A few days ago, I climbed up to the rooftop to shoot a (full) moon-rise. However just out the hatch, it was not the East that grabbed my attention, but unexpectedly, the West. A magnificent sinking sun was plunging through haze and lit up with the internal glow of hot coals on a braai.

Perfect timing

I was lucky enough to have a bagful of photo gear and a tripod with me and was given an opportunity to practice the moves, rehearsed a thousands times, that aim at extricating, assembling and setting up multiple tools into a cohesive photographic assembly, as rapidly as humanly possible and without dropping anything.

The sun had been well above the horizon when I first noticed it, but by the time I was ready to press the shutter – no more than a minute later, having unfolded and extended the tripod, taken the camera out of the bag, attached it to the ball head, aimed and secured it, changed the trusted medium range telephoto for the big 70-300mm f/4-5.6 L, removed the lens cap and attached the hood so it would be out of the way, turned the camera on, set it to Aperture Priority, dialed in a conservative ISO setting, an intermediate aperture for decent depth of field, a negative EV to expose for the sun and confirmed image stabilization was on as I could not afford a self-timer or mirror lock – the bright star was already breaching my horizon line.

The sun sets over New Jersey

To my absolute delight, two planes on a final approach to Newark’s International Airport came in as if on cue, some 10 miles away across the New York Harbor a and State line as the crow flies. It was a busy time for Air Traffic Control and they must have been applying the minimal FAA published IFR traffic separation which, if I remember well for an approach, would be about 5 miles between aircraft of the same weight category. Averaging a final approach speed of 150 knots with full flaps and gear down, we get a plane every 2 minutes. Look at the shots below; that’s how fast our sun goes down.

A few seconds later

My focus was possibly spot-on but shooting at dusk, against a bright sun, through the evening haze and at my telephoto’s maximum focal length to reach across 16 kilometers of summer air, these appear a bit soft. Think of it as heat blur, or mirage.

First plane comes in
Same shot redeveloped; notice the jetwash refracting the sun’s glow
Heavy, late