Starry, starry night

Winter Star Trails, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite
Canon 1Ds Mark III
28 mm
24 minutes
ISO 400

Yosemite is beautiful any time, under any conditions, but adding stars to the mix is almost unfair. I started doing night photography here on full moon nights about six or seven years ago, but recently I’ve enjoyed photographing the exquisite starscape of moonless Yosemite nights. With no moonlight to wash out the sky, the heavens come alive. Of course without moonlight visibility is extremely limited, and focus is sometimes an act of faith. But eyes adjust, and focus improves with experience (I promise).

After photographing, among other things, Yosemite Valley with a fresh blanket of snow and Horsetail Fall in all its illuminated splendor, last month’s Yosemite winter workshop had already been a success. Nevertheless, after dinner on our next to last night I took the group to this peaceful bend in the Merced River to photograph Half Dome beneath the stars.

I started with a high ISO test shot to get the exposure info for everyone, then converted to a long exposure that allowed me to ignore my camera for a half hour or so while I worked with the rest of the group. Helping with focus, composition, and exposure, I made sure everyone had had a success before suggesting we wrap up.

The fabulous photography is only part of what makes these night shoots memorable–they’re also just plain fun. That night we ended up staying out for about an hour, shooting, shivering, and laughing–lots of laughing. And as the group packed up, I returned to my camera and found this waiting for me.

Check out next year’s Yosemite winter workshop.

14 Comments on “Starry, starry night

  1. what a beautiful capture Gary. Well done. What setting were you using?

  2. Hi Gary,

    I always enjoy viewing your images. I was curious as to how you captured the depth of field in this image with an aperture setting of f2.8.

    • Thanks, Wayne. At 28mm and f2.8, focusing 30 feet away gives me sharpness from 15 feet to infinity. For this shot I positioned myself about 30 feet from my car and used the auto-lock button on the key to make the headlights flash on for a few seconds, long enough to focus there.

    • Thanks Gary. Who’d a thought! You certainly know all the nuances, tricks, and tools. Very nice technique to shorten the exposure time. I can’t image the exposure time, or what it would have done to the star lights, at f22. Thanks for sharing that with us.

  3. Gary

    I have viewed a lot of your photos but this photo is my all time favorite by far. I have always wanted to capture a nice star trail photo but have never been successful. I am coming to your Yosemite workshop in May and would love to try and capture one if conditions permit. A truly inspiring photo for me! Where could I go to purchase a copy of this photo?

    • Thanks, Greg. I try to include night photography in most of my workshops, but the phase of the moon determines what’s possible. This year’s Yosemite May workshop is scheduled for the full moon, which means we’ll be going for a moonbow on Yosemite Falls. While the brightest stars are still visible during a full moon, the sky is just too bright, with many stars washed out, for effective star trail images.

  4. Gary,This is really beautiful,especially the tone. What was your white balance setting for this image? Thanks for the nugget on focusing technique.

  5. Hi Gary been awhile, I did enjoy the rainbow workshop in 2009. Had a good time and many great images. How long after sunset was this shot taken? And what are the best hours for this kind of work?
    Thank you,

    • Hi Jeff. This was about two hours after sunset. The best time for star trails is after the moon is down, at least an hour after sunset. And even a couple hours after sunset or before sunrise, you shouldn’t compose in the direction of the setting/rising sun (unless you want a glow on the horizon).

  6. Thanks for the tip on focusing at night! Who would have thought using one’s own car headlights! I tried a night shot at Zion a few weeks ago and thought ‘infinity’ would be the setting but it didn’t turn out as I would have liked.

      • So setting manual focus on a bright star is not the way to go? Would that render stuff in the foreground (Half Dome) out of focus? I tried this at Zion on a moonless night and the focus didn’t look as sharp as I would have desired.

      • Focusing on a bright star, or pretty much anything at least 50 feet away, is fine. It’s often hard to nail manual focus on a star unless you magnify it in live-view.

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