A man with a plan
It was New Year’s Eve and I was perched on a cliff overlooking Yosemite Valley, two feet from certain death and ten minutes from the rise of the largest full moon of 2018. While the death thing would have only been a problem if I’d have lost my mind, the moon’s appearance was entirely subject to the whims of Nature. And at that moment, she wasn’t cooperating.
The vast majority of my images are the result of a plan. But planning in nature requires both flexibility and resolve—an ability to adjust and persevere rather than quit when things don’t unfold as expected.
The master plan for this trip was to photograph 2018’s largest moon twice, on opposite sides of the Sierra. I’d start with super-telephoto shots of the moon’s appearance above Yosemite Valley at sunset on December 31, then drive to Lone Pine (just 100 or so miles as the drone flies, but more than 350 miles as the car drives) to capture its disappearance behind Mt. Whitney at sunrise on January 2. Unfortunately, it seemed that each day leading up to my trip, the weather forecast for both locations trended worse. But moon or not, can you think of a better way to celebrate the New Year than circumnavigating the Sierra? Me neither.
Assembling the parts
A beautiful scene is one part landscape and one part conditions (light, weather, and so on). We generally know where the great landscapes are, but finding them in the right conditions requires research, planning, and execution (plus a little luck). I try to time my trips, workshops and personal, to coincide with these special moments, usually some weather or celestial event. Whether it’s lightning at the Grand Canyon, the Milky Way above Kilauea or the bristlecone pines, or a moon rising or setting behind Half Dome or Mt. Whitney, I want to be there.
The problem is, nothing in nature is guaranteed. We know to the microsecond where the sun, moon, and stars will be at any given time, but have no way of knowing what weather we’ll encounter. I’ve lost many a shoot to inconveniently placed clouds, and I’ll never forget the time I scheduled an entire Yosemite workshop based on the anticipated arrival of Comet ISON, only to have the comet go all Icarus on me just days before the workshop.
But experience has taught me that regardless of the score you don’t leave the game until the last out, and you don’t cancel just because the odds are against you. Sometime the odds are wrong, and sometimes I end up getting an unexpected gift that feels like a reward for my persistence. One of the most memorable shoots of my life happened on a morning with clear skies forecast, but we ignored the forecast and went out for sunrise anyway. And I ended up getting the last laugh on the ISON workshop when Yosemite Valley became the beneficiary of a snowstorm and sudden cold that coated every exposed surface in sparkling ice crystals.
Meanwhile, back on the ledge…
It turns out that my Sierra circumnavigation didn’t yield the big moon images I’d planned, but it definitely delivered in many ways. Ignoring the clouds, I arrived in Yosemite Valley on New Year’s Eve afternoon and ended up at my chosen location at around 4:00 p.m. The sky was mostly clouds, but a few patches of blue in the east gave me reason to hope.
The spot I’d chosen was indeed on a cliff 300 vertical feet above Yosemite Valley, but it was only dangerous if I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing, and given my relationship with heights, there was little chance of that. Flanked by two tripods, I kept one eye on the horizon and the other on void at my feet. On my big tripod (RRS TVC-24LS) was my Sony a7RIII and 100-400 GM with a 2x teleconverter; on my compact tripod (RRS TQC-14) was my Sony a7RII and 70-200 f/4. Each tripod had one leg about two inches from the edge and two legs in the shrubs at my back. Me? I had two legs firmly planted on the narrow granite shelf, with my backside hugging the shrubs.
Sunset was at 4:50. With a cloudless sky the moon would appear from behind Cloud’s Rest at around 4:30, a location similar to last month’s full moon but closer to El Capitan. I’d hoped to start the moonrise with a long telephoto, then transition wider as it rose, but by 4:20 the persistent clouds made it pretty likely that if I saw the moon at all, it would be well above Cloud’s Rest and too high for a telephoto shot. At around 4:30 I waved a white flag at the big moon idea and replaced the 100-400 lens with my Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f/4, hopeful that the moon would make its way into a gap in the clouds before the sky became too dark. At around 4:45 the moon teased with a brief appearance between the clouds, but they scissored shut before the moon had an opportunity to shine.
While waiting I worked on my revised composition, which was complicated by my desire to include with the distant moon and Yosemite Valley, a dead tree in my immediate foreground. With very little margin for depth of field error, I opened my hyperfocal app and plugged in the numbers to determine the f-stop and focus point that would ensure front-to-back sharpness. With that out of the way, I bided my time photographing beautiful warm light on El Capitan and Half Dome.
The moon finally peeked above the clouds for good at 4:48. Ascending the darkening sky, the moon was enhanced by a sheer film of nearly transparent clouds that started out pink that intensified to fuchsia on their way to a vivid magenta that colored all of Yosemite Valley. I kept clicking as the foreground darkened, magnifying my image periodically to be sure I wasn’t losing detail in the moon. The image I share here was captured fifteen minutes after sunset.
You win some and you lose some
The Lone Pine segment of my trip was a photographic flop, but photography really shouldn’t be all about the photography. I arrived in Lone Pine mid-afternoon on New Year’s Day and spent the remaining daylight doing reconnaissance for the next day’s sunrise moonset. This was going to be another super-telephoto opportunity, this time at a location I’d driven past but never photographed from, so I wanted to ensure no surprises. That afternoon I enjoyed nice clouds and light above the Sierra’s east face, but to have photographed it would have compromised my scouting objective so I was just content to enjoy.
I rose before 6:00 a.m. on January 2 and drove out to my planned location with a pretty good idea that the clouds would shut me down. When I parked, the moon penetrated the clouds as an indistinct glowing sphere. As I waited, it descended into more-dense clouds and disappeared for good, but I stayed, quite content to simply watch Mt. Whitney and its towering neighbors emerge beneath the brightening sky.
The drive home took my beneath the serrated Sierra crest, past Mono Lake, through the Hope Valley, over Echo Summit and back down into Sacramento, completing the circuit with at least one successful image and many memories of a great trip. A very Happy New Year indeed.
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