Eyes on the Sky
Goodnight Moon, Olmsted Point, Yosemite
Sony 200-600 G
We tend to photograph the things we love most, but I don’t think that necessarily happens consciously. For example, I never appreciated the role the sky plays in my photography until someone pointed it out a few years ago. Browsing my galleries to verify, I was amazed at the percentage of my images that include at least one of the following: the sun, the moon, stars, a rainbow, lightning, or dramatic clouds. (And, as of last January, the northern lights.)
While I never set out to be a “skyscape” photographer, given my background, I guess it makes sense. (Or more succinctly, “Duh.”) As an astronomy enthusiast since I was a child, and an armchair meteorologist since my late teens, I spent most of my formative years with my eyes and mind on the sky. I continued these childhood interests into adulthood, studying both astronomy and meteorology in college (I even majored in astronomy for a few semesters), and to this day can’t pass up a book or article on either topic. Even without a camera, I can spend hours watching clouds form and dissipate, or gazing at the stars.
Despite a parallel interest in photography, as a film shooter I was frustrated by limitations that prevented me from photographing many of my favorite sky phenomena. While daylight sights like clouds and rainbows were doable, but daylight lightning was out of reach. Narrow dynamic range, a lack of exposure feedback, and inability to process a color image made photographing simultaneous detail in the landscape and the moon frustrating. But switching to digital photography finally provided the control over my color captures, control that had previously only been available to monochrome film shooters with access to a darkroom.
With my first DSLR, purchased more than 15 years ago (!), I suddenly had the exposure feedback and processing control I lacked. That camera struggled with ISOs above 400, but that was enough to handle moonlight and I was hooked on night photography. Nevertheless, for many years photographing the Milky Way and landscape detail with a single click (my own personal rule) seemed like a pipe dream. But unlike the film days, advancement in digital sensors seemed happen with each passing year, and for the last few years I’ve been able to add Milky Way photography to my night repertoire.
The same goes for daylight lightning—with my Lightning Trigger, I’m able to freeze bolts that come and go so fast they’re memories before my brain registers them. Not only that, we now have computers in our pockets that can tell us where lightning is firing almost in realtime.
My evolution to skyscape photography was gradual, paced mostly by the evolution of technology, but in hindsight, I feel a little foolish for taking so long to recognize the personal synergy created by combining these three lifelong interests. Now if I could only figure out a way to add baseball to the mix…
A few tips for good sky photography
- The amount of sky and landscape a frame gets is pretty much a function of the visual appeal of each: the better the sky relative to the landscape, the more frame real-estate it gets. Both nice? I have no problem splitting the frame in the middle.
- Clear sky? Use the absolute minimum sky possible—sometimes that’s a thin strip at the top of the frame, other times it’s no sky at all.
- Rules for compositional elements in the sky are no different than they are for elements in the landscape. And I’m afraid clouds are frequently overlooked, leading to things like a towering thunderhead with its top cropped, or a cloudy ceiling with a small patch of blue that juts up and out of the top of the frame (and pulling the eye with it). Sometimes these things can’t be avoided, but you should always make the edges of your frame a conscious choice, even in the sky.
- Clouds are great, and for photography almost always better than a blank blue sky, but I especially enjoy including special elements that can be subjects in themselves (like a rainbow, lightning, the Milky Way, the moon, and so on). Rather than showing up and benignly accepting whatever the scene delivers, I aggressively pursue sky subjects by planning my visits to coincide with the best chance for something interesting in the sky. I start with a landscape scene I like, then figure out what sky feature or features I might be able to put with it. How can I get this scene with the Milky Way? What about a full or crescent moon? A rainbow? Lightning? ( (And before you ask, I refuse to add a sky in post—like everything else I photograph, all of my images that include the sky need to happen with one click.)
- Weather phenomena require a little knowledge and planning, and a lot of luck. For example, whenever I shoot in rain, or with the potential for rain, I figure out where a rainbow would appear if the sun were to break through. And don’t think you can just go out and photograph lightning because you’re in an electrical storm and have a camera. Not only is capturing lightning very difficult without knowledge, experience, and the right equipment, it’s just plain dangerous. Read my tips for photographing lightning.
- Night photography is about the stars, so make sure you give enough of your frame to the sky to highlight the stars. My rule of thumb is 2/3 sky, but sometimes I’ll do even more, and if the foreground is spectacular (like the Grand Canyon), I might split the frame evenly between the sky and landscape.
- The moon is predictable, requiring only clear skies, a sturdy tripod, and maybe some warm clothes. Before any photo trip, I make a point of knowing the moon’s phase and rise/set times and position. Read my tips for photographing the moon.
- While photographing the Milky Way’s isn’t as dangerous as photographing lightning (unless you walk off a cliff in the dark), like lightning photography, including the Milky Way (the right way) also requires a lot of knowledge and experience, as well as the right equipment. Read my tips on photographing the Milky Way.
About this image
I found this scene in October’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections workshop, on our last-minute (not part of the original plan) trip to Olmsted Point to photograph sunset and the Milky Way. The crescent moon wasn’t the prime prime goal of this shoot, but I knew it would be here when we arrived and had every intention of photographing it as big as possible. (Had I not known there’d be a chance to photograph the moon, I’d likely have left my Sony 200-600 lens behind.)
The challenges I dealt with composing this scene were extreme dynamic range and a (freezing) wind. Since a waxing crescent moon always sets shortly after the sun, which puts it in the brightest part of the sky above a fairly dark landscape, capturing the moon, sky color, and landscape detail is difficult to impossible. I solved this problem by positioning myself so the moon set behind a ridge lined with distinctive trees against the sky. With my Sony 200-600 G lens on my Sony a7RIV, I zoomed tight to enlarge the moon and exposed to make the trees a silhouette.
To mitigate vibration imposed by the breeze and magnified by my 600mm focal length, I bumped my ISO to 800, which allowed me to use a 1/25 second shutter speed. And just to be sure, I magnified the image in my viewfinder and checked its sharpness.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
Big Moon, Valley View, Yosemite
Sun and Smoke, Sierra Foothills, California
Setting Crescent, Sierra Crest, Alabama Hills (California)
Starry Night, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand
Moonset, Manly Beacon from Zabriskie Point, Death Valley
Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim
Sunrise Trio, Crescent Moon Above El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite
Double Rainbow, Tunnel View, Yosemite (2009)
Bristlecone Night, Milky Way from the White Mountains, California
Half Dome Lightning Strike, Glacier Point, Yosemite
Yosemite Silhouette, Crescent Moon w/El Capitan and Half Dome
Moonrise, Sierra Foothills, California
Captive Crescent, Yosemite
Surprise Rainbow, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon
Dune Moon, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Direct Hit, Half Dome Lightning Strike, Yosemite
Night Fire, Milky Way Above Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii
Heaven Sent, Monsoon Rainbow, Vista Encantada, Grand Canyon North Rim
New Moon and Oak, Sierra Foothills (California)
Sky Light,The Milky Way and City Lights, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand
Dark Night, Milky Way and Ancient Bristlecone, Schulman Grove (California)
Color and Light, Grand Canyon Lightning, Bright Angel Point
Lightning Web, Grand Canyon
Summer Rainbow, Yosemite Valley
Spring Moon Reflection, Half Dome, Yosemite
Winter Night, Milky Way Above Tasman Lake, New Zealand
Nature’s Prism, Rainbow Above Marble Canyon, Roosevelt Point, Grand Canyon
Yosemite Night, Half Dome and Milky Way from Olmsted Point
Autumn Moonrise, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite
Aurora on Ice, Glacier Lagoon, Icelan
Winter Supermoon, Half Dome, Yosemite
Winter Moonrise, Full Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite
Nightfall, Full Moon and Yosemite Valley, Yosemite
Moon!, Half Dome, Yosemite
Fire on High, Kilauea and Milky Way, Hawaii
Goodnight Moon, Olmsted Point, Yosemite
Winter Moon, Half Dome, Yosemite
New Moon and Oak, Sierra Foothills (California)
Moon and Mist,Tunnel View, Yosemite
Three Strikes, Bright Angel Point, North Rim, Grand Canyon
Fire and Mist, Halemaumau Crater, Kilauea, Hawaii
Rainbow Reflection, Queen’s Bath, Kauai, Hawaii
Forked Lightning, Point Imperial, Grand Canyon
Magenta Moonrise, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite
Milky Way Reflection, Colorado River, Grand Canyon