I scheduled my Yosemite Comet ISON photo workshop way back when astronomers were crossing their fingers and whispering “Comet of the Century.” Sadly, the media took those whispers and amplified them a thousand times—when ISON did its Icarus act on Thanksgiving, its story became the next in a long line of comet failures (raise your hand if you remember Kohoutek).
But anyone who understands the fickle nature of comets would be foolish to get too excited about (or plan an event solely around) a comet’s promised appearance. So I scheduled this workshop knowing that even if the comet fizzled, storms and snowfall can make winter in Yosemite Valley spectacular. But, because snowfall in Yosemite is also far from a sure thing, to further enhance our chances for something special, in addition to Comet ISON and winter conditions, I scheduled this workshop to coincide with the December full moon. And while we didn’t get the comet, well, to quote Meat Loaf, “two out of three ain’t bad.”
Yosemite Valley received nearly a foot of snow a few days before the workshop started. Given Yosemite frequent sunshine and relatively warm temps, normally that snow would have all but disappeared from the trees and rocks within a few hours, and within a couple of days would have been marred by large brown patches—exactly what happened in the unshaded parts of Yosemite Valley. But because this storm was followed immediately by a cold snap, those parts of the valley that remained all day in the shade of the towering, sheer granite (mostly the south and/or west side of the valley) didn’t shed their snow and actually accumulated ice as the week went on.
Valley View was the prime beneficiary of this all day shade—by the time my workshop started, snow-capped rocks, hoarfrost blooms, and a sheet of windowed ice had elevated this always beautiful location to more beautiful than I’ve ever seen it. Full moon notwithstanding, it was the highlight of the workshop. Taking advantage of our unique opportunity, my group photographed Valley View early morning, late afternoon, at sunset, and (as you can see) by moonlight.
There are lots of things human vision can do that the camera can’t—fortunately, one of those things is not see in low light. While moonlight adds beauty to any scene, when a scene starts out off-the-charts-beautiful, moonlight makes it a downright spiritual experience. Though moonlight is beautiful to the eye, even at its brightest, a full moon isn’t bright enough to reveal all the beauty present. Enter the camera.
Giving this scene lots of light allowed me to reveal how it would appear if your eyes could take in as much light as, say, an owl. Or your cat. The blueness of the sky, the sparkling ice crystals, the reflection in the river—that beauty is no less real just because it’s invisible to our eyes.
To reveal all this “invisible” beauty, I started at ISO 800, f4, 15 seconds. But the unusually extreme (for moonlight photography) depth of field this composition required caused me to increase to ISO 1600 and 30 seconds to allow the extra DOF f8 provides. And I was thrilled to discover that there was enough light to enable live-view manual focus (my now preferred focus method for all situations). According to my DOF app, focusing about eight feet into the frame would give me sharpness from front-to-back, but just to be sure, after capture I magnified image in my LCD and checked the ice in the foreground and trees atop El Capitan.
The other problem I needed to deal with was lens flare, an easy thing to forget about when photographing in the dark. But the moon is a bright light source and all the lens flare rules that apply to sunlight photography also apply to moonlight—if moonlight strikes your front lens element, you’ll get lens flare. Since I hate lens hoods, I manually shield my lenses in flare situations. A hat works nicely, but there was no way I was taking my snuggly warm hat off, so I shaded my lens with my hand for the entire 30 seconds of my exposure.
BTW, see that bright light shining through the tree at the base of El Capitan? That’s Jupiter.