Shoot now, think later

Sunrise Trio, Crescent Moon Above El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite

Magic moments in nature are rarely static. If you do your homework you can anticipate many of these special moments and put yourself in position before they happen, rather than finding yourself reacting to rapidly changing conditions. Learning how to understand the conditions necessary for a rainbow, anticipate favorable weather, and  plot the moon’s position are invaluable to any nature photographer who wants to add something special to their images. But when the magic happens, it’s time to turn off your left (logical) brain and give control to your right (creative) brain. In other words, don’t think, shoot!

A lot of thought goes into taking a picture, but when comes time to click the shutter, the impulse needs to start from your heart, not your brain. After many years conducting photo workshops, I’ve concluded that a prime factor hindering photographers’ ability to shoot from the heart (along with an inflexible adherence to photography “rules”) is their struggle to master metering, exposure, and their camera. I’m afraid that the “intelligence” built into today’s cameras misleads people into thinking their camera can handle everything. It can’t. Mastering photographic fundamentals until they’re second nature, until they happen without conscious thought, frees you to connect with the beauty of the moment and compose by feel.

My most recent spring workshop group made the most of its opportunity to photograph this once in a lifetime moonrise event from Half Dome View on Big Oak Flat Road, across the Merced River Canyon from Yosemite’s more heralded Tunnel View. (Why once in a lifetime? Because it will be many, many years before a 3% crescent moon slips through the narrow gap separating El Capitan and Half Dome in the pre-dawn sky.) Our goal was to underexpose the scene just enough to silhouette Yosemite’s two most recognizable monoliths against the rich twilight glow on the eastern horizon. Automatic metering would have made a mess of this.

The moonrise happened on our final morning, giving the group three days to overcome any automatic-mode bias in favor of the manual control this scene required. We’d exorcised most of the exposure kinks with a silhouette shoot from Tunnel View the morning prior, and visited Half Dome View that afternoon to familiarize everyone with the scene. A 4:45 departure got us in place about fifteen minutes early, more than enough time to set up tripods, frame initial compositions, meter, and focus. When the moon appeared, everyone was ready to stop thinking and simply shoot.

We were dealing with two changing variables that morning, the moon’s ascent and the increasing light. As the moon moved first toward (and partially behind) and then above Half Dome, the compositional balance in the frame changed. And the brightening of the sky, gradual enough that the eye couldn’t really register change from moment to moment, necessitated constant exposure adjustment. Throughout the shoot I called out reminders to vary compositions, wide/tight and horizontal/vertical, and monitor exposure. If you train yourself to glance at your histogram with each frame, exposure adjustment at sunrise is simply a matter of making a one-click-at-a-time (1/3 stop in most cameras) change–no need to re-meter or even look through the viewfinder for anything besides composition.

I’m happy to report that everyone was successful that morning. A quick review of my image series shows that I captured thirty-two frames over twenty-two minutes, eighteen horizontal and fourteen vertical. I shot everything with my 100-400 lens, and used the entire focal range from 100mm to 400mm (the majority were closer to 400mm than 100mm), trending wider as the moon rose. The image in this post was captured about twelve minutes after the image in last Monday’s post. Not only has the moon moved quite a bit, the light has increased significantly, and the sunrise color has really started to kick in.

I have no memory of consciously making exposure decisions, but I know my process in the field well enough to predict the progression of my settings. Reviewing my EXIF data confirms that once I got my initial exposure, I shifted into unconscious exposure mode (small adjustments, without re-metering, as the light changes). My “default” settings (for best image quality) are f11 at ISO 100 (adjusting shutter speed to control the exposure), but that morning I started at f8 and ISO 400 to allow a faster shutter speed because my first exposures were long enough that I was concerned about motion-blur in the moon and a stiff wind. As the light increase, I first increased my shutter speed because the wind made vibration my prime concern (rather than noise from a too-high ISO, or softness from a less-sharp f-stop). When my shutter speed was no longer measured in seconds, I adjusted my ISO down to 200; as the light increased more, I went to f11, the aperture at which that lens is sharpest (for me). After that my shutter speed increased in 1/3 stop increments until the light from rising sun washed out the foreground/sky contrast I needed. There were no frame-to-frame adjustments greater than one stop.

2 Comments on “Shoot now, think later

  1. Good Afternoon Gary,

    Phenomenal photos of the sunrise crescent moon.

    Are my calculation off for something close to this same event on Aug 27th this year. Time diff is about 30min earlier moon rise so the sky will be darker, moon percent is a little larger and degree rise is only off 1% ???

    thanks

    • Thanks, Steve. The moon won’t rise into the notch that morning; when it appears it will be higher than Half Dome and about even with the top of El Capitan’s nose.

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