More love for the Sony a7S

Gary Hart Photography: El Capitan and the Big Dipper, El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite

El Capitan and the Big Dipper, El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite
Sony a7S
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
8 seconds
ISO 6400

In my previous blog I wrote about the flexibility of carrying three mirrorless (compact) bodies, each with its own strengths: the Sony a7R, a7S, and a6000. The a7S is my low-light body; it enables me to freeze motion and extract detail in conditions the were previously impossible. But more than that, I’ve discovered the a7S also makes photography that I’ve been doing for years, noticeably better.

Once upon a time

I got the a7S largely for its ability to pull light out of moonless night scenes, but the more I use it, the more I appreciate the way my a7S eliminates shortcomings I’ve wrestled with in my ten years of moonlight photography. As bright as a full moon is, the sun is nearly 500,000 times brighter (look it up), so achieving adequate moonlight exposure has always required pushing my camera’s light gathering settings to their quality threatening extremes, combining my lens’s widest, poorest quality aperture with star streaking 30-second exposures.

Mitigating these shortcomings meant increasing ISO, but with more sensitivity comes more noise. As high ISO and noise reduction software capabilities improve, so does the quality of my moonlight images, but the improvement has been slow and steady, only marginally perceptible. And it’s not been enough to push me out of the compromised exposure settings zone.

A new paradigm

Enter the a7S. With its spacious sensor and large photosites, the a7S offers ridiculous low light capabilities and I no longer think twice about shooting at 3200, 6400, or 12,800 ISO. And if I need to go higher than that, I know I have at least two more stops of ISO that usually cleans up quite nicely. Suddenly, I’m free to select an aperture I know will ensure the best quality, and a shutter speed that will freeze the stars, then just crank my ISO to a value that delivers the amount of light I want.

But wait, there’s more

Since I’m always on a tripod, most of my lenses are f4—I just can’t justify the bulk and expense of faster glass. But one downside of f4 glass is a less bright viewfinder, making composition and focus difficult in low light. Composition is often by trial and error, but it’s not too bad (and certainly easier than moonless scenes). My moonlight focus solution has always been to compose my shot on the tripod, detach the camera, turn and autofocus on the moon, then return my camera to the tripod—adequate, but a pain.

My a7S sucks so much light into my electronic viewfinder that composition and manual focus in moonlight are a fast, single-step process (I’m guessing moonlight autofocus works too, but I haven’t tried it). Whether I want to focus on the stars, or a particular foreground subject, I simply compose and dial in the sharpness.

For example

I’ve learned that teaching people moonlight photography in the moonbow chaos on the bridge beneath Lower Yosemite Fall is a recipe for disaster, so I usually take my groups out to El Capitan Meadow the night before our moonbow shoot. This spot is easy to get to, it has lots of room, an iconic Yosemite subject, and not too much light pollution (we can just shoot over the headlights). But I go here so much with my groups, I rarely get my camera out anymore.

This month’s group seemed to be doing fine, and I couldn’t resist the sight of the Big Dipper hanging above El Capitan, so I set up my camera and tried a couple of frames with the a7S. Rather than using my standard moonlight recipe (that I’ve been teaching for years)—ISO 800, f4, 20 seconds—I went to a fast shutter speed and mid-range aperture I’ve always longed for (8 seconds, f8) , and compensated with ISO 6400. In my viewfinder El Capitan throbbed with moonlight, and the stars of the Big Dipper stood out like a glow-in-the-dark star chart, making composition and focus effortless.

On my computer back in the hotel I magnified the image to 100 percent in steps, scrutinizing each magnification for noise. I saw none until I got to 100 percent, when I could detect a fine texture in the void between the stars. This cleaned up easily with very low-level noise reduction (Topaz). Examining the image for sharpness and star motion was pure joy as I realized I’d just captured my sharpest, cleanest moonlight image ever.

Learn more about moonlight photography

Join next year’s Yosemite Moonbow photo workshop

A moonlight gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

When seasons collide

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite

Spring Snow, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
1/8 second
ISO 100

Ever notice how the best photography happens at nature’s boundaries, the interface separating disparate elements? Sometimes it’s visual elements, like the collision of surf and shore or the intersection of shadow and light. But often we’re moved by images that capture the transition of our experience of the world, such as the color and light that happens when we shift between night and day, or distinctive elements of two seasons together in one frame.

Sunrises and sunsets are a daily occurrence, but the opportunity to capture snow and autumn leaves, or snow and spring flowers, comes just once a year. And until last week, with Yosemite’s waterfalls approaching a summer trickle, and the spring dogwood bloom at least a month early, prospects for the elusive snow with dogwood opportunity didn’t look good.

Storm brewing

Despite Yosemite Valley’s snowless winter, the optimist in me steadfastly monitored an incoming storm, openly defying my internal pessimist that knew the promise of snow would surely fade as the designated day neared. In recent years the pessimist has prevailed in these internal conflicts, thanks to a stream of promising storm after promising storm detoured into the Pacific Northwest by a persistent ridge of high pressure.

But for some reason this storm was different, and while the forecast details changed daily, the one constant was that it seemed determined to defy the ridge. Not only that, this new storm originated in the arctic—what it lacked in tropical (drought busting) moisture, it made up for with air cold enough to deposit snow all the way down to Yosemite Valley.

Obi-Wan Kanobe, you’re my only hope

So, despite the fact that I’d just returned Saturday night from four days in Yosemite (for my spring photo workshop), I found myself on the road back Tuesday morning. With my (4-wheel-drive) Pilot in the shop for some minor body work, I congratulated myself for having the good sense to rent a Jeep when I scheduled the work, even though at the time snow was the last thing on any Californian’s mind.

The queue at the Yosemite entrance station was backed up about a 1/4 mile, and as I idled in a steady rain (the outside temperature was 38F, and with 1500 more feet to climb, I had no doubt it was snowing in Yosemite Valley), it occurred to me that I didn’t actually see anything indicating 4WD anywhere in or on the vehicle. Of course surely a Jeep will have 4WD, but for peace of mind I reached for the manual in the glovebox….

The manual provided no encouraging or discouraging words. As I crept toward the entrance, chain requirement signs seemed to be taunting me, I saw several cars ahead of me turned away for not having chains or 4WD. Approaching the booth, I still wasn’t sure whether I had 4WD (I think I knew, but I was in serious denial), but it dawned on me that without it, my trip was in jeopardy. I rolled to the entrance window and the ranger eyeballed my Jeep—I waved my National Park pass in front of him, and without coming to a complete stop uttered, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”, then held my breath as he moved me along. Phew.

Of course my problem was more than simply getting into the park—if conditions truly did merit chains, I knew of no Jedi tricks that would spare me. The snow appeared just a couple of miles up the road, but by the time I got there it was no longer falling and the road turned out to be clear all the way up to the valley. The rest of the afternoon I photographed Yosemite Valley sporting a light but nice dusting of snow. Parking the car for dinner at Yosemite Lodge, I crossed my fingers that the predicted overnight snow would hold off until I retreated to my hotel below the snow line.

No such luck. Stomach full, I exited the cafeteria to at least an inch of new snow, now falling fast enough that my visibility was severely limited and traction was dubious—beautiful indeed, but extremely stressful for this driver. With no other cars on the road, I split the gap in the trees (all actual signs of a road had been obliterated) all the way down the mountain, poking along at about 10 miles per hour but still occasionally unable to resist flipping on my high-beams to recreate a slow-motion Millennium Falcon shift into hyperspace effect.

All’s well that ends well

I made it down the hill without incident, then immediately started stressing about the next morning. If the snow fell this hard all night, Yosemite would surely be spectacular, but lacking chains or 4WD, I’d not be able to get there to enjoy it.

I rose at 5:30 and headed back into the park in the dark. Much to my relief, the snow had stopped in the night, and at each “Chains required” sign I rationalized that the warning was left over from the night before and decided to continue until I actually encountered snow and ice on the road. In Yosemite Valley I found every tree and rock fringed with snow, but the roads were fine.

Freed to concentrate on photography, I knew I had about two hours of quality shooting before the clouds departed, the light hardened, and snow dropped from the trees. My first stop was a personal favorite spot beside the Merced River, too small for a group, where I hoped to find blooms on the dogwood tree that aligns with El Capitan and the Merced River.

I arrived just in time to catch the morning’s first light on El Capitan, the moment made even more dramatic by the diaphanous vestiges of the departing storm. I worked the rapidly changing scene hard, shooting entirely with my 24-70 lens, but using pretty much every millimeter of the lens’s focal range before heading up the hill to Tunnel View.

I drove home thankful for enough snow to photograph, but not so much that I couldn’t navigate, and for the rare opportunity to leverage the late snow and early spring into images capturing the best of both seasons.

Join me in Yosemite next spring

An El Capitan Gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

Seeing the light

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Sunset Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
2.5 seconds
ISO 100

On the first night of this year’s Yosemite Horsetail Fall photo workshop I’m pretty confident that my group got to photograph what will turn out to be Horsetail’s only truly red display of the year. I’d love to say that this was due to particular genius on my part, but mostly it was just plain good luck (with maybe just a little bit of experience tossed in). But for me the evening’s highlight was the sunset that followed (above), and particularly the ease with which my new Sony a7R captured the scene’s tremendous dynamic range.

But first, a few words about Horsetail Fall…

I generally schedule my Yosemite Horsetail Fall photo workshop early in the window for capturing the red sunset light that (when all the stars align) kisses the narrow strip of El Capitan granite occupied by Horsetail Fall. Later in February the stripe of color is even thinner and more precisely focused on the fall, but I prefer avoiding the crowds and all the drama they bring (especially important when leading a group), and sacrifice a small iota of perfection for a significant chunk of flexibility and peace of mind.

But in addition to a clear western horizon and very specific angle of sunset light, getting The shot also requires water in the fall—no sure thing even in the wettest of years, but especially problematic in a drought year. This year Horsetail Fall was completely dry until the weekend before my workshop. Then, miracle of miracles, a drenching rain recharged all of Yosemite’s falls and Horsetail Fall suddenly sprang to life.

The flow was best on Monday, the day before my workshop started and the first day the clearing storm allowed the sunlight to reach El Capitan, but while Horsetail received nice light that evening, it was more amber than the red that photographers covet. By my group’s first shoot on Tuesday evening, the water had diminished significantly, but still flowed enough to etch a discernible white stripe on the gray granite, and send occasional wisps of mist swirling skyward.

Of the two prime Horsetail Fall locations, the picnic area on Northside Drive is usually a better place for a group because there’s more parking, and room for hundreds of photographers to work without getting in anyone’s way. But because the Horsetail throng was still a week or so away, I was able to squeeze my entire group into my favorite Horsetail location, the much less accommodating Southside Drive vantage point that provides a better angle and more compositional variety.

We arrived to find the waterfall fully lit—a good sign. I made sure everyone had a good vantage point, and while we waited (fingers crossed) for the show I suggested a variety of wide and tight compositions, and emphasized the importance of capturing the extreme highlights.

Watching the shadow’s slow advance toward the fall, we endured the standard fickle light that always seems to torment Horsetail Fall photographers: “Looking good so far… Here come the clouds—not a chance tonight…. Oh wait, it’s going to happen!… No, there it goes… Look! It’s coming back!” About five minutes before sunset, with no light on the fall and a thin layer of clouds dulling most of the visible sky, a few nearby photographers packed up and headed to dinner. But I know better and told my group sit tight. Sure enough, just two minutes after the exodus a faint pink glow appeared on Horsetail, and within 30 seconds the fall was throbbing red. The show lasted about three minutes, long enough for everyone to get their Horsetail Fall shot, and for me to breathe a sigh of relief. The rest of my workshop just became a lot easier.

With a Horsetail success in our pocket, I was able to concentrate the remainder of our workshop evenings on Yosemite’s other sunset marvels, but that didn’t keep me from checking the fall each time it was within eyeshot. The next day it was no more than a wet stain on El Capitan, and by Friday it was bone dry. And with no storms forecast for at least a week (and probably through the end of February), I think this year’s Horsetail Fall window has already slammed shut.

Gary Hart Photography: Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite

Horsetail Fall, El Capitan, Yosemite (February 2015)

The rest of the story

As someone who has photographed Horsetail Fall many times, and as nice as the fall was, my personal highlight this evening was the sunset that followed, when the clouds on the western horizon glowed bright red and spread their color in the Merced River. The first hint that something nice was in store was a soft pink glow above Yosemite Falls up-river and behind us. Many turned their cameras in that direction, but I kept my eye on the deepening red behind El Capitan. Beautiful, but a difficult capture. With the sky still quite bright but the entire foreground in full shade, the dynamic range would have been nearly unmanageable for my Canon cameras (without using a graduated neutral density filter or HDR blending). To be safe I could have tried a GND, but darkening the sky would have also meant darkening El Capitan (and more work in Photoshop). So I decided to give the scene a try without aid to see how the Sony a7R would handle the extreme contrast.

Exposing to make the highlights as bright as possible without clipping them, the shadowed foreground appeared nearly black on my LCD. But remembering that I constantly admonish my workshop students to trust their histogram and never make exposure decisions based on the picture in the LCD, I found hope in a histogram that skewed dark but still indicated detail in the shadows.

In my room that night I uploaded my card to my laptop and immediately went to the sunset images. Not only did the Shadows slider bring out the detail my histogram had promised, the shadow detail was unbelievably noise free. The rest of the processing was refreshingly straightforward. The result was this El Capitan image from a perspective I’ve never attempted without emphasizing Horsetail Fall.

I’m still getting used to the extra dynamic range of the a7R, and have yet to find its limit (but I’m pretty sure it’s less than infinity). Having this much dynamic range opens so many doors to landscape photographers, who have no control over the light Mother Nature delivers. In addition to the sunrise/sunset possibilities, I’m particularly excited about the opportunities extra dynamic range opens for my full moonrise and moonset image. I’ve always felt that the window for capturing usable detail in both the moon and foreground opened no more than fifteen minutes before sunrise, and closed no more than fifteen minutes after sunset.

As much as I embrace the creative possibilities brought by limited dynamic range (silhouettes, hiding distractions the shadows, high-key backgrounds), I guess the point is that more dynamic range means greater creative flexibility. With the processing control available from Lightroom and Photoshop, it’s much easier to return an extreme dynamic range capture to the kind of limited dynamic range image we’ve learned to deal with in camera, than it is to stretch more dynamic range from a camera that isn’t inherently capable of it. It’s a whole new world….

An El Capitan Gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh your screen to reorder the display.

 Yosemite Horsetail Fall Photo Workshop

Learn the when, where, and how of photographing Horsetail Fall

Building a scene

Gary Hart Photography,Clearing Storm Reflection, Valley View, Yosemite

Clearing Storm Reflection, El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7R
16 mm
.8 seconds
ISO 100

Lots of variables go into creating a successful landscape image. Many people struggle with the scene variables—light, depth, and motion—that are managed by your camera’s exposure settings: shutter speed, f-stop, ISO. Others struggle more with the composition variables: identifying, isolating, and framing a subject. (I’m not denying that there’s overlap between the exposure and composition sides of image creation, but leveraging that overlap requires independent mastery of both sides.)

Getting the exposure variables out of the way

Because I want to write more about the composition decisions that went into this image, I’ll only touch briefly on my exposure choices for the above image. I approach every scene with at my camera’s best ISO (100) and lens’s “ideal” f-stop (generally f11, where lenses tend to be sharpest, the depth of field is good, and diffraction is minimal).

Given that motion wasn’t a factor (I was on a tripod, the wind was calm, and the river’s motion didn’t concern me), I stuck with ISO 100. And even though the submerged rocks provided lots of visual interest in the immediate foreground, my 16mm focal length provided more than enough depth of field at f11—focusing about four feet into the scene would give me sharpness from around two feet to infinity. That was easy.

With those two variables established, I spot-metered on the brightest part of the scene and set dialed my shutter speed until the exposure was as bright as felt I could get away with without hopelessly blowing the highlights. This ensured that my scene (shadows included) was as bright as I could safely make it.

Here’s what I was thinking

Reflections of El Capitan, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall make Valley View one of the most photographed locations in Yosemite Valley. I usually I try to find something a little different than the standard view here, but the cloudy vestiges of a passing storm reflecting in the Merced River provide an irresistible opportunity to take advantage of everything that makes Valley View so special.

Some scenes you can walk up to and plant your tripod pretty much anywhere without much difference in your background subjects (though that’s rarely the case with foreground/background relationships). That’s not the case at Valley View, where the difficulty starts with distracting, non-photogenic shrubs on the near riverbank—to keep them out of the frame, you need to hop the rocks all the way down to the river.

The bigger problem at Valley View is getting all the primary elements into the image—too far to the left, and El Capitan disappears behind a stand of evergreens; too far to the right and another stand of evergreens occludes most or all of Bridalveil Fall. I moved into the fifteen-foot section of riverbank that gives me what I consider an adequate view of both, and started studying the submerged and protruding rocks right in front of me, looking for a workable foreground.

I’ll often move around quite a bit to control foreground/background subject relationships; in this case I found little benefit from shifting and stayed more or less in the same place. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t vary my shots—I tried a variety of compositions, but wide and tight, horizontal (above) and vertical (below). Some used lots of sky, while others (like this one) minimized the sky to emphasize the foreground. Still others were of the reflection only, or of the reflections with just a thin stripe of the opposite riverbank. The other variable I played with was my polarizer, which I turned to maximize and minimize the reflection, plus a combination (like both images here).

As with many images, composition at the top of the page required some compromises. I liked the way the vertical version leads the eye through the scene, and frames it with the two most striking elements—El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall. But I also wanted a horizontal rendering that would open up the scene and express its broad grandeur.

An often forgotten component of  successful photography is what gets left out—an image’s perimeter are frequently home to distractions overlooked by photographers too drawn to their primary subjects. So the problem making a Valley View horizontal composition that’s wide enough to include the reflection and river rocks, is the introduction of potentially distracting elements on the far left and right.

In this case my greatest problem was the scene’s left side, with its bare trees, brown riverbank, and exposed rocks, it was rife with potential distractions to deal with. Shifting the entire composition to the right would have thrown the frame off balance, and added a lot of real estate that wasn’t worthy of the scene.  Going tighter would have sacrificed too much river rock and reflection, an essential feature in my mind. I could have removed my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants, and walked forward through the (frigid) water—that move would have solved all my problems, but probably wouldn’t have been appreciated by all the other nearby photographers.

I ended up using the trees and rocks to frame the left side of the image, taking care to allow the entire arc of the riverbank to complete so it didn’t look like the nearby rocks (on the left) belonged a different scene. The vertical version doesn’t have these problems, and though it sacrifices the breadth of the horizontal composition, hold a gun to my head and I might tell you it’s the vertical version I prefer. (But it’s nice to have a choice.)

A Valley View Gallery

Dialing it in


Gary Hart Photography, Rocks and Reflection, Valley View, Yosemite

Rocks and Reflection, Valley View, Yosemite
Sony a7R
16 mm
1/3 second
ISO 200

I’m a big fan of the polarizer, so much so that each of my lenses wears a polarizer that never comes off in daylight. A couple of years ago “Outdoor Photographer” magazine published my article on using a polarizer, a slightly modified version of a blog post that appears in the Photo Tips section of this blog.

If you read that article, or pay much attention to what I write here, you know that while a polarizer can really crank up the blue in your sky, I’m not generally a fan of what the polarizer does to the sky. I find blue sky boring—making it more blue just distracts from my primary subject. And worse still, because polarization varies with the angle of view (maximum polarization occurs when composing perpendicular to the sunlight’s direction, minimum when you’re parallel to the sunlight), wide shots (in particular) display “differential polarization” that manifests as unnatural sky-color variation across the frame.

Where I find a polarizer most indispensable is terrestrial reflections. With a simple twist of a polarizer, a mirror reflection on still water is magically erased to reveal submerged rocks and leaves. More than the reflections we see on still water, a properly oriented polarizer removes distracting, color-robbing glare that jumps off of rocks and foliage. And you don’t need direct sunlight to enjoy a polarizer’s benefits—because reflections and glare exist in overcast and full shade conditions, a polarizer can significantly enhance those images as well.

But back to this differential polarization thing. As most know, a polarizer isn’t a filter that you simply slap on a lens and forget about. A rotates in its frame, changing the amount of polarization on the way—if you’re not orienting (rotating) your polarizer with each composition, you’re better off keeping it in your bag. Watching through your viewfinder as you rotate, you’ll see the scene darken and brighten—maximum polarization occurs when the scene is darkest. These changes may appear subtle at first, and in some cases will be barely visible, but the more you train your eye, the easier it becomes to detect even the most subtle polarization.

Since polarization varies with the angle of view, and any image encompasses a broad angle of view, the amount of polarization you see in any given image varies. While differential polarization is a real pain in images with a uniform surface (like a blue sky), understanding that a polarizer isn’t an all or nothing tool allows you to dial the reflection up in some parts of the scene, and down in others. Rather than automatically dialing the polarizer until the scene darkens (maximum polarization), or until the reflection pops out (minimum polarization), turn the polarizer slowly and watch the reflection advance and retreat as you turn.

That’s exactly what I did with the above image from last week’s Yosemite trip. The sunlit vestiges of a day-long rain swirled above Valley View and reflected in the drought-starved Merced River (one storm does not a drought break). Here I opted for a wide, vertical composition that left room for both foreground and sky tightly framed by El Capitan on the left and Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Fall on the right.

Faced with a crisp reflection and a submerged jigsaw of river-worn granite, I refused to choose one or the other. Instead, I composed my scene with a group of exposed rocks to anchor my immediate foreground, then carefully dialed away enough reflection to reveal the rounded rocks, while saving the portion of the reflection that duplicated the Yosemite icons.


I use Singh-Ray filters (polarizers and graduated neutral density)

A selective polarization gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show

Classic Yosemite

Clearing Storm, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite

Clearing Storm, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite
Sony a7R
33 mm
1.6 seconds
ISO 125

December 3, 2014: A brief post to share my workshop group’s good fortune this morning

I’m in Yosemite this week for my Winter Moon photo workshop. Scheduling a December workshop in Yosemite is one of those high risk/reward propositions—I know full well we could get some serious weather that could make things quite uncomfortable for photography, but winter (okay, so technically it won’t be winter for another two-a-half weeks, but it’s December for heaven’s sake, so don’t quibble) is also the best time to get the kind of conditions that make Yosemite special. In the days leading up to the workshop I’d warned everyone about the impending weather, but I’d also promised them that they were in store for something special at some point during their visit. Then I crossed my fingers….

We started Monday afternoon to blue skies and dry waterfalls, but by Tuesday morning the first major storm of California’s  (usually) wet season rolled in and everything changed (literally overnight). A warm system of tropical origin, what this storm lacked in snow, it more than made up for in rain, copious rain. Starting before sunrise, we got a little shooting in before the serious stuff started, but the rest of the day was wet, wet, wet. When weather settles in like this, the ceiling drops and Yosemite’s granite features disappear behind a dense, gray curtain. Nevertheless, we found some nice photography and everyone finished the day saturated but satisfied.

This morning (Wednesday) I got the group up to Tunnel View for sunrise, where were met with more of the same—opaque clouds and lots of rain, but little else. Since Tunnel View is usually the best place to wait out a Yosemite storm (thanks to the panoramic view, and the fact that the weather almost aways clears on Yosemite Valley’s west side first), I told everyone we’d just sit tight and see what happens. A few huddled in the cars, but most of the group donned our head-to-toe rain gear and stood out in the rain,  waiting (hoping) for the show to begin.

As if on cue, at just about the advertised sunrise time (there was no actual sunrise to witness), the sky brightened and the curtain parted: El Capitan was first on stage, followed closely by a rejuvenated Bridalveil Fall, and soon thereafter the star of the show, Half Dome, appeared center-stage. Radiating from the valley floor, a thick fog rolled across the scene like a viscous liquid, changing the view by the minute—for nearly an hour everyone got to experience a classic Yosemite clearing storm.

As many times as I’ve witnessed a clearing storm from Tunnel View, the experience never fails to thrill me. Overlaying one of the most beautiful scenes on Earth, infinite combinations of cloud, sky, color, and light make each one unique. And as if that’s not enough, sometimes fresh snow, a rainbow, or rising moon are added to the mix. On this morning the clearing was only temporary, with no direct light or hint of blue sky, and the rain soon returned. Not that this was a problem—with more weather in store, this morning just turned out to be the opening act.

Check out my schedule of upcoming photo workshops

A Tunnel View Clearing Storm Gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show

Seeing in the dark

Autumn Moonlight, El Capitan, Yosemite

Autumn Moonlight, El Capitan, Yosemite
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
16 mm
20 seconds
ISO 800

One of the great joys of the digital photography is the ease with which our cameras reveal the world after dark. Scenes that are merely shadow and shape to the human eye are recorded with unseen color and detail by a digital sensor, and stars too faint to compete with moonlight shine brightly.

After a lifetime of refusing to sap my enjoyment of the night sky by attempting to photograph it with film, about ten years ago (a year or two into my personal digital photography renaissance) I decided to take my camera out after dark in the Alabama Hills to photograph Mt. Whitney and the sawtooth Sierra crest. It took just a few frames to realize that this was a new paradigm, but I wasn’t quite hooked until I viewed my images later that night and found, among a host of similarly forgettable Mt. Whitney among snow-capped peak images, one image of the Big Dipper framed by stacked, moonlit boulders that stood out. Ever since I’ve chased opportunities to photograph my favorite scenes after dark—first solely by the light of the full moon, and more recently (as digital sensors improve) by starlight.

Big Dipper, Alabama Hills, California

Big Dipper, Alabama Hills, California

As I incorporate night photography into most of my workshops, I have no qualms about guaranteeing success for all my moonlight shoots (barring equipment failure). This month’s Yosemite Autumn Moon workshop was no exception—after photographing a beautiful full moon rising above Half Dome at sunset, we broke for dinner, then returned to the wide open spaces of El Capitan Meadow beneath El Capitan for a moonlight shoot. One of my favorite things about these moonlight shoots is the way everyone is equal parts surprised and delighted by how simple it is, not to mention how beautiful their images are.

I’d spent time that afternoon getting the group up to speed on moonlight photography (it doesn’t take long), so after a brief refresher on the exposure settings and focus technique, everyone seemed to be managing just fine without me. Feeling just slightly unessential, I decided to try a few frames of my own. Struck immediately with how beautifully the autumn gold stood out, I shifted my position to align the most prominent tree with El Capitan. As with most of my night images, I went vertical to maximize the amount of sky in my frame. I also took care to compose wide enough to include Cassiopeia on the right side of the scene.

If you have a digital SLR and a relatively sturdy tripod, you have everything you need for night photography. I have a couple of articles in my Photo Tips section to guide you: It’s best to start with moonlight photography before attempting the much more challenging starlight photography.

A moonlight gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show

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