Sunset Koan

On Christmas Day I calculated that from the summit of Wildcat Peak the sun would set directly behind the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. This seemed like a great excuse for hiking off some excess holiday indulgence, so in the afternoon I grabbed Julian (my oldest son) and we made for the Inspiration Point trailhead my cameras and tripod in tow.

We had a jolly time on the trail, and there were lots of happy people out and about, mostly with dogs and extended families. But up on Wildcat Peak it seemed that the band of coastal clouds would prevail. The Golden Gate could not be seen.

Stubbornly, we waited for sunset on the off-chance that there would be a brief respite in the weather—preferably just when the sun was setting behind the bridge. One of Julian’s endearing traits, and one that serves him well, is that he is almost never willing to give up on anything, even against all odds.

But the shot I’d prepared for didn’t seem likely. The sun was still above the cloud bank, but it was going down without the bridge being visible.

So I started fooling around with my 70-300mm zoom lens.

Sun Koan by Harold Davis
Sun Koan © Harold Davis

If you’ve ever pointed a lens with telephoto focal lengths at the setting sun and rotated the manual focus ring, you’ll have observed that the closer you focus the more out-of-focus the sun gets—and (this is the interesting part) also the larger the sun gets. This optical phenomenon is particularly true when you are shooting wide open at the maximum aperture of the lens.

I was having fun making the sun into a big orange ball that filled the entire frame by focusing my 300mm to about ten feet when all of a sudden the thought struck me, why not put something in the foreground?

There was no time to be lost. The big round ball at the horizon was setting into the fog bank. I hurried to try to find something interesting and close, and focused on a patch of bare weeds. Then, before I knew it, the sun was gone and the world turned gray and colorless. 

The actual exposure settings for this image were, using my lens set to its maximum 300mm focal length, 1/8000 of a second at f/6.3 and ISO 200, hand held.

Back home, when I showed Julian the finished image, he was perplexed: “You made that photo from that litttle, random weed?!!?” he asked. 

In life, often we go out looking for the dramatic sunset behind the Golden Gate Bridges in our lives. But it may be the little random weeds that really matter.

Somehow, in these days of renewal when the sun starts to come back from its long journey towards apparent oblivion, I find myself looking to photograph the sun, perhaps to assure myself that it is real.

Wave by Harold Davis
Wave © Harold Davis

It always helps to put something in the foreground like the waves shown crashing in their interference patterns at North Beach on Point Reyes, California.

Foregrounds, random weeds, and the return of the sun: the makings of a meditation.

Wave 2 by Harold Davis
Wave 2 © Harold Davis

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