fish, often ending up right in front of your prized tripod spot, thus ruining your image with their flashing iPhones.

There are just a couple of spots where setting up an uninterrupted silhouette shot is feasible, and both are extremely precarious to set up studio on. Luckily the majority of people roll up at sunrise, giving a better chance of capturing good images in that surreal 20-minutes before things become blown out by the sun.

Setting off very early and tramping through the holes and long grass is essential, as there are two very small rocky outcrops which are impossible to see in the dark; one for the tripod and the other for the subject. I set up the tripod and line the shot up first, and then take it down, turn off all of my lights and squat behind the rocks until the weaving snake like line of phone torches passes by.

In the past I’d made the mistake of leaving on a head torch, and this snaking line of lights headed straight for my secret spot, dashing my plans as there is no time to find another spot.

On this particular morning the light was perfect; deep blue turning to magenta and then to a golden brown in the space of just a few minutes, all sweetly happening above a cloud inversion over the peaks below.

There would be just a few minutes to get what I wanted; a pre sunrise shot over to the cliff top and another side on to the sun followed by the silhouette with the clouds bellow. This leaves just a short window of opportunity ajar, which necessitates balancing a tripod on a very sketchy rock of around a meter round and then clinging on to the back of the same rock with acutely tight framing.

There was no time to fumble around with ND grads between compositions (and they only be effective on the shot without the cliff/silhouette). As the sun started to rise I had to tightly reposition the tripod and wedged my feet in a crack between the rocks to change lenses and block out the sun and the crowd gathering beneath the cliff.

The images turned out pretty well given the scenario. I got the silhouettes I wanted, and also the cloud inversions. Needless to say I couldn’t recover much shadow detail, which was not the aim in the first place, and yes an ND grad and bracketing would probably have given better results for the side on inversion shot, although all things considered the image haul was decent.

Not so long after this I made the same trek again, trying to get a similar shot with my bike – I managed it; although that time (and on a few more occasions) I never managed get that same magical light again. The light for those bike images was nowhere near as sweet as the others, yet it has made several double page spreads in major magazines, showing that single shot images can work after all.

My self-assessment? Well, I’d stick to the single shots for the silhouettes, and if I were to restrict myself the landscape only I’d probably bracket, although personally I do prefer the darker foreground over detail; it seems to add a more realistic edge to things.