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The Beauty of Alpenglow

As landscape photographers we certainly relish in the time of day known as the magic hour. This is a time in which the transitions from twilight into sunrise or sunset provide us such beautiful drama to our scenes. During this daily ritual, the characteristics of light change drastically between two distinct phases. This dramatic transformation is why photographers think of it as the magic hour.

One phase occurs as the sun physically rises and sets. These daily events are definitely the most visually exciting; combining superbly warm light color and a dynamic contrast. Everyone loves the color and exhilaration of a good sunrise or sunset, even non-photographers. The second phase occurs during civil twilight (before sunrise and after sunset), where the qualities of light are “quiet” with extremely cool color of light and very soft contrast. One particular event that can happen during civil twilight in which photographers should also be aware of is called “alpenglow.” According to the Webster Dictionary, the word “alpenglow” is derived from two words; alps (high mountains) and glow. The word was first used to loosely describe the reddish glow on the summits of mountains around sunrise or sunset, although technically speaking it occurs before the sun actually rises and after the sun has set. It also could happen anywhere, not just in the mountains.

Simply put, it’s the reflection and refraction of the long wavelengths of light (warm) penetrating the atmosphere. Clouds can also have a profound influence on this phenomenon. For photographers and lovers of light, it’s an eye-popping splash of warm color during the coolness and quiet moments of twilight. Look for it just before the sun rises and after the sun has set.


  • Doug Johnson is a Colorado native now living in Missoula, Montana. Before a life-changing pursuit of photographic art, he was an outdoor educator for more than 20 years, passionately teaching people backcountry skills in navigation, mountaineering, avalanche awareness and wilderness first aid. Since graduating from RMSP's Summer Intensive program in 1996, Doug's work has covered many diverse projects in the documentary, commercial, fine art and educational fields. Assignments have taken him from coyote shooting in Wyoming to the last stages of a woman’s life to the graffiti-covered alleys and abandoned buildings of Denver. He is currently involved in an ongoing project called Art Music, which fuses the art of photography with live musical performance. His educational philosophy is fun, intuitive and full of creative persistence. No matter where you are in your photographic journey, Doug's balance of the aesthetic with the technical can help you further express your unique vision.

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