Moon chasing: The rest of the story

Gary Hart Photography: Moon!, Half Dome, Yosemite

Moon!, Half Dome, Yosemite
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/13 second
ISO 200
400 mm (slightly cropped)

Wow, it seems like only yesterday that the moon was just tiny dot hovering above Half Dome.

Moonrise Reflection, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite

Moonrise Reflection, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite

What happened?

No, the moon didn’t magically expand, nor did I enlarge it digitally and plop it into this image. What happened is that I waited two days and moved back; what happened is the difference between 40mm and 400mm; what happened is a perfect illustration of the photographer’s power to influence viewers’ reaction to a scene through understanding and execution of the camera’s unique view of the world.

The rest of the story

My workshop group captured the “small” moon at sunset on Thursday, when it was 93% full and the “official” (assumes a flat, unobstructed horizon) moonrise was 3:09 p.m (an hour and 40 minutes before sunset). That night the moon didn’t rise to 16 degrees above the horizon, the angle to Half Dome’s summit as viewed from our location beside the Merced River, until almost exactly sunset. Because it’s so much higher than anything to the west, Half Dome gets light pretty much right up until sunset—look closely and you can see the day’s last rays kissing Half Dome’s summit.

Flat horizon moonrise on Saturday, when the moon was 100% full, was at 4:24 p.m., only about twenty minutes before sunset. But Tunnel View is nearly 500 feet above Yosemite Valley; it’s also 5 1/2 miles farther than Half Dome than Thursday’s location—this increased elevation and distance reduces the angle to the top of Half Dome to just 6 degrees. So, despite rising over an hour later, when viewed from Tunnel View, the moon peeked above the ridge behind Half Dome just a couple of minutes after sunset (if we’d stayed at Thursday night’s location, in addition to being hungry and cold, by Saturday we’ have had to wait until after 6:00 for the moon to appear).


My objective for full moon photography is always to get the detail in the moon and the foreground. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, these were workshop shoots, and experience has shown me that the most frequent failure when photographing a rising moon in fading twilight is getting the exposure right—the tendency is to perfectly expose the foreground, which overexposes the daylight-bright moon (leaving a pure white disk). This problem is magnified when the moon catches everyone unprepared.

So, both evenings I had my group on location about 30 minutes before the moon. While we waited I made sure everyone had their blinking highlights (highlight alert) turned on, and understood that their top priority would be capturing detail in the moon. I warned them that an exposure without a blinking (overexposed) moon would slightly underexpose the foreground. And I told them that once they had the moon properly exposed (as bright as possible without significant blinking highlights), they shouldn’t adjust their exposure because the moon’s brightness wouldn’t change and they’d already made it as bright as they could. This meant that as we shot, the foreground would get continually darker until it just became too dark to photograph.

(A graduated neutral density filter would have extended the time we could have photographed the scene, but the vertical component of Yosemite’s horizon made a GND pretty useless. A composite of two frames, one exposed for the moon and one exposed for the landscape would have been a better way to overcome the scene’s increasing dynamic range.)

Compare and contrast

Winter Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

Thursday night’s scene, which would have been beautiful by itself, was simply accented by the (nearly) full moon. Contrast that with my visit a few years ago, when I photographed a full moon rising slightly to the left of its position last Saturday’s night. But more significant than the moon’s position that evening was the rest of the scene, which was so spectacular that it called for a somewhat wider composition that included the pink sky and fresh snow. And then there’s the above image, from last Saturday night—because the sky was cloudless (boring), and snow was nowhere to be seen, I opted for a maximum telephoto composition that was all about the moon and Half Dome.

The wide angle perspective I chose Thursday night emphasized the foreground by exaggerating the distance separating me, Half Dome, and the moon; the snowy moonrise image found a middle ground that went as tight as possible while still conveying the rest of the scene’s beauty. Saturday night’s telephoto perspective compressed that distance, bringing the moon front and center. Same moon, same primary subject: If Thursday night’s moon was a garnish, Saturday’s was the main course.

Learn more about photographing a full moon

Join me next fall as we do this all over again

A gallery of Yosemite moons

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

9 Comments on “Moon chasing: The rest of the story

  1. Wow, Gary… don’t fool around, what a magnificent image thanks to you, and Mother Nature, of course. 🙂

  2. Gary, thanks for the very instructive narrative. I wish I had read this one year ago. I was in Yosemite December 25th through the 30th last year and parked myself at Tunnel View (with MANY others), I believe on the 27th, and did not set up nor adjust exposure appropriately and caught the moon as a big white blob and even a few shots with sun-like flaring. I want to dearly get back there for another full moon and capture the moon and landscape detail as you have done.

  3. SUperb, Gary! I also really like the Magenta tones you have captured in the “Expando-Moon” 🙂 Just beautiful sir! How’s that for a short comment from your’s truly. All the best Gary!! Denny

  4. Thanks for the words of wisdom Gary. I’ve almost always had issues with trying to get detail out of the moon while maintaining enough light for my foreground. Your tip on using the camera’s highlight meter is a great idea. Can’y wait to try it. Thanks

  5. Great shot Gary, and valued instruction. Prem and I are on Molokai for a week of kick back shooting, then she goes home, and I get to spend a week with Dewitt Jones. It’s tough duty. Here on the island, if you want dinner, you’ve got to eat early. Everything shuts down about 8 and on Sunday, forget it. there’s no night life, I think one bar, but a lot of ocean, the highest sea cliffs in the world and scenery ranging from desert to rain forest. Great big orange full moon shots too. But none can compare to the Hart version! Cheers…Richard

    • Thanks, Richard, it’s good to hear from you. It sounds like you guys have a great week ahead of you—what a fantastic way to spend Thanksgiving. Are you going to try to photograph Comet ISON? It reaches perihelion on Thanksgiving; if it survives (a big if), it should reappear low on the east horizon shortly before sunrise on around the 2nd or 3rd of December. Its visibility will depend on how bright it is—possibilities range from a complete whiff to spectacular, but I can’t think of a better place to try to photograph it than Hawaii. Photographing Comet PanSTARRS from Haleakala in March was one of the highlights of my life.


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