Chasing the moon (the cure for boring skies)

Twilight Crescent, Olmsted Point, Yosemite

Whether I’m shooting on my own or (especially) leading a photo workshop, there are no weather conditions I stress about more than blue skies. As nice as it is to be outside on a sunny day, cloudless skies are not a photographer’s friend. Not only do blue skies limit productive photography time to a ninety minute (or so) window sandwiching sunrise and sunset, even in the best light, they’re just plain boring.

In recent years my antidote for blue skies has been to plan as many trips as possible around the moon. The obvious example is Death Valley, which averages about one inch of rain per year and is therefore quite possibly the blue sky capital of the world. Scheduling my Death Valley workshop to include a full moon ensures that, even with cloudless skies, we’re at least able to do moon and moonlight photography. With careful planning I’m able to get the group in position for two sunset moonrises and two sunrise moonsets–always a big hit (for students and instructor).

Of course Death Valley isn’t the only place I photograph that suffers from blue skies. Yosemite is much more likely to have interesting weather, but it’s by no means a sure thing. To hedge my bet in Yosemite I try to time as many workshops there around the moon. For example, I love the way the autumn full moon aligns with Yosemite’s Half Dome and always schedule a fall workshop to coincide with this. But since I can usually fill at least two fall workshops in Yosemite, and there’s only one full moon per month (who do I talk to about that?), I try to plan a second Yosemite fall workshop around a crescent moon.

Because it’s always in the sky opposite the sun, a full moon is relatively easy to photograph if you know what you’re doing. But a crescent moon is always in the brightest part of the sky–the thinner the crescent, the closer to the sun it is. A waning crescent precedes the sun in the east at sunrise, shrinking each day until one morning it’s obliterated by the rising sun. A day or two later the “new” moon reappears at sunset as a waxing crescent, trailing the sun to the western horizon just after sunset–each evening it sets a little later and larger (and “older”).

The crescent moon’s proximity to the sun is a particular problem in Yosemite, as Yosemite Valley is a bowl that’s in deep shade when a crescent moon is in the sky. My solution is to find an elevated location–such as Tunnel View, Glacier Point, Sentinel Dome, or Olmsted Point–with a view of Half Dome (which is elevated and always brighter than the valley floor).

The trick is to align the moon with Half Dome. For the workshop that just ended Sunday, I determined that the best moon location was Olmsted Point where, on Saturday night, a 12% crescent would hang high above Half Dome at sunset. Moon or not, Olmsted Point is one of my favorite easily accessible locations in Yosemite–it offers a perspective of Half Dome that’s different from the standard views, and glacial erratics (boulders deposited by retreating glaciers) on Olmsted’s sloping granite make great foreground subjects. I knew a thin moon in an otherwise empty sky above Half Dome would make a perfect accent.

I got my group up to Olmsted early so everyone had time to get familiar with the surroundings and find their compositions. The moon was visible when we arrived, but wasn’t prominent enough to photograph until close to sunset, when the sky darkened enough to allow the daylight-bright crescent to stand out. We photographed until darkness was nearly complete, starting with wider shots that included the moon and the reflective granite foreground illuminated by the glowing sky, and continuing until the only shots remaining were moderate vertical telephotos that featured the descending moon above the darkening Half Dome.

Staying out this late, gazing toward the horizon where the sun just disappeared, is a great reminder of how vivid sunset color is, even when there are no clouds. (Next time you watch a sunset, don’t leave when the sun leaves–stay out at least a half hour longer and watch the color in all directions–if you didn’t know better, you’d swear God was taking liberties with the saturation slider.) Eventually our scene became too dark to photograph, but the color just kept getting deeper and deeper. The last few minutes were spent not photographing but appreciating.

2 Comments on “Chasing the moon (the cure for boring skies)

  1. Beautiful shot, and once again I thank you for the good instruction you put into your posts along with the element of simply enjoying and appreciating the beauty of the place.

  2. You’re so right about the changing light after the sun goes down. I live in the southwest and even with cloudless skies the sky after the sun drops below the horizon becomes, what I like to call, God’s paint pallet.
    Your blog is easily one of my favorites and “go-to” blogs to read.

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