Yosemite Falls moonbow

My annual Yosemite moonbow workshop starts Thursday, and if Mother Nature cooperates (and Congress can get its act together enough to keep our National Parks funded), everyone in my group should have something like this by the end of the workshop.

Given the right conditions, photographing the Yosemite Falls moonbow isn’t rocket science. These conditions–ample flow in the fall, a full moon at the correct angle, and (fingers crossed) clear skies–align most reliably each spring, a fact not lost on the general public. Unlike the February Horsetail Fall spectacle, the Yosemite Falls moonbow attracts as many awestruck observers as serious photographers. Most end up the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, where I captured the above image. This is the closest location to view the moonbow, but the crowds and heavy mist here make photography difficult. I usually start my groups here at the lower fall, but I also take them to other less crowded vantage points as well (but if I shared them here, they would no longer be less crowded, would they?) .

Under ideal conditions the moonbow at the Lower Yosemite Fall bridge is bright enough to appear to the naked eye as a shimmering silver band. But even the brightest moonlight isn’t enough to allow the human eye to register the moonbow’s color. With its ability to accumulate light, a camera can reveal the moonlight’s entire spectrum. Advantage camera.

Even when you can’t see a moonbow–because, for example, you’re too far away or the moonlight is reduced by thin clouds– your camera can still bring it out with a long enough exposure, if you know where to position yourself. With the moon low on the horizon (less than 38 degrees), your shadow (cast by the light of the full moon) will point to the center of the moonbow (the apex of its arc)–the lower the moon, the greater its arc. (This approach also works if you’re trying to photograph an “invisible” moonbow in falling rain.)

To capture this image I stood on a bench and shot over the top of about one hundred heads, praying for 30 consecutive seconds without mist or a (totally useless) flash from one of many point-and-shoot cameras. I couldn’t resist going vertical and wide (17mm) to include the Big Dipper, which was perfectly positioned to appear as if it is Yosemite Falls’ source. Experience has given me the “go-to” full moon settings I used here: ISO 400, f4, 30 seconds.

<< My Shoot the Moon article in Outdoor Photographer >>

10 Comments on “Yosemite Falls moonbow

  1. A two-fer! It’s a treat to capture a single – but you got a double here! Fantastic. Thanks for sharing the gorgeous photo of this rarely caught phenomenon as well as the tips for how to achieve it!

  2. This is totally beautiful Gary….what a beautifully-planned and timed image! And yes the vertical wide is just perfect….and those have to be lucky stars at the big dipper because they controlled the itchy trigger fingers of the point and shoot bunch thinking their flash would do anything other than totally destroy your piece…thank goodness they did not. Beautiful Gary – best of luck on the upcoming workshops geez I would sure love to get in one one of these days!! All the best! Denny

  3. Gee…thanks, Gary! I’ve just been blessed with another great wonder of this planet with your special gift. This photo is another reason why I enjoy photography, being creative with any camera, and the joy of seeing the unusual and unique! Thank you, Lord, for Gary, for me & others who love using the creative gifts you gave us & the unique opportunities to use the gifts. Amen. Hugs! Best regards always, Leann 🙂

  4. Gary,

    I’m guessing that you took this great image around midnight (PDT) on 14May2006. Do you have a time and date for this photo ?


  5. Gary,

    Thanks. It looks like there is an opportunity coming up to duplicate the Moonbow at the same Yosemite falls at 10 pm (PDT) 16 April 2011. The Dipper will be in full pour mode for you. Good luck with your next Moonbow capture.


  6. A big pleasure to find you here. I shall return because I prefer the personal photographic sites .
    Wonderful rainbow.

  7. “I usually start my groups here at the lower fall, but I also take them to other less crowded vantage points as well (but if I shared them here, they would no longer be less crowded, would they?) .”

    I’m a huge fan of yours yet, I feel the above statement revealing your unwillingness to share your ‘private less crowded spots’ unfortunately inadvertently will alienate many of your subscribers who like me have allowed you into our ‘private email’ just for that reason for you to share tips, tricks and techniques that are uniquely yours.

    By adopting that type of attitude of secrecy breaks rapport with the very audience that you hope to cultivate needlessly because I’m sure that even if everyone on your subscriber list could and would visit your ‘private spots’ on one of the few days of a moonbow it would have a negligible effect on your ability to shoot.

    • Thanks for your comments, Laurie. I’m afraid you over-interpreted a lighthearted comment. If you’ve followed me at all, you know I’m very open about all my locations and techniques. And if you’ve ever photographed in Yosemite Valley, you know there are no real secrets there. The only time I won’t disclose a location is when I feel too many visitors might cause damage. When photographing the moonbow, you need to move around until you find the location that best aligns with the moon — familiarity with the park certainly helps this process, but it’s not as if there’s a single “best” spot to photograph it.

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