July 16, 2020

Report from the desert (2): The golden hour


Photographers and cinematographers love “the golden hour” (sometimes called “the magic hour”). This describes the time of light right after sunrise and right before sunset. During these periods, the sun’s light is more diffuse and softer, bathing the world in a pleasing reddish-golden hue. I took the picture above yesterday at McDowell Mountain Sonoran Desert Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona during the golden hour before sunset, and you can see the effect quite clearly.

In planning for taking pictures, I wanted to make use of the golden hour, especially here in the desert. In this environment the mostly cloudless, sometimes hazy sky casts a harsh bright light over everything during most of the daylight hours, making it difficult to achieve proper contrast and color saturation in one’s photographs. A polarizing filter helps, and one can always adjust pictures when processing them, but no photographer can do as well as what God did when he gave us the golden hour.

The golden hour reminds me that, even in the desert, there are times during the day when nature grants the world respite from the relentless burning sun and the almost colorless landscape its glare creates.

imageAs I was hiking and taking pictures, I found that I eagerly awaited the moment when the sun reached the point in the sky that caused its rays to diffuse and turn the bland desert before me into a portrait of almost luminescent brilliance. And it was worth it. As the sun sank, every plant, rock, and geological feature became transformed into a technicolor wonder. I felt as though I had arrived in Oz. It was every bit as awe-inspiring as the hills of Vermont covered with the fluorescence of maple trees in October. It was like watching van Gogh’s austere early drawings and paintings suddenly burst forth into sunflowers and blossoming trees and parks and wheat fields, exploding with vibrant color and warmth.

It became a devotional moment, or hour, I should say. I couldn’t take pictures fast enough. A deep sense of joy filled me. The liturgy had begun and I became caught up in participating in it. It only lasted a short time, and then the sun began to sink below the horizon, now turning the sky into a vast canvas covered with fiery brushstrokes, as though the very color had lifted up from the earth and found a place of rest in the clouds.

As I drove out of the park, darkness was beginning to fall. I glanced over to my left, and there behind one of the peaks, I saw the hint of a huge full moon. I made a quick u-turn, went back to the park entrance, spotted the moon in perfect position over the mountains, and took several pictures. It was like hearing the choir sing an inspiring, peaceful “amen” to the service.

And then I heard the minister speak the words of dismissal: “In the midst of the desert of your life, there is grace in Jesus Christ. In the midst of the harsh realities of hunger and thirst, sin and death, Jesus has come to bring peace, abundance and life. Thanks be to God. Now we are free to go and bring his light to our world. Go in his grace.”

Thank you, Lord, for the golden hours. Enable me to shine that beautiful light on those around me who need to see it.

Desert Moon 2


  1. Before retiring last night I looked out my window and remarked to my husband, “Look at the moon, it’s beautiful.” The moon I saw had a haze, just like in your photo. Depending on the location or circumstances where others live, they may see the moon a little differently; but we all see the same moon. God doesn’t change either.

  2. Mike, take a look in the western sky shortly after sunset for Venus and Jupiter. Spectacular.

    • Ted, I have been enjoying that show for the last few days. There won’t be another conjunction this close till 2035. Spectacular!

      • Radagast says

        Jupiter has been trailing Venus since my wife and I were in Sedona in May… and trailing both a little farther away was Saturn. While we were watching one particular night we spotted the international space station crossing the sky… while I suspected that’s what it might be (a little dot the size of a larger star moving continuously without blinking) it took some internet searching to confirm. Combine that with some far off cry of coyotes coming from the distant red rocks and it made for a nice mix of sight and sound….

  3. Another Mary says

    Good words. I especially appreciate the benediction at the end. I copied it to my daily journal. Going through a wilderness of loneliness right now and those words seemed to fit just right.
    Thanks Cahplain Mike

  4. David Cornwell says

    Mike, you’ve discovered some of the main secrets of good photographers and good photography! I love the pictures you have included here.

    One of my main frustrations with photography has been on Sunday mornings. Marge and I get up early to drive to church thirty miles away from home (another story). Sometimes the sun, color, light, shadows, and scenery are an extra Sunday morning gift from God as we travel to our place of worship. Mist will slowly rise over the green fields of corn just beginning to make mature growth. Sleepy farms with quiet red barns and neat fences make clear the creative residency of their humans Stirring cattle blow warm breath into the cool morning air. A green tractor peaks from behind a grey shed.

    Driving along I can see in my minds eye possible photographs. But finding a place to shoot can take a few moments and might involve walking onto someone’s property. And in the meantime the light changes. The mist drifts. In a few seconds the sun changes its mind.

    The trick is to get up very early and scout out locations. Sometimes it means coming back another morning, or several of them. All this for a man who enjoys a slow start and long sips of morning coffee!

    You’ve made good use of the polarizing filter. They are perfect for enhancing the blueness of the sky and bringing out contrast of sky and clouds. Keep up the good work. And share some more photos!

    When I walk in a location where nature is doing its work unimpeded, sometimes I feel almost overwhelmed by the goodness of God; the One who “saw that it was very good.”

    • David Cornwell says

      To get a better look at Mike’s photos, I recommend clicking on them to open up a larger view.

      • David, remind us of your web address so people can see your photos. You’ve done some nice work.

        • David Cornwell says

          Ted, thanks. I haven’t posted anything since last fall. But I have plans for some outings soon. My pics are posted at:


  5. Thanks for joining us for Vespers last night, CM. Your heart was singing “O Gladsome Light” even if your brain doesn’t know it.

  6. Dana Ames says

    My mother lived just outside of Phoenix, to the west, during her last years. When my sister and I went to take care of things after she died, I went out for an evening walk to the local basilica-style Catholic church, taking the prayer book I was using at that time. The church has a patio with a beautiful Spanish-style fountain. I sat there a long time, thinking, praying and weeping. It was long enough after sunset to be dark, but the moon was not up yet; there was still a bit too much “light pollution” to get that overwhelming feeling from the stars in the desert night sky. But I was overwhelmed anyway; the sky never went totally black – it was the deepest midnight blue I have ever seen. I will never forget that color – nothing like it.

    I would never want to live in the desert, but I like visiting it occasionally – helps me keep things in perspective.


  7. Our family has been spending the last few evenings outside looking at both the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus as well as the waxing of the moon–I love summer evenings and the glory of the heavens has been marvelous! As an added bonus, I leave for work before dawn and twice this week I’ve stopped on our country road for just a few moments to marvel at God’s handiwork: once, to see the almost full moon setting behind clouds and once to watch the play of lightning across the sky from a thunderstorm about 30 miles distant. Just glorious.

    Thanks for sharing the wonders with which God has filled the world, Chaplain Mike; though your photographs are of high desert scrub and cactus, it reminds me of Rich Mullins singing:

    “Be praised for all Your tenderness by these works of Your hands
    Suns that rise and rains that fall to bless and bring to life Your land
    Look down upon this winter wheat and be glad that You have made
    Blue for the sky and the color green that fills these fields with praise!”

  8. Beautiful thoughts and photographs, Mike. Thank you so much for everything you do for us here.

  9. Daniel Jepsen says

    Mike, that is good stuff. Thanks.

  10. I’m loving these posts and pictures, Mike. Keep them coming! And thank you.

  11. Robert F says

    How can it be
    that such a place,

    a place of relentless sun
    & cold moon,

    a place of cracked skin
    & parched earth,

    a place of relentless thirst
    & crazy hunger,

    a place where angels & demons
    hover on rafts of drifting heat

    & the brain sweats mirages
    in the burning shadow of the skull,

    how is it that such a place
    is also a habitation of life,
    & a landscape of encounter?

    • Make a book of these.

      • Robert F says

        I’m afraid only a vanity press would publish for me. I’m a sloppy amateur, with an inspired verse here and there. I’ve always really wished I could be a competent and inspired poet, but it just was not meant to be. I put my hand to it every now and then, but I’m always disappointed with the results, though, as I said, I may have a good line here and there. But thanks for the good word.