Do you have little games you play in your head? Private challenges that range from small amusements to all-encompassing obsessions—things like guessing how many miles until this desert highway crests that distant rise, or how many peanuts in a row you can land in the cocoa mug on the coffee table, or guessing the current time to the minute before looking at the clock. You do? Really? Wow, you should probably see a mental health professional about that. Just kidding—I do too, and I’m pretty sure we’re not alone.
Leading as many photo workshops as I do, one technique I use to keep myself mentally challenged at locations I visit over and over is to try to create sets of images with a single connecting thread. I’ll capture an initial version of a scene, then each time I return, look for complementary versions that portray the scene differently. For example, in a different season, or with the moon in a different phase or position. I consider this a personal game because I rarely (never?) use them as actual set, or share the connections with others, I simply get private pleasure from the symmetry they create.
That the moon is now featured in many of my images is no accident: it’s photogenic, easy to predict, and it just makes me happy. But I think I’d get bored just clicking random pictures of the moon, so sometimes I like to spice it up. First by making sure I could pair it with favorite terrestrial subjects, and later by creating related sets of moonrise (or set) images.
Yosemite is great for moon photography because of its distant, east-facing vistas that allow me to magnify the moon with long focal lengths. Setting up at one of Yosemite Valley’s west-side vistas, with the right timing I could point a telephoto lens in the direction of Half Dome and wait for the rising moon to slide into my frame.
On the other hand, Half Dome views on Yosemite Valley’s east side, with their closer perspective and Merced River reflections, are special, but I initially ruled them out for moonrises because of the wide, moon-shrinking focal lengths required. That changed on an autumn evening at one of my favorite east-side Half Dome views, when I realized the power a small moon can add to an already pretty scene.
While photographing tight shots of the moon rising above Half Dome, I decided that Half Dome and the autumn-gold cottonwoods reflecting Merced River merited a wider view, even if the moon would be quite small. And while moon is definitely not the focal point of this image, I was surprised by how much I liked its subtle presence in the scene.
Some images thrill me at capture and slowly fade in significance with time, while others seem to make me a little happier each time I see it. This is autumn moonrise is one of those images.
So when I was at the same location on a spring evening about a year-and-a-half later and saw the moon hanging way off to the right of the scene, I composed an even wider frame to include it. This tiny moon was even less prominent than the moon in my autumn image, but I liked the way it accented the frame, providing an extra reward for anyone who spends quality time with the image (full disclosure: not everyone agrees that the tiny moon enhances this scene, but oh well).
I now had a matching pair of similarly composed images from the same location, featuring the moon, Half Dome, and a reflection, each most decidedly distinguished by its season. So of course my next thought was, can I complete the set with a similar image that highlights winter (summer in Yosemite is for tourists)?
The second (spring) image was taken in 2015, and while I was far from obsessed with completing my set, in the ensuing winters I did make a number of attempts that were thwarted by schedule conflicts, clouds, or conditions that weren’t wintry enough. But I was finally able to complete my Half Dome full moon bingo card last month, when all the parts aligned on the first night of my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop. I had the moon arriving just a few minutes before sunset, snow and fog prominently visible in my scene, and the clouds parting just enough—bingo!
One last thought
This Half Dome moonrise set offers a little insight into my approach to composing a scene. In the autumn image there wasn’t much going on in the sky and I framed it as tightly as I could without cutting off the trees and their reflection. In the spring image the sky and its reflection were spectacular, so I went wide, taking care not to truncate the pink cloud in on the left. And in the winter image I found more of a middle ground, framing it as tight as I could without cutting into the cloud in the top-center. And in all three images, the evergreens on the right serve as a frame.
(A great illustration of the role of focal length in the moon’s size)