As aggressively as I seek creative ways to express nature with my camera, and as important as I think that is, sometimes a scene is so beautiful that it’s best to just get out of the way and let the scene speak for itself. I had one of those experiences last month at Tunnel View in Yosemite.
There’s a reason Tunnel View is one of the most photographed vistas in the world: El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall—each would be a landscape icon by itself; put them all together in one view and, well…. But the view this evening was truly transcendent, even by Yosemite standards. In Yosemite Valley below, trees and granite still glazed with the snowy vestiges of a departing storm seemed to throb with their own luminance. And above Half Dome a full moon rose through a sky that had been cleansed of all impurities by the departing storm, an otherworldly canvas of indigo, violet, and magenta.
On these crystal-clear, winter-twilight moonrises, the beauty rises with the moon, reaching a crescendo about 20 minutes after sunset, after which the color quickly fades and the landscape darkens. Unfortunately, a some point before the crescendo, the dynamic range becomes so extreme that no camera (not even the dynamic range monster Sony a7RIII) can simultaneously extract usable detail from a daylight-bright moon and dark landscape.
I’d driven to Yosemite solely to photograph this moonrise, an eight hour roundtrip for 40-minutes of photography. Starting with the moon’s arrival about 20 minutes before sunset, I’d juggled three camera bodies and two tripods, first shooting ultra long, then gradually widening to include more of the snowy landscape. Already my captures had more than justified the time and miles the trip would cost me, but watching the moon traverse the deepening hues of Earth’s shadow, I wasn’t ready to stop.
I’ve learned that with a scene this spectacular, conveying the majesty doesn’t require me to pursue the ideal foreground, or do creative things with motion, light, or depth of field. In fact, I’ve come to realize that sometimes a scene can be so beautiful that creative interpretations can dilute or distract from the very beauty that moves me. On this evening in particular, I didn’t want to inject myself into that breathtaking moment, I just wanted to share it.
To simply my images, I opted for a series of frames that used tried-and-true compositions that I’d accumulated after years (decades) of photographing here, the compositions I suggest as “starters” for people who are new to Yosemite, or use myself to jump-start my inspiration: relatively tight horizontal and vertical frames of El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall; El Capitan and Half Dome; or Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall. In the image I share above I concentrated on Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, capping my frame with the wispy fringes of a large cloud that hovered above Yosemite Valley.
Simplifying my compositions had the added benefit of freeing all of my (limited) brain cells to concentrate on the very difficult exposure. The margin for error when photographing a moon this far after sunset is minuscule—if you don’t get the exposure just right, there’s no fixing it in Photoshop later: too dark and there’s too much noise in the shadows; too bright and lunar detail is permanently erased. The problem starts with the understandable inclination to expose the scene to make the landscape look good on the LCD, pretty much guaranteeing that the moon will be toast. Compounding this problem is the histogram, which most of us have justifiably come to trust as the final arbiter for all exposures. But when a twilight moon (bright moon, dark sky) is involved, even the histogram will fail you because the moon is such a small part of the scene, it barely (if at all) registers on the histogram.
Rather than the histogram, for these dark sky moon images I monitor my LCD’s highlight alert (“blinking highlights”), which is usually the only way to to tell that the moon has been overexposed. If the moon is flashing, I know I’ve given the scene too much light and need to back off until the flashing stops—no matter how dark the foreground looks. This is where it’s essential to know your camera, and how far you can push its exposure beyond where the histogram and highlight alert warn you that you’ve gone too far.
When I’m photographing a full moon rising into a darkening sky, I push the exposure to the point where my highlight alert just starts blinking (only the brightest parts of the moon, not the entire disk, are flashing), then I give it just a little more exposure. I know my Sony a7RIII well enough to know that I can still give it a full stop of light beyond this initial flash point and still recover the highlights later. The shadows? In a scene like this they’ll look nearly black, a reality my histogram will confirm, but I never cease to be amazed by how much detail I can pull out of my a7RIII’s shadows in Lightroom and Photoshop.
I continued shooting for several minutes after this frame, and discovered later that even my final capture contained usable highlights and shadows. I chose this image, captured nearly five minutes before I quit, because it contained the best combination of color, lunar detail, and clean (relatively noise-free) Yosemite Valley.