11 September 2022

Incredible Crepuscular Rays - Sunbeams Caught on Camera

Sunbeams are everywhere – yet when they are caught on camera they are often unwanted additions to a photograph. They cut swathes through the picture, chopping off heads and obscuring detail in a burst of light. However, when they are deliberately captured the results can be nothing short of magical.

Sunbeams have a rather more scientific name – and that is crepuscular rays. This is because of the time of day at which they are most likely to occur – those around dawn and dusk. In photography these times are often referred to as ‘The Golden Hour’.

Patrick’s Point State Park is located in the heart of the redwood country of California in the US. It is home to a huge variety of tree species and is famous for its hiking trails and sandy beaches. This amazing picture was taken there and captures perfectly the peace and majesty of that which we take so much for granted – a tree. The crepuscular rays are perfectly caught as they stream through the branches – and it is the object of the tree itself that makes this vision possible. Crepuscular rays are only visible because the columns of which they are made are separated by areas of darkness – in this case the tall and elegant tree in the picture.

Golden Gate Park (again in California) never looked so ethereal as in this picture, which unsurprisingly has been a finalist in photographic competitions. The rays make the place seem so peaceful – rather than eery and the contrast between the dark and light if superbly done. It almost seems part of a dreamscape rather than an actual photograph. Quite simply a stunning picture which should be used in tourist brochures for the wonderful city of San Francisco. A trick of the light means that crepuscular rays, which are near parallel, seem to diverge. This is because of something called linear perspective. With this objects seem smaller as their distance from you increases and so it is with sunbeams. It also occurs because of reflection and scattering.

The winter sunshine beams through the high windows of a mill in Baltimore, Maryland. Although one would normally associate crepuscular rays with natural surroundings, man made object such as this workspace, when the sun is at the right height can be endowed with an almost cinematic atmosphere. You can just imagine a movie star such as Mel Gibson or Clint Eastwood walking on to this ‘set’ to deliver another prize winning role. Here, the airborne dust in the workshop has scattered the sunlight and made the rays visible to the human eye. This is due to something called diffraction. Although diffraction happens with many objects, the single most colorful example is light. It is the same effect that you get when you look at the tracks on a DVD and you see a rainbow pattern.

This marvellous picture is entitled ‘God talking to some cow’ and it is easy to see why sunbeams have been associated with the divine throughout human history. In fact some of their alternative names refer directly to deity. They are often referred to by religious people as the stairway or gateway to heaven and it is not without the most atheistically inclined imagination to picture this. They are also called Jacob’s Ladder by many – which is a method of getting in and out of heaven described in the biblical Book of Genesis – imagined by Jacob when he flees from his brother Esau.

Stephens Gap Cave in Alabama gives the photographer an opportunity to capture some immense crepuscular rays. If you look carefully down at the bottom of the sunbeams you will see a solitary caver, dwarfed by the immensity of his surroundings.

The Rocky Mountain National Parks offers spectacular views at the best of times. Here is something quite astonishing that does not happen every five minutes. After a day’s hiking, the photographer Adam Baker noticed that a thunderstorm was coming and it was coming in quickly. He considered that he would get some interesting pictures out of this atmosphere and was taking pictures of the alpenglow on the mountains to the East. He turned around and saw this – some of the most amazing beams you will ever see. These beams lasted about five minutes and only disappeared once the rain started to come down.

Many photographers will hang around for hours for the right light, as did the person who took this incredible image of an abandoned building in downtown Detroit. The sadness of the abandoned building is juxtaposed by the emerging rays of the dawn sun. The real impact of this scene comes because of the contrast between light and dark – also known as chiaroscuro . It just goes to show that something which many would consider completely uninteresting – in this case a fading and derelict office – can become a thing of beauty.

Trees do seem to capture sunbeams particularly well.

The architects of many religious buildings have exploited the beams of the sun in order to heighten the religious experience of those who worship in them.

It comes as little surprise that another of their many alternative names is ‘fingers of god’. Sunbeams are more often than not yellow or red because of the path through the atmosphere at dawn and dusk has as much as forty times more air as those at midday. This effect in the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome is, however, much later in the day than we would expect and very much part of the architect’s plan – as such they could almost be called ‘engineered’ sun beams.

Portrait photography can also be enhanced by the correct positioning of a subject in the path of sunbeams. This shot was taken in an empty charcoal warehouse in Singapore as part of an outing of a photographic society. It’s quite lovely. However, for many, sunbeams will always be associated with the wonders of nature.

The ancient Greeks thought that sunbeams were what the gods used to draw their drinking water up to Mount Olympus. They have also been called ‘backstays of the sun’ as the backstays bracing a mast come together like sunbeams. Perhaps the best name of all for crepuscular rays comes from New Zealand. The Maoris call them the Roped of Maui – for perhaps the best reason. Maui, from their legends, used sunbeams to restrain the sun and so make the day longer.