Less sky, more canyon

Gary Hart Photography: Forked Lightning, North Rim, Grand Canyon

Forked Lightning, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/6 second
F/14
ISO 50
Lightning Trigger LT-IV

Don Smith and I just wrapped up 13 days and two workshops at Grand Canyon. Bookending the trip with 12+ hour drives, we had daily 4:30 a.m. wake-ups, lots of standing around waiting for something to happen punctuated with bursts of extremely intense activity, and  lots of very late dinners. Each group enjoyed the full complement of monsoon thrills, including thunder and lightning, rainbows, dramatic clouds, and vivid sunrises and sunsets that made the difficult schedule more than tolerable.

Most workshops have a theme that develops organically and takes on a life of its own throughout the workshop. In the second workshop I soon realized that the group’s theme had inadvertently become me peering at an LCD, or projecting an image onto the screen during image review, and advising (with emphasis), “Less sky, more canyon.”

I won’t belabor a point I’ve made many times (most recently here) that the most frame space should go to the part of the scene with the most visual interest, except to say that few locations illustrate this better than Grand Canyon. As nice as the monsoon skies can be, we visit Grand Canyon for the canyon, and the skies are a bonus. But what I saw frequently in this workshop was photographers giving half or more of their frame to a dull sky, or a sky that was nice, but in no way a match for the canyon below.

I suspect this was happening for a few reasons. Sometimes people just reflexively split their frame with the horizon, or automatically break their scene with the horizon 1/3 of the way down from the top, or up from the bottom, because a misguided judge at their camera club enforces the rule of thirds with Biblical conviction. Other times they simply were composing for lightning firing across the canyon and just weren’t sure of the height of the lightning’s point of origin. But for the distant lightning we usually shoot, that’s invariably quite low, and it only takes one strike to get a pretty good idea of its height.

This doesn’t mean Grand Canyon images should never include lots of sky, it means that the sky you give your Grand Canyon image should be earned. A towering rainbow? Horizon-to-horizon sunrise or sunset color? By all means, widen your lens and tilt the camera up. But don’t forget that even when the sky is spectacular, it’s the canyon that makes your image special.

No sky, minimal sky, lots of sky—I came away from this workshop with lots of new images I’ll be sharing over the next few weeks. The image here was from the first of two spectacular lightning shows, one for each workshop, our groups enjoyed. We were about halfway into the image review at Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim when the lightning started up across the canyon. We instantly jumped into an unrehearsed Keystone Cops impersonation, scrambling for our gear, racing for the door, and setting up on the viewing deck outside.

Don and I had prepped the group on Lightning Trigger setup on the first evening, and made sure everyone’s Trigger was functioning, so we didn’t have too many problems that afternoon. The show lasted over two hours, and by the time it was over, everyone in the group had multiple lightning images. Stay tuned….

Join next year’s Grand Canyon Monsoon photo workshop


Less sky, more canyon

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The cure for the summertime blues

Gary Hart Photography: New Moon, Sierra Foothills

New Moon and Oak, Sierra Foothills
Sony a6300
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/8 second
F/8
ISO 100

There are many great reasons to be a landscape photographer in California. Summer isn’t one of them. Most people find California’s benign whether appealing—our mild winters and dry summers are one of the Golden State’s prime attractions. But to photographers, blue skies are boring, and California’s summer skies are nothing if not blue.

We say goodbye to our clouds in May, and I go stir crazy waiting for their return in October. One summertime solution is night photography, which requires clear skies. As an added bonus, summer’s warm temperatures make fumbling with camera gear and standing around in the dark much more tolerable, and the Milky Way’s bright center is very much a summer feature. California’s dense population means extreme light pollution through much of the state, but our proximity to mountains make escaping the light relatively easy in summer.

Because I can’t always make it to the mountains, I’ve found other photo opportunities in the foothills closer to home. The wildflowers of spring are gone, and the sun has burned the once green grass a golden brown, but the foothill’s oak trees are reliable silhouettes against the colorful twilight sky. Once upon a time I was satisfied with simple silhouettes, but in recent years I’ve made an effort to include a crescent moon in my foothill oak silhouette scenes.

A crescent moon only appears in close proximity to the sun, hanging in the brightest part of the post-sunset/pre-sunrise sky, above a (relatively) dark landscape. The more of the moon that’s illuminated, the farther in the sky from the sun it will hover (a full moon is exactly opposite the sun, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise). Since a crescent rises and sets just before or after the sun, there’s not a lot of time when it’s above the horizon and the sky is dark enough for its thin outline to stand out.

Getting a crescent moon to align with my foreground subjects is all about timing—for example, some months a new moon follows the sun too closely, dropping below the horizon before the sky has darkened enough to reveal it. The next night the moon lags so far behind the sun that that getting it in the frame with my subject before the sky darkens too much requires a moon-shrinking wide angle lens. As much as I enjoy accenting a scene with a small crescent, I truly love photographing the moon large.

My most recent attempt came last Thursday, a day I’d circled in my calendar several months ago after calculating that the moon would be in the perfect twilight window—not too low or too high—for my favorite trees. My brother and I started the evening at a location with a lower horizon so we could photograph the sun setting into the trees (I blogged about that shoot last week), then zipped up the road to a spot that I’ve been photographing for years.

Sometimes I can photograph this scene from the road, but in summer the new moon sets so far north that we had to angle a little south and climb one small hill and circle another to align it with the trees in the distance. Aligning the trees and moon enabled me to shoot the entire scene with my Tamron 150-600 and Sony a6300 for maximum magnification.

There are actually two trees side-by-side atop this distant hill, but I had so much magnification, I could only photograph one at a time. I gave both trees equal time—today’s image came early in the shoot, when the moon aligned better with the left-most tree. As the moon descended to the right, I eventually turned my attention to the other tree.

Regardless of the tree I was working on, I moved around a lot, left/right and up/back, dodging cow pies, to balance the moon and tree in the frame and find a relationship that worked. By ascending a small hill behind me, I was even able to extend the shoot a few minutes before the moon finally disappeared.

It would have been very easy to stay home and do something else that night. I know these simple images aren’t big money makers, and summer moon and oak silhouettes may not be as spectacular as Yosemite Valley covered with snow, or a rainbow above the Grand Canyon, but I find photographing them no less personally rewarding. (I already can’t wait until next month.)

One more thing: See the small dot of light on the right, at about the same level as the moon? That’s Mercury, another sun-hugging visitor only visible in the dawn or dusk twilight glow.

Read more about photographing a crescent moon


A crescent moon gallery

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The night sky and me

a7RIIYNP16AprSpringDSC5629ElCapitanSpringMoonlight_screensaver

Moonlight Reflection, El Capitan and the Three Brothers, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Canon 11-24 f/4L with Metabones IV adapter @11mm
20 seconds
F/4
ISO 3200

My relationship with the night sky started when I was ten. Astronauts were my generation’s cowboys, so when I was given a castoff, six-inch reflector telescope by an amateur astronomer friend of my dad, I jumped at the opportunity to explore the celestial frontier on my terms. On clear nights my best friend Rob and I dragged that old black tube onto the front lawn and pointed it, randomly and full of wonder, at the brilliant points of light overhead. With guidance from our dads and the books of Herbert S. Zim, we learned the difference between stars, which despite their great size and temperature, are at such great distance that even the strongest telescope only sees discrete points of light, and planets, nearby worlds reflecting sunlight, which my telescope revealed as glowing disks.

With that telescope Rob and I searched in vain for comets and galaxies, watched Venus and Mercury cycle through phases just like the moon’s, tracked the nightly dance of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, and monitored the changing tilt of Saturn’s rings. Suddenly and hopelessly infected with the astronomy bug, on camping trips I declined the luxury of the family tent in favor of a sleeping bag beneath more stars than I imagined possible. There, nestled to my neck in the bag’s warmth, I’d stretch beneath the boundless ceiling, counting “shooting stars” and scouring the sky for satellites, fighting sleep for as long as my eyelids could hold out. In my later teen years I discovered backpacking and with it skies that inspired ponderings of infinity. My first college major was astronomy, a most impractical aspiration that I managed to correct before quantification of the universe spoiled my appreciation of its elegance.

In my early twenties I discovered photography, but, frustrated by my film camera’s inability to capture the night sky’s beauty, quickly moved on to more terrestrial subjects. Fast forward to the twenty-first century, when the advent of digital photography offered light capturing and processing capabilities impossible with film. My first night subject was the Big Dipper; since then I’ve tried to include some form of night photography in most of my workshops and as many personal shoots as possible, seeking to use my camera’s unique perspective to convey the emotion the night experience brings me, rather than attempt the impossible task of recreating the sky literally.

Among other subjects, I’ve developed a particular fondness for photographing the gold/blue transition-zone separating day and night. Arriving on location well before sunrise gives me a front-row view of the indigo night’s slow retreat in favor of the golden promise of a new day; lingering long after the sun sets, I watch the day’s vestiges linger on the horizon, as if waiting with me for the stars to materialize.

About this image

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This year’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop group had the good fortune to photograph Yosemite brimming with more water than I’ve seen in years. A particular highlight was this location beside the Merced River, one of my favorite early morning spots. The morning we arrived we found my normal vantage points flooded beyond recognition, but rather than let the flooding turn us around, I explored the new shoreline and found view through the trees onto a crystal clear reflection. We stayed and photographed here until bad light and empty stomachs finally drove us to breakfast.

Excited by our good fortune that morning (read The Power of Reflections), I offered to return that night with anyone who wanted to photograph the scene by moonlight. Though I already had a moonbow shoot scheduled for later in the workshop, the moonlight potential here was so great that I wanted to at least give everyone the option of photographing it (on the other hand, with such early mornings, I knew from experience that I needed to give everyone the option to return to the hotel for an early bedtime).

Despite a long drive back from our sunset at Glacier Point, about half the group still joined me for what turned out to be a very memorable moonlight shoot. The already somewhat limited space was made even more difficult by the darkness (we were shaded from the moonlight by trees and the valley wall behind us), but we made it work with great cooperation and no shortage of laughter.

Among other things, this image highlights one of the great joys of photography with today’s advanced technology: the camera’s improving ability to reveal a world previously obscured by night’s dark curtain. (It will only get better.)

Photo Workshop Schedule


A moonlight gallery

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Just messing around

Gary Hart Photography: Big Sun, Sierra Foothills, California

Big Sun, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a6300
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/4000 second
F/11
ISO 100

A few days ago my brother and I made a trip up into the foothills to photograph the new moon hanging on the horizon shortly after sunset. With several fires burning in Northern California, I realized that if the wind cooperated, we’d also have a chance to photograph an orange ball of setting sun before the moon appeared. Not only is this a beautiful sight, the dulled sun compresses the dynamic range to a much more manageable level—definitely worth giving it a shot.

Because the horizon for my planned moonset location was too high for the sunset shoot, I picked a starting spot that would allow me to shoot the sun against distant oaks when it was much lower in the sky. The plan was to shoot the sunset, then make the ten-minute drive to my moon location. Unfortunately, the conditions didn’t cooperate as the smoke was gone and the sun the shined bright all the way down to the horizon. But since we were there, we decided to make the best of the situation.

Since my goal was a big sun, I went all-in with my 1.5 crop Sony a6300 and Tamron 150-600 lens. Shooting directly into the brilliant sun, while not something I’d recommend, is decidedly easier with a mirrorless camera because I don’t need to worry about frying my corneas with my telephoto lens. I still had to be careful to only look at the sun through my camera, but found that I could see well enough to compose if I darkened enough.

I had no illusions about turning the sun yellow while still being able to see anything else in the scene, but I at least wanted to darken the sky enough for the bright sun to stand out. That would give me, I hoped, a round sun with trees silhouetted against the sky.

Zooming my lens all the way out to 600mm (900mm full-frame equivalent), I started playing with compositions as the sun approached the horizon. Focus was a piece of cake with the a6300’s focus peaking—I just dialed my focus ring to maximized the peaking highlights, and clicked.

In-camera my images were extremely dark except for the hopelessly blown sun, but I could see that I’d captured enough detail to give me hope for recovering it later. Opening the images in Lightroom later, I was thrilled at how much I could pull out of the darkness—not just the detail in the trees, but the color in the sky. Why all the orange? That’s simply a product of the significant underexposure I needed to keep the sun round. In fact, sticking with the white balance my camera’s auto white-balance chose, I actually ended up desaturating the scene a little. Noise reduction and a slight crop for framing was about all the processing I did for this image.

When the sun disappeared we packed up and hightailed it to our moonset destination. That shoot worked out wonderfully, but that’s a story for another day….

Purchase Prints


A Sierra Foothills Gallery

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Someday My Prints Will Come

Gary Hart Photography: First Light, Yosemite Valley

First Light, Yosemite Valley
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
Canon 24-105L
1/3 second
F/16
ISO 100

Someday is now…

The dilemma

I’ve been selling prints of my images for about fifteen years. I started at weekend art shows and in art galleries, and soon added a modest online store. The art shows in particular were very successful, but as much as I enjoyed them (I truly did), the shows required so much work that I stopped because they detracted from my primary bread and butter, the photo workshops.

Despite my workshop emphasis, I have maintained a small gallery presence, and continue to offer my prints for sale on my website (which I’ve upgraded significantly). While I still sell prints fairly regularly, I know there are many more people who don’t purchase them because they’re just too expensive.

I can explain

Though printing is a pretty labor intensive process, I’ve always insisted on doing it myself, largely because I’ve never trusted anyone else to create the print to my satisfaction. But the amount of work that goes into each print (even after it’s been processed and sized)—from constant maintenance (clearing clogged print heads, monitor calibration, paper and ink management, and so on) to careful packaging and shipping—results in pricing that’s prohibitive for many people.

Finally, a solution

For a long time I’ve sought a solution that would cut me out of the printing and shipping side of the transaction while still yielding quality prints, and think I’ve finally found one. I’ve spent the last few weeks creating a SmugMug website exclusively for showcasing my prints for sale: GaryHartPrints.com. On this new site, instead of coming to me, your print orders will go to the much acclaimed Bay Photo Labs, my longtime lab of choice for jobs my own printer can’t handle (such as prints too large, or paper I don’t offer).

Though these prints won’t have my personal signature, each print has been photographed, processed, copyrighted, and digitally signed by me. I can also vouch for the quality, which will be at least as good as what I can offer. By taking the printing process out of my hands and putting it in the hands of people who do this exclusively, you get more choices, including multiple papers (lustre, glossy, metallic, and gicleé watercolor) and many matting and framing options—all at a much lower price than I can offer by printing directly.

Check it out*

*This site is brand new, so the images you see here are by no means a complete representation of all that’s available. If you don’t see what you’re looking for, just send me message.

About this image

In a post announcing a new print sale website, I thought it appropriate to re-share my most requested image, captured on a chilly April morning in 2009. As with many of my images, it was captured during a workshop. And also like many of my images, it almost didn’t happen.

My workshop group was at Tunnel View overlooking Yosemite Valley, wrapping up our first sunrise shoot. A storm had moved through overnight, dusting the granite walls with snow down to about 5,000 feet (Yosemite Valley is at about 4,000 feet), and soaking the lower elevations with a light rain. With no wind to mix the chilly atmosphere, the coldest air dropped all the way to the saturated valley floor, where it found the dew point and condensed into a ground-hugging fog.

Because the parting storm’s cloudy vestiges covered the scene with a dull, gray blanket of homogenous clouds, our attention all morning had been on the fog in the valley. Experience has taught me that the dynamic range at Tunnel View is pretty unmanageable when the morning sun arrives, so I was about to move the group on to greener pastures when I noticed a golden glow rising behind Sentinel Dome. As the color expanded, I realized that the uniform clouds above were far more translucent than I’d imagined. I put a hold on our exit and stood mesmerized as advancing sunlight spread a buttery veneer that eventually stretched from rim to rim and reflected subtly on the fog below.

So caught up in the beauty was I, it took me a couple of minutes to come to my senses and remember I’m a photographer. Because I rarely shoot on the workshop’s opening sunrise, I had to race to the car to get my gear, then sprint back and set up far faster than I like. By the time I was ready, the sun was just about to crest the ridge. I worked quickly, using a Singh-Ray 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter to subdue the bright sky. I stopped down to f16 thinking a sunstar might be possible, but the sunlight was diffused by the clouds.

Of all the pictures of Yosemite that I’ve taken, this is the one that makes it easiest for me to imagine how this heavenly location might have looked before human interference.

America the Beautiful

A gallery of favorites (coming to a wall near you)

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How do you do that?: Big Moon

The Secret for Supersizing the Moon

Gary Hart Photography: Moonrise, Sierra Foothills, California

Moonrise, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a6000
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/100 second
F/8
ISO 400

(This is not a composite)

A few days ago I saw a picture of an oversize moon above the Golden Gate Bridge; beneath the picture someone had commented that the image was obviously was faked because the moon isn’t that big. Though I didn’t scrutinize the picture, I suspect that the commenter’s accusation was right, but for the wrong reason.

While some photographers take the easy (and deceptive) approach and just plop a huge moon into their beautiful scene, the mere presence of a large moon doesn’t mean that the image is a fake. In fact with the right equipment and a little preparation, any photographer can photograph the moon large in their images (without cheating).

Size matters

Most people understand that the longer the focal length, the larger the moon will appear in an image. But focal length is only half the equation, a fact that becomes clear when you take the extreme telephoto approach to the limit and attach a camera to a telescope. True, with a telescope you’ll achieve the maximum enlargement possible, but you’ll also end up with the moon and nothing else—you could capture the very same image whether you’re standing on a tropical beach, atop a towering peak, or in the comfort of your own backyard.

Size isn’t everything

Rather than simply photographing a large moon, what we landscape photographers really want is a moon that appears large relative to the rest of the image. And while the size of the moon in your frame is determined by the focal length, its size relative to the landscape has nothing to do with the focal length.

The moon’s extreme distance  means that it will appear the same size to our eye (or lens) regardless of our location on earth. We can enlarge the moon with optics (a lens or telescope), but not by moving closer (without a rocket). On the other hand, the perceived size of earthbound objects changes dramatically with distance—move closer and things get bigger, move back and they get smaller.

So, if the perceived size of the moon from earth is constant, but earthbound subjects shrink with distance, you can make the moon look larger compared to earthbound subjects foreground by moving back and shrinking the foreground—then, once you’re farther back,  you can use a telephoto to enlarge everything.

Understanding this makes it easier to see why the moon looks so small in most images because the photographer was too close to the subject: The closer we are to the scene we’re photographing, the shorter (wider) the focal length required to include all of the scene in the frame, and the wider our field of view, the smaller the moon will appear in the scene.


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The two images above were taken from the same location (at different times). The size of the moon relative to Half Dome is the same, but in one image I shrank the scene and enlarged the moon with a telephoto; in the other, I widened the scene and shrank the moon with a wide angle lens. To get the wide scene and the large moon, I’d need a vantage point with the same angle of view, only much farther back (sadly, that vantage point doesn’t exist).


Gary Hart Photography: Moonrise, Sierra Foothills, California

Moonrise, Sierra Foothills, California

The story of this image

Armed with this knowledge, I’m on constant lookout for distant subjects that stand out against the east or west horizon. This oak tree in the foothills west of Sacramento has been on my radar for awhile—for year’s I’ve noted it from the road, but was always on my way somewhere else and never had time to hunt for a vantage point that would work for the moon.

Last fall I found myself with a little extra time when conditions changed and a planned foothills shoot didn’t materialize as hoped. Instead of heading straight home, I spent the hour or so of remaining daylight searching west of this tree for a vantage point that would align it with the upcoming moonrise. (Not only do I need a distant enough view that puts the tree against the sky, that view needs to align with the rising moon.)

Back home I did a little more plotting with my topographic software and came up with a tentative plan, and on the evening of the full moon I made my way back up to the foothills. I knew about where the moon would rise, but because I don’t know the exact altitude (in degrees) of the hillside from my planned location, I couldn’t be sure exactly when the moon would appear. (That’s not a problem once I’ve photographed a moonrise from a location, like Yosemite.)

Unfortunately, I got hung up by traffic that sapped all the extra time I’d factored into my plan, and ended up arriving at my location right at the beginning of the window when I thought the moon might appear. I started extracting and assembling my camera, lens, and tripod with one eye on the east horizon and did a double-take when I realized that the moon was indeed coming up. It was just slightly downhill from (west of) the tree, so I grabbed my gear and sprinted east a couple of hundred yards until they were aligned.

I used my Sony a6000 with my Tamron 150-600 lens (Canon-mount with a Metabones adapter). I maxed the focal length to 600mm, but since the a6000 is a 1.5 crop sensor, my effective focal length was 900mm. I quickly focused on the moon, metered, and started clicking. I used ISO 400 to speed my shutter and mitigate micro-vibrations that can be easily magnified at such a long focal length.

The tree was about a mile-and-a-half away. If I hadn’t been so rushed I’d have probably stopped down to f/11 or f/16 to ensure more depth of field (the hyperfocal distance was over 7,000 feet), but fortunately, focusing on the moon at f8 did the job. In Lightroom I cropped the image slightly (less than 15 percent) for framing and to enlarge the tree and moon a little more.

Workshop Schedule


The Moon, Big and Small

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Yosemite Moon

Gary Hart Photography: Moonrise, Bridalveil Fall and the Merced River Canyon, Yosemite

Spring Moonrise, Bridalveil Fall and the Merced River Canyon, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony 70-200 f4
1/2 second
F/8
ISO 100

I’m a relationship photographer. By that I mean I’ve never been one of those photographers who expands his portfolio by adding new locations. Rather, I like to get a feel for a place, not just the where and when of its photo opportunities, but its history, geology, flora, and fauna. I much prefer digging deeply into one scenic area to visiting a large variety of scenic areas. This is a personal style thing, and I know my more deliberate approach would drive many photographers crazy, but I’ve learned that I’m rarely very productive on my first visit anywhere, and often not until I’m several visits in.

I’m probably several hundred (thousand?) visits into my Yosemite relationship, with no end in sight. But despite this extensive history, any moonrise above Yosemite Valley, regardless of the phase, still takes my breath away. Orbital geometry aligns Yosemite’s moon with different features as the seasons change, and I try to be there for as many moonrises as possible. Whether it’s the late fall and winter full moon hovering above Yosemite Valley, the summer crescent moon appearing from behind Half Dome, or the spring full moon rising above Bridalveil Fall, I just can’t get enough of it.

As with most of my Yosemite workshops, a planned highlight for this year’s April Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop was a moonrise, this time the Bridalveil Fall full moon. Throughout the workshop we’d enjoyed a Yosemite Valley bursting with more water than I’d seen in several years, a dogwood bloom that was just about at peak, and a sky enhanced by an assortment of beautiful clouds.

When the moonrise day came and the clouds stayed, there were a few concerns for our moonrise. But knowing Yosemite well enough to understand that you can’t predict the conditions five minutes from now based on the conditions right now, I made sure we were in position with cameras ready (and fingers crossed).

Moon or not, the view up the Merced River Canyon that evening was beautiful, but when the moonrise time arrived and the moon didn’t, I scanned the clouds for hints of the moon’s glow. Though there was no sign of it, a little higher, and directly in the moon’s path, the clouds appeared thinner; higher still, actual stripes of blue sky gave me hope.

By the time the moon emerged, nearly ten minutes after sunset, the entire sky had taken on a rich magenta hue. The Merced River Canyon below had become quite dark, but my Singh-Ray two-stop hard-transition graduated neutral density filter held back the (daylight-bright) moon enough for me to give the canyon the light it needed. The final step for this image came in Lightroom and Photoshop, which enabled me to add a little more light to both the canyon and the clouds (which had been darkened along with the moon by the GND), and pull back the highlights in the moon.

One more thing

People ask me if I ever tire of Yosemite, and I can honestly answer, no. Part of keeping it fresh is the infectious excitement when the people I’m with witness something like this moonrise. (I don’t think this makes me unusual—most people get vicarious pleasure from the joy of others’ first experience of something that’s special to us.) This night the moonless pink sky was enough to thrill everyone, but when the moon poozed out, it became one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments for everyone in the group. That just never gets old.

Join me in a Yosemite photo workshop


Yosemite Moons

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