Fog, haze and clouds combine to produce a crazy sunrise scene over Washington on Monday. (Kevin Ambrose)

The sunrise Monday morning was incredible. It began drab, gray and cloudy but then suddenly exploded in color as the sun rose above the horizon and cleared a low deck of clouds. The resulting scene, while momentary and fleeting, resembled an oil painting.

And the crazy sunrise was preceded by the conjunction of the moon and Venus in the sky, which was equally cool to see. It was a doubleheader photography and sky watching event for the early risers in Washington.

But I almost missed the show.


Dawn breaks Monday morning with the moon and Venus in conjunction directly over Washington on Monday. The photos were taken 10 minutes apart. (Kevin Ambrose)

"I think it's best to punt the sunrise shoot," I wrote in a Facebook message to my friend, Dennis Govoni, at 4:26 a.m. Monday. My alarm had just sounded, and the skies over my house were overcast. A quick check of nearby weather stations confirmed that surrounding areas were also reporting cloudy skies.

Dennis wrote back at 4:31 a.m., "I think we should try."

I didn't want to go so I sent him the webcam view from the Netherlands Carillon to show him the cloudy skies. The heavy cloud cover in the photo would certainly persuade him to cancel our shoot, I thought.

Nope, he still wanted to keep our photography plans that we had made the previous day. Dennis wrote back, "Isn't that Venus showing behind the monuments."


A wide view of the moon and Venus conjunction, visible between the clouds. (Kevin Ambrose)

So I reluctantly agreed to shoot the sunrise Monday, or at least the clouds that were certain to cover up the sunrise. Besides, I love a good story, even one of failure, so I left the house to meet Dennis for what appeared to be a dismal sunrise shoot.

We stopped for breakfast at McDonald's in Rosslyn before our photo shoot. The sky overhead was mostly cloudy, but there were few small breaks in the clouds, which gave me a little hope. The coffee and sausage McMuffin with egg, however, was what really inspired me at that moment.

Dennis and I arrived at the Netherlands Carillon, our destination for Monday's sunrise shoot, about 20 minutes after breakfast. We immediately noticed that there was a conjunction of the moon and Venus visible in the sky between a large break in the clouds.


What a difference 19 minutes can make. The left photo was taken at the moment of sunrise, 6:52 a.m., and the other was taken at 7:11 a.m., after the sun moved above a low cloud deck. (Kevin Ambrose)

I have never set up my camera and tripod faster to start taking photos. I didn't want the clouds to fill back in and cover the moon and Venus before I could take a photo. We didn't know the conjunction would happen Monday morning, centered over the Mall. It was just lucky timing.

Within 30 minutes, clouds filled in the entire sky again, and the moon and Venus were hidden. This was the cloudy, gray scene I expected to photograph when I wanted to cancel the plans earlier that morning.

As the time reached the moment of sunrise, which was 6:52 a.m., the sky was entirely gray and covered with clouds. The other photographers in the area packed up their camera gear and walked away. It was a scene not worth shooting, but I took a few photos anyway.


A sunrise scene photographed at 7:11 a.m, Monday. (Kevin Ambrose)

Instead of leaving immediately, Dennis and I decided to wait for a few minutes, just to see if the sky would clear. A clearing sky didn't seem likely, but we had already invested a lot of time so waiting another 15 minutes was fine with us.

Then it happened. A narrow sliver of yellow light appeared in the eastern sky. It slowly expanded, then suddenly, the entire sky burst into color as the sun moved above a low cloud deck. This occurred 18 minutes after sunrise.

The solid gray pattern that covered the sky moments earlier was transformed into fiery red and yellow shades of color that seemed to dance and swirl around the fast-moving clouds.

I rapidly took photos. The humidity and haze in the air provided a natural filter for the sunlight. Typically, the sun will overexpose in photos when it's at that elevation above the horizon but on Monday morning, the photos turned out well. It was a very cool and unusual sunrise scene to shoot.


The moon and Venus in conjunction over Washington. (Kevin Ambrose)

As Dennis and I headed home, I was happy we made the trip. I know that the best sunrises occur at the edge of heavy clouds and precipitation, but it's hard to remember that when the alarm goes off at 4:15 a.m., and the sky is overcast.

I should probably thank Dennis for stubbornly wanting to stick to our plans, regardless of the clouds, but I'll probably forget. Until the next sunrise shoot, at least.


A sunrise scene, Monday. (Dennis Govoni)