I was hungry, wet, and cold. With the blacktop obscured by a slippery white veneer, I carefully followed my headlights and a faint set of parallel tire tracks through the tree tunnel. Though the storm that had lured me to Yosemite was finally clearing, that show was lost to the night and dense forest canopy. But even without another clearing storm to add to my Yosemite portfolio, I was quite content with what I’d photographed that day.
Just as my heated seats started to kick in and visions of dinner filled my head, I rounded a curve and reflexively hit the brakes, sliding not so gracefully into the empty Valley View parking lot. With no forethought I bolted from the car, then had to grab the door to keep from losing my footing on the icy pavement.
Always a beautiful place for photography, Valley View this time was quite literally one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever witnessed. I inhaled cold air and held it. Instead of racing for my gear, I exhaled slowly and gaped through puffs of breath: Ice-glazed trees and granite, moonlight infused clouds draping El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, and the glassy Merced River spreading before me like a luminous carpet. But the scene’s centerpiece, the element that really took the experience over the top for me, was a full moon embedded in the night sky like a brilliant gem, illuminating every exposed surface.
Gathering my wits along with my gear, I started to think about photographing the scene. Because the moon was too bright to photograph (and I have the pictures to prove it), I composed to capture my favorite aspects of the rest of the scene: the clouds, the reflection, and the frozen moonlight magic—the moon would remain out of the frame, to the right.
In most moonlight images, my scene is back far enough that everything is at infinity regardless of my f-stop. But the nearby trees and rocks meant this scene needed to be sharp from just a few feet away all the way to the stars, which meant a small aperture and very precise focus point selection. A quick check of my hyperfocal app told me that focusing five feet away at f11 would give me the depth of field I needed. Once my eyes adjusted, the moonlit branches were just bright enough to focus on.
But at f11, even with the brilliant moonlight, getting enough light to reveal the scene required other compromises. Pushing my shutter speed to 30 seconds—the after-dark threshold that the risk of star motion prevents me from crossing—I had to bump my ISO to 3200. Fortunately, the a7R II was up to the task—while I did get a fair amount of noise in the shadows, it cleaned up nicely in processing.
Leaving Valley View that night, the chill and hunger I’d felt earlier had disappeared. Photography is funny that way—we put ourselves in the most miserable conditions, then completely forget how miserable we are when Nature delivers. The key is to remember this capacity when we’re debating whether to set the alarm for zero-dark-thirty, or skip a meal, or brave the elements.
This El Capitan moonlight moment turned out to be my final 2015 photo shoot, a fitting conclusion to a year filled with highlights. Breaking in a new camera (or three) while learning a completely new system and way of shooting (Sony mirrorless), I visited the dunes of Death Valley, the rain forests of Hawaii, Yosemite’s glacier-carved granite (many times), Grand Canyon top and bottom—to name just a few. I photographed lightning, rainbows, snow and ice, an active volcano, spring wildflowers and fall color, the moon in many phases, and the Milky Way above some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. How fortunate I am to have job that I don’t need a vacation from!
At the end of 2014, while reflecting on the beauty I’d witnessed that year, the new friends I’d made, not to mention countless new memories with old friends, I wondered what 2015 would bring. And now I know. In one year I’ll do a similar retrospective on 2016, and while I have no idea what’s in store, I’m confident my good fortune will continue.
So let’s go….
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