Seeing in the dark

Autumn Moonlight, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Moonlight, El Capitan, Yosemite
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
16 mm
20 seconds
ISO 800

One of the great joys of the digital photography is the ease with which our cameras reveal the world after dark. Scenes that are merely shadow and shape to the human eye are recorded with unseen color and detail by a digital sensor, and stars too faint to compete with moonlight shine brightly.

After a lifetime of refusing to sap my enjoyment of the night sky by attempting to photograph it with film, about ten years ago (a year or two into my personal digital photography renaissance) I decided to take my camera out after dark in the Alabama Hills to photograph Mt. Whitney and the sawtooth Sierra crest. It took just a few frames to realize that this was a new paradigm, but I wasn’t quite hooked until I viewed my images later that night and found, among a host of similarly forgettable Mt. Whitney among snow-capped peak images, one image of the Big Dipper framed by stacked, moonlit boulders that stood out. Ever since I’ve chased opportunities to photograph my favorite scenes after dark—first solely by the light of the full moon, and more recently (as digital sensors improve) by starlight.

Big Dipper, Alabama Hills, California

Big Dipper, Alabama Hills, California

As I incorporate night photography into most of my workshops, I have no qualms about guaranteeing success for all my moonlight shoots (barring equipment failure). This month’s Yosemite Autumn Moon workshop was no exception—after photographing a beautiful full moon rising above Half Dome at sunset, we broke for dinner, then returned to the wide open spaces of El Capitan Meadow beneath El Capitan for a moonlight shoot. One of my favorite things about these moonlight shoots is the way everyone is equal parts surprised and delighted by how simple it is, not to mention how beautiful their images are.

I’d spent time that afternoon getting the group up to speed on moonlight photography (it doesn’t take long), so after a brief refresher on the exposure settings and focus technique, everyone seemed to be managing just fine without me. Feeling just slightly unessential, I decided to try a few frames of my own. Struck immediately with how beautifully the autumn gold stood out, I shifted my position to align the most prominent tree with El Capitan. As with most of my night images, I went vertical to maximize the amount of sky in my frame. I also took care to compose wide enough to include Cassiopeia on the right side of the scene.

If you have a digital SLR and a relatively sturdy tripod, you have everything you need for night photography. I have a couple of articles in my Photo Tips section to guide you: It’s best to start with moonlight photography before attempting the much more challenging starlight photography.

A moonlight gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show

Moon whisperer

Gary Hart Photography, Moonrise, Yosemite

Twilight Moonrise, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite
Canon EOS SL1
.4 seconds
ISO 100
140 mm

Just when you start getting cocky, nature has a way of putting you back in your place. Case in point: last week’s full moon, which my workshop group photographed to great satisfaction from the side of Turtleback Dome, near the road just above the Wawona Tunnel.

I love photographing the moon, in all of its phases for sure, but especially in its full and crescent phases, when it hangs on the horizon in nature’s best light. I’ve developed a method that allows me to pretty much nail the time and location of the moon’s appearance from any location, and love sharing the moment with my workshop students. (Because my workflow has been in place for about ten years, I don’t use any of the excellent new software tools that automate the moon plotting process.)

Last week’s workshop was no exception, and after much plotting and re-plotting, I decided that rather than my usual Tunnel View vantage point, the view just west of the Wawona Tunnel would work better for this November’s full moon. Arriving about 30 minutes before “showtime,” I gathered everyone around and pointed a spot on Half Dome’s right side, about a third of the way above the tree-lined ridge, and told them the moon would appear right there between 4:45 and 4:50.

Sure enough, right at 4:47 there it was and I exhaled. We photographed the moon’s rise for about 30 minutes, until difference between the darkening valley and daylight-bright moon became too great for our cameras to capture lunar detail. Everyone was thrilled, and I was an instant genius—I believe I even heard “moon whisperer” on a few lips.

The workshop wrapped up the next evening, and I was still basking in my new-found moon whisperer status as I drove home down the Merced River Canyon with my daughter Ashley in the passenger seat. In a car behind us was workshop participant Laurie, who had never been down that road and wanted to follow me to the freeway in Merced.

Hungry, we stopped at one of my favorite spots, Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort in Midpines (check it out), for dinner. About an hour later, our stomachs full, we were walking back to the cars when someone pointed to a glow atop the mountain ridge above the resort. Ashley and I recognized it as the rising moon, but since this wasn’t a full disk, immediately entered into a friendly debate as to whether the moon was just peeking above the ridge, or had already risen and was disappearing behind a cloud.

We actually got quite scientific, escalating the passion with each point/counterpoint to make our cases (lest you think this was an unfair contest, I should add that Ashley’s a lawyer). Laurie remained silent. I’m not really sure how long we’d been debating when Laurie finally nudged us and pointed skyward, where, in full view of the entire Western Hemisphere, glowed the landscape illuminating spotlight of the actual full moon. Moon whisperer indeed.

(We never did figure out what the glow was.)

A full moon gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show

Yosemite Valley: Worth getting up for

Gary Hart Photography, Autumn Glow, Yosemite

Autumn Glow, Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
35 mm
.4 seconds
ISO 100

Yosemite isn’t an inherently great sunrise location. Because most of the views in Yosemite Valley face east, not only are you looking up from the bottom of a bowl, you’re composing toward the brightest part of the sky, at the shady side of your primary subjects (Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls). This is one reason I time my workshops to include one more sunset than sunrise. But I’ve come to appreciate Yosemite Valley mornings for its opportunities to create unique images that don’t resemble the beautiful but oft duplicated afternoon and sunset pictured captured when the iconic subjects are awash with warm, late light.

Over the years I’ve accumulated a number of favorite, go-to morning spots for Yosemite. I love the first light on El Capitan, which starts at the top about 15 minutes after the “official” (flat horizon) sunrise and gradually slides down the vertical granite, is a particular treat when reflected in the shaded Merced River. Other morning favorites include pre-sunrise silhouettes from Tunnel View (especially when I can include a rising crescent moon), the deep shade of Bridalveil Creek beneath Bridalveil Fall, and winter light on Yosemite Falls.

And then there’s Cook’s Meadow. Each spring you can photograph the fresh green of the meadow’s sentinel elm, Yosemite Falls booming with peak flow, and Half Dome reflected in still, vernal pools. In winter the tree is bare, exposing the twisting outline of its robust branches. The highlight each autumn is the few days when the tree is bathed in gold. On the chilliest fall mornings, sparkling hoarfrost often decorates the mounded meadow grass, and if you’re really lucky, when the air is most still, you’ll find the meadow hugged by an ephemeral mist that rises, falls, disappears, and reappears before your eyes.

On last week’s workshop’s opening morning, after a nice sunrise silhouette shoot at Tunnel View, I rushed my workshop group to Cook’s Meadow in time for the first light there. We hit the autumn big three: a hoarfrost blanket, the elm’s autumn gold still going strong, and even a few wisps of mist. The image here I captured toward the end of our shoot, just as the sun kissed the valley floor. My wide, horizontal composition emphasized the foreground, which was far more interesting than the bland (and contrail scarred) sky. I dialed in a small aperture to enhance the sunstar effect, and used a Singh-Ray 2-stop hard-transition neutral density filter to moderate the bright sky.

Within minutes the light was flat and the mist was gone, but the group was happy. Not a bad start to what turned out to be a great week of photography.

A Yosemite Morning gallery

Click an image for a closer view, and to enjoy the slide show




If at first you don’t succeed…

Gary Hart Photography, Yosemite autumn leaves

Floating, Merced River, Yosemite
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
105 mm
.6 seconds
ISO 800

In early November of 2007 I took a picture that didn’t quite work out. That’s not so unusual, but somehow this one stuck with me, and I’ve spent seven years trying to recreate the moment I missed that night.

On that evening seven years ago, the sun was down and the scene I’d been working for nearly an hour, autumn leaves clinging to a log in the Merced River, was receding into the gathering gloom. The river darkened more rapidly than the leaves, and soon, with my polarizer turned to remove reflections from the river, the the leaves appeared to be suspended in a black void. Every few frames I’d add more light, weighing the noise introduced by a higher ISO versus the potential for motion blur of a longer shutter speed.

Yet despite the great potential, I struggled to find a composition that would do the scene justice. About the time I decided my scene lacked a visual anchor, a place for the eye to land, a leaf drifted along the top of my frame and I clicked. On my LCD the result looked perfect, and I felt rewarded for my persistence. But back home on my large monitor, I could see that everything in the frame was sharp except my anchor point. If only I’d have bumped my ISO instead of my shutter speed….

Intrigued by the unrealized potential, I returned to this spot each autumn, but the stars never aligned—too much water (motion); dead (brown) leaves; no leaves; too many leaves; no anchor point—until this week. Not only did I find the drought-starved Merced utterly still, “my” log was perfectly adorned with a colorful leaf assortment anchored by an interlocked pair of heart-shaped cottonwood leaves.

I worked the scene until the darkness forced too much compromise with my exposure settings. In the meantime, I filled my card with horizontal and vertical, wide and tight, versions of the scene with the log both straight and diagonal. I also played with the polarizer, sometimes dialing up the reflection of overhanging trees. But I ultimately decided on the one you see her, which is pretty close to my original vision.

I can’t begin to express how happy photographing these quiet scenes makes me. I’ve done this long enough to know that it’s the dramatic landscapes and colorful sunsets that garner the most print sales and Facebook “Likes,” but nothing gives me more personal satisfaction than capturing these intimate interpretations of nature.

A gallery of autumn intimates

Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show

Plan B

Gary Hart Photography, Bristlecone Moon, Schulman Grove, White Mountains, California

Bristlecone Moon, White Mountains, California
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
40 mm
1.3 seconds
ISO 100

I usually approach a scene with a plan, a preconceived idea of what I want to capture and how I want to do it. But some of my favorite images are “Plan B” shots that materialized when my original plan went awry due to weather, unexpected conditions (or my own stupidity).

In my recent Eastern Sierra workshop, the clouds I always hope for never materialized. Whenever this happens I try to use the clear skies for additional night photography, but I’ve always been a little reluctant to keep my groups out late in the bristlecones because: 1) it’s colder than many are prepared for (late September or early October and above 10,000 feet); 2) it’s an hour drive back to the hotel the night before a very early sunrise departure. But this year, after spelling out the negatives, I gave my group the option of staying out to shoot the bristlecones beneath the stars. My plan was to arrange for a car (or two) to take back those who didn’t want to stay, but it turned out everyone was all-in.

In most of my trips I know exactly where the moon will be and when, but for this trip I hadn’t done my usual plotting—I knew it would be a 40 percent crescent dropping toward the western horizon after sunset, but hadn’t really factored the moon into my plans. But as we waited for the stars to come out, I watched moon begin to stand out against the darkening twilight and saw an opportunity I hadn’t counted on.

Moving back as far as I could to maximize my focal length (so the moon would be as large as possible in my frame) required scrambling on a fairly steep slope of extremely loose, sharp rock (while a false step wouldn’t have sent me plummeting to my death, it would certainly have sent me plummeting to my extreme discomfort). Next I moved laterally to align the moon with the tree, and dropped as low as possible to ensure that the tree would stand out entirely against the sky (rather than blending into the distant mountains). Wanting sharpness from the foreground rocks all the way to the moon, I dialed my aperture to f/16 and focused on the tree (the absolute most important thing to be sharp).

With the dynamic range separating the daylight-bright moon and the tree’s deep shadows was almost too much for my camera to handle, I gave the scene enough light to just slightly overexpose the moon, making the shadows as bright possible. Once I got the raw file on my computer at home, in Lightroom/Photoshop I pulled back the highlights enough to restore detail in the moon, and bumped the shadows slightly to pull out a little more detail there.

As you can see, even at 40mm, the moon is a tiny white dot in a much larger scene. But I’ve always felt that the moon’s emotional tug gives it much more visual weight than its size would imply. Without the moon this would be an nice but ordinary bristlecone image—for me, adding the moon sweetens the result significantly.

A Plan B gallery (images that weren’t my original goal)

Click an image for a lager view, and to enjoy the slide show

Seven reasons photographers love rain

Gary Hart Photography, Mt. Hood Autumn Leaf

Hidden Leaf, Mt. Hood, Oregon
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
168 mm (plus 48mm of extension)
1/100 second
ISO 400

The difference between a photographer and a tourist is easily distinguished by his or her response to rain: When the rain starts, the photographer grabs a camera and bolts outside, while the tourist packs up and races for shelter.

Seven reasons photographers love rain

  1. Smooth, (virtually) shadowless light that eliminates the extreme contrast cameras struggle to handle, and enhances color saturation
  2. Clouds are vastly more interesting than blue skies
  3. The best stuff happens in the rain: rainbows, lightning, clinging water droplets
  4. Clean air means more vivid sunrises and sunsets
  5. Replenished lakes, rivers, streams, and waterfalls for days, weeks, or months of great photography (rain or not)
  6. Low light makes easier the long shutter speeds necessary for soft water effects
  7. (Last, but not least,) we have the landscape to ourselves

Case in point

This week Don Smith and I traveled to Hood River, Oregon for some autumn photography, and to do more prep and reconnaissance for next spring’s Columbia River Gorge photo workshops. It’s rained every day we’ve been here, and you won’t find two happier (albeit wetter) photographers. Not just because our California bones miss rain (they do), but because there is no better time to take pictures than a rainy day.

Monday morning Don and I drove to Lost Lake to scout it as a potential workshop location. Climbing from near sea level to over 3,000 feet in a steady rain, we passed through deciduous forests in varying stages of green, yellow, orange, and red. The fall color peaked at around 2,000 feet, dwindled as we climbed further, until by the time we reached the lake, most of the colorful leaves were on the ground or whisked away by mountain breezes. While Mt. Hood was completely obscured by rainclouds, we spent a couple of hours exploring near the lake before heading back down the mountain with no specific plan other than to stop somewhere and photograph the color we’d enjoyed on the drive up.

Partway down the mountain we pulled over beside an evergreen forest liberally mixed with yellow and red maples, donned our rain gear, and went to work. With dense, low clouds shrinking the view to just the immediate vicinity, grand panorama were out of the question and my 70-200 became my weapon of choice for its ability to isolate nearby leaves and limit depth of field.

An essential but frequently overlooked component of successful rainy day photograph is a (properly oriented!) polarizer to mitigate the ubiquitous, color-sapping sheen reflecting back from every exposed surface. This is a no-exception thing for me—I don’t care if it’s already dark and the polarizer robs me of two more stops of light, without it, images from wet scenes like this would be a complete failure. In this case I bumped my ISO to 400 (and would have as high as necessary if there had been more wind) before composing a single frame.

Beautiful as it was, a scene like this starts as a hodgepodge of disorganized color. Fortunately, it’s never long before individual elements start manifesting—the longer I stay, the more (and smaller) detail I see, until even the littlest thing stands out and I can’t believe it had been there all along. Knowing all this, I usually start at my lens’s wider range and gradually work tighter as the surroundings become more familiar.

And so it was with this little leaf, tucked into the forest behind several layers of dense and dripping branches, hiding from my gaze until nearly an hour into my visit. From the forest’s outskirts I zoomed to 200mm and composed a few frames through the tangle of branches, but it wasn’t long before I needed to be closer.

When I spy something interesting, it’s easy to crash through the forest like an angry grizzly (or frightened bison), but because I was extremely concerned about dislodging the fragile raindrops, I found myself deliberately stalking my prey, more like a stealthy cougar. (I could have just as easily compared my advance to a slithering snake, but for some reason this cougar analog resonated with me. Go figure.) When I made it so close that I was inside my lens’s focus range, I added an extension tube, and finally a second tube.

By this time I was just a few inches from the leaf, and while this ultra-close view was pretty cool, I felt my frame needed more that just a pretty leaf. Until this point I’d been pushing the nearby branches and leaves aside, out my view. But realizing that I was so close (the leaf closest brushed my lens), and my range of focus was so thin, that they would blur to a smear of red that cradled my subject.

With a paper-thin depth of field, finding the right focus point is essential. I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to get the entire leaf sharp, so I used live-view to focus on the center water drop (because that’s where I want my viewer’s eye to start).

Staying dry

The rain came and went for the duration of our stay, but never reached an intensity that made shooting difficult. In this case there wasn’t much wind, making my umbrella particularly useful for keeping raindrops off my lens. Nevertheless, without a little simple preparation, this image wouldn’t have been possible. I’ve learned never to take a photo trip without basic rain gear. For me that’s:

  • A thin, waterproof shell that fits over whatever else I’m wearing (shirt, jacket, or whatever the temperature calls for)
  • Waterproof pants that fit over my regular pants—I have an unlined pair for moderate temperatures, and a lined pair what I think it could get cold, and decide between when I pack
  • Waterproof hiking boots
  • Waterproof hat
  • Wool or synthetic shirts, pants, and socks that will keep me comfortable when my rain gear causes me to perspire (no cotton!)
  • Umbrella for my camera—because I’m dry (see above), I can dedicate the umbrella 100 percent to keeping raindrops off my lens
  • Towel to dry things (especially my lens!) when they get wet—I often borrow one from my hotel, which isn’t a problem as long as I remember to return it
  • Plastic garbage bag to drape over my camera when it’s on the tripod waiting for me to do something productive—if I forget a garbage bag, the hotel’s laundry or trash liner bags work fine

A rainy day gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show

It’s all about relationships

Star Trails Above an Ancient Bristlecone, Schulman Grove, White Mountains
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
28 mm
31 minutes
ISO 100


Think about how much our lives revolve around relationships: romance, family, friends, work, pets, and so on. It occurs to me that this human inclination toward relationships almost certainly influences the photographic choices we make, and the way our images touch others.

Whether it’s conscious or not, photographers convey relationships in their images. A pretty sunset is nice, but a pretty sunset over the Grand Canyon or Yosemite is especially nice. Likewise, why be satisfied with an image of a rushing mountain stream when we can accent the scene with an autumn leaf? And that tree up there on the hill? It sure would look great with a moon. These are relationships, two distinct subjects connected by a shared moment.

The more we can think in terms of relationships in nature, adding that extra element to our primary subject, or finding multiple elements and organizing them in a way that guides the eye through the frame, the more our images will reach people at the subconscious level that draws them closer and holds them longer.

On the other hand…

Some of my favorite images are of a solitary subject, and element in nature that stands alone in the scene—what’s up with that? I’ve decided (since this is my blog) that this the exception that proves the rule. As much as humans gravitate to relationships, what person doesn’t long for the peace of solitude from time to time? In the case the tree in the image below, it’s the absence of a relationship that draws us, or more accurately, it’s the tree’s relationship with an otherwise empty scene that appeals to the relationship overload we all experience from time to time.

Tree at Sunset, McGee Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra

Solitary Tree After Sunset, McGee Creek Canyon, Eastern Sierra
It’s the isolation of this small tree, its relationship with the void, that makes this image work for me.

Star Trails and Ancient Bristlecone: About this image

At 4,000+ years, the bristlecone pines of the White Mountains, east of Bishop, California, are among the oldest living things on Earth. They’re also among the most photogenic. Each year I take my Eastern Sierra photo workshop group to photograph the bristlecones of the Schulman Grove. Given the (rather gnarly) one hour drive would get us back to our hotel in Bishop quite late on the eve of a particularly early sunrise shoot, and night temperatures above 10,000 feet in late September are quite chilly, I’ve never kept the group out here for a night shoot. Until this year.

With clear skies and a 40 percent crescent moon, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to photograph these trees with just enough moonlight to reveal their weathered bark without washing out too many stars. Here was an opportunity to create the kind of relationship we all look for—juxtaposing these magnificent trees against an equally magnificent night sky. So after a nice sunset shoot, but before it became too dark, I had everyone find a composition they liked, lock it in on their tripod, and focus using the remaining light. When the stars started popping out, we began clicking—I started everyone the initial exposure settings, and helped them ensure that their images were sharp, but pretty soon most of them were managing quite fine without my help.

Our first frames were pinpoint stars, relatively short (30 seconds or less) exposures at wide-open apertures and very high ISOs. As the darkness became complete, we were equally thrilled number of stars and the amount of tree and rock detail the faint moonlight brought out in our images. Eventually most in the group wanted to recompose, which required re-focusing, no trivial task in the darkness. Normally an infinity focus on the moon will suffice at night, but the trees were so close, and our apertures so wide, that I felt it would be best to focus on a tree (to ensure its sharpness at the possible risk of slight softness in the stars). We found that by hitting the tree with an extremely bright light (or two), we could see just enough detail to manually focus. But just to be sure, I insisted that everyone verify their focus by scrutinizing a magnified image on their LCD.

When I was convinced that everyone had had success with pinpoint stars, I prepared them all for one final, long exposure star trail shot. Using the last pinpoint composition and focus (after verifying that it was indeed sharp), I did the math that would return the same exposure at 30 minutes that we’d been getting at 30 seconds—in this case, adding 6 stops of shutter speed meant subtracting 6 stops of ISO and aperture. When everyone was ready, we locked our shutters open in bulb mode, and then just kicked back and watched the sky.

My favorite part of these group shoots are these times when we can all just kick back together and appreciate the beauty of the moment, without the distraction of a camera. Overhead the Milky Way painted a faint white stripe through Cassiopeia, a couple of satellites danced faintly among the stars, and several meteors flashed. I didn’t even mind the occasional plane cutting the darkness (it didn’t hurt to know that Photoshop makes removing them quite simple now), and tried to guess its destination.

This shoot was certainly about finding the relationship between the these trees and the night sky they’ve basked beneath every night for thousands of years. But it was also about the stories and laughs we shared that night, cementing relationships between people who were strangers just a couple of days earlier—I know from experience some of these relationships will end with the workshop, but many will continue for years or even lifetimes.

A gallery of relationships in nature

Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show


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