Moon Over Yosemite

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Supermoon, Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Supermoon, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 100-400 GM
Sony 2x teleconverter
ISO 400
f/11
1/8 second

Large or small, crescent or full, I love photographing the moon rising above Half Dome. The alignment doesn’t work most months, so those months when the alignment is right, I do my best to be there.

For last week’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop I’d planned three moonrises: Thursday and Friday we got lucky with the never reliable December skies, but Saturday night concerned me. Not only was this moonrise the “main event,” the forecast was less than promising. And while the first two moonrises were absolutely beautiful, the moon was less full and we were on the valley floor, much closer to Half Dome. Our location required a wider focal length that meant a relatively small moon. But on Saturday (it would rise too late to photograph on Sunday) the moon would be 99 percent full and rise shortly after sunset, just left of Half Dome when viewed from Tunnel View. Tunnel View is eight miles west of Half Dome, a distance, when combined with the moon’s proximity to Half Dome, that would allow  a long telephoto that would fill the frame with the moon and all of Half Dome.

Saturday started clear, but soon a thin layer of clouds moved in, bathing Yosemite Valley in diffuse light that was wonderful for photographing pretty much anything that didn’t involve the sky. These clouds weren’t dense enough to completely obscure the sun, but with a chance of rain coming overnight, I knew they’d be thickening at some point.

I got my group in position near Tunnel View about a half hour before sunset. I’ve attempted moonrises that were completely obscured by clouds, and some where we could see the moon’s glow through the clouds, but no detail. I tried to stay positive but the fading light made it impossible to tell exactly how thick the clouds were. Fearing the worst, I rationalized that we’d already had two nice moonrises and maybe wishing for a third was just greedy. But still….

Hoping for the best, I pointed out where the moon should appear about ten minutes after sunset, advising everyone to continue shooting normally until then, but to have an idea of their moonrise compositions. Practicing what I preach, I got out my Sony 100-400 GM, added my 2x teleconverter, and framed up the scene. Because I wasn’t going to shoot anything else (as you may have noticed, I already have a couple of Tunnel View images in my portfolio), I focused and waited.

About five minutes after sunset an amber glow in the clouds next to Half Dome signaled the moon’s imminent arrival. That we could even see any sign of the moon gave me hope and I held my breath as the glow intensified, still unsure whether we’d see lunar detail or just a white blob. The glow was actually unique and very beautiful in its own way and I started clicking. The instant the moon’s brilliant leading edge nudged into view, silhouetting the trees, I knew we were in luck. The landscape was already fairly dark by then, but because this was the group’s third moonrise, they’d become old pros at dealing with the scene’s extreme dynamic range—at that point the workshop’s mantra had become: “Push the exposure until the moon’s highlights start blinking, and fix the shadows in Photoshop.”

The experience that evening was even more spectacular than I had dared hope, a perfect storm of conditions I might never see repeated: the moon’s alignment with Half Dome, the telephoto distance, the timing of the moon’s arrival that put it on the horizon with just enough twilight remaining, and (especially) the translucent clouds that enveloped the moon in a golden halo and eased the scene’s dynamic range.

Some thoughts on the Sony a7RIII

A couple of weeks ago, at a Sony sponsored event in Sedona, I got the opportunity to do some night photography with the new Sony a7RIII. But this Yosemite trip was my first time using the new camera on my own. It’s too soon for any final proclamations, but my general sense is that this camera has even more dynamic range than the a7RII (which is pretty incredible). The other significant takeaway from this weekend is that I used the same battery for three-and-half days and came home with more than 25 percent remaining. Anyone who shot with the a7RII, knows how significant this is.

I’m still getting used to the new camera’s interface—while similar to the a7RII, there are definite differences. I do like the new button layout and improved menu interface, but am still getting used to the joystick and touchscreen—pretty sure I’ll learn to love them too. And the dual card slots are a necessary and most welcome improvement.

My biggest complaint with the new camera is that the back-button focus that I loved so much on the a7rII is broken on the a7RIII. Every camera I’ve ever used (Canon and Sony) has allowed me, after tweaking some settings, to switch seamlessly between auto and manual focus without requiring me to change the focus mode. So the first thing I do when I get a new camera is disengage autofocus from the shutter button and assign autofocus to a button on the back of the camera. With back-button focus enabled, my workflow has always been manually focus by default, but always with the ability to autofocus with the simple push of a button—no focus mode change required. Doing this with the a7RII was the easiest of any camera I’ve ever used, but for some reason Sony changed the focus behavior of the a7RIII, so now I have to deal with the added step of switching focus modes on the camera before focusing. This might not sound like a big deal, but I don’t want to have to think about my camera when I’m composing a scene, so this behavior is extremely frustrating. That said, I’ve already communicated my frustration to Sony’s engineers and am hopeful (confident?) this is a firmware fix that will come soon. Sony’s responsiveness to things like this is one of the reasons I’m so happy I made the switch from Canon.

I’m happily retracting those words after Sony found a solution for the a7RIII back-button focus problem. At last month’s Sony media event Sedona, I was surrounded by Sony’s best and brightest engineers; when I brought the BBF problem to their attention, we all scratched our heads over how to make it work, and they finally asked me to send them a detailed write-up. They promised to address it ASAP, but I didn’t think it would happen without a firmware update.

To enable back-button focus on the Sony a7RIII or a9, simply assign any custom button (Tab 2, Screen 8) AF/MF Control Hold (AF1 screen). To use it, keep the camera in Manual Focus mode—this will allow you to manually focus with the focus ring, or autofocus by pressing whatever button you assigned AF/MF Control Hold.

Bottom line

I’m pretty sure this is the best camera I’ve ever had my hands on. In fact, the dynamic range improvement was obvious as soon as I started processing this moonrise shoot—we continued shooting about 25 minutes after sunset, and just a little processing reveals useable detail in my highlights and shadows, even in my final image. Ridiculous.


A couple of full moon photography tips

Sun and moon rise/set times always assume a flat horizon, which means the sun usually disappears behind the local terrain before the “official” sunset, while the moon appears after moonrise. When that happens, there’s usually not enough light to capture landscape detail in the moon and landscape, always my goal. To capture the entire scene with a single click (no image blending), I usually try to photograph the rising full moon on the day before it’s full, when the nearly full (99 or so percent illuminated) moon rises before the landscape has darkened significantly.

The moon’s size in an image is determined by my focal length—the longer the lens, the larger the moon appears. Photographing a large moon above a particular subject requires not only the correct alignment, it also requires distance from the subject—the farther back your position, the longer the lens you can use without cutting of some of the subject.

This moonrise image is a perfect example. Tunnel View in Yosemite is one of my favorite locations to photograph a moonrise because it’s about eight miles from Half Dome. At this distance I can use 500+ mm (250mm plus a 2x teleconverter) to fill my frame with Half Dome—with the moon nearby, I get an image that includes all of Half Dome and a very large moon.

Moon Over Yosemite

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Supermoon

Gary Hart Photography: Supermoon, Half Dome and El Capitan, Yosemite

Supermoon, Half Dome and El Capitan, Yosemite
Sony a7RII
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/3 second
F/9
ISO 100

The media tends to distort facts and blow events out of proportion. Perhaps you’ve noticed. The latest example is this week’s “supermoon,” an event heralded on TV, in print, and online like the Second Coming. Okay, now for a little perspective. Despite hype to the contrary, a supermoon occurs at least twice, and up to five times, in a year. In fact, our last supermoon was all the way back in October, and the next one isn’t until December.

But, as I’m sure you’ve heard, this month’s supermoon was specialan event the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1946, and won’t see again until 2034. True enough. But exactly how special was it? Not nearly as special as you might have heard: the diameter of the “epic” November supermoon was only one-half of one percent (.57) larger than the October full moon, and four-fifths of one percent (.84) larger than the December full moon—differences that are impossible to discern with the naked eye. Next year we’ll get two moons that are more than 99 percent the size of this month’s supermoon, and last year we had four.

So why was I out taking pictures of the full moon Sunday night? Because I think every full moon is beautiful, regardless of its size, and I take any opportunity to photograph it over my favorite landscapes. Which is also why each fall I schedule a workshop in Yosemite to coincide with the full moon.

Thursday night my Yosemite Autumn Moon workshop group photographed an 82% (of full) waxing gibbous (on its way to full) moon above Valley View at sunset. For Friday night’s sunset, from a quiet beach beside the Merced River we glimpsed through clouds an 87% moon rising just right of Half Dome. Saturday’s sunset found us beneath a magenta sky at Tunnel View to witness the 96% moon ascend between Sentinel Dome and Cathedral Rocks.

The workshop’s grand finale came Sunday night, when we gathered at the Half Dome vista on Big Oak Flat Road. Though I rarely encounter other photographers for any of my moon rise/set shoots, limited parking and tripod space here prompted me to arrive an hour before sunset. That turned out to be a fortunate decision, as within 30 minutes of our arrival the parking lot was brimming beyond full and photographers swarmed the nearby rocks like ants at a picnic.

With an hour to kill, I made sure everyone in my group was ready (but by now, this being our fourth moonrise, they were experienced veterans) and chatted with other photographers nearby. Comparing notes, it seemed that most (all?) of the other photographers had relied on apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Photo Pills to plot the moon’s arrival location and time, while I was the only one clinging to my old fashioned topo map, scientific calculator, trigonometry plotting approach. (I do it this way because I’ve been plotting the moon since long before the apps were available, I feel like I can be more precise, and I enjoy it—not necessarily in that order.)

In the viewfinder of my Sony a7R Mark II, atop my tripod and armed with my Tamron 150-600 lens to enlarge the moon as much as possible, was the composition I wanted—assuming the accuracy of my calculations. The consensus among others seemed to be that the moon would appear from behind Half Dome’s right flank, anytime between 5:00 and 5:10 p.m. I stuck to my guns that the moon would show up at about 5:05, and that it would be straight over the top of Half Dome. While I saw this more as an opportunity to check my plotting method’s accuracy than a competition between methods, it was pretty thrilling when the moon popped into view right on schedule and on target. Take that, technology!

Since the moon didn’t appear until a full fifteen minutes after sunset, the extreme dynamic range (very dark landscape beneath a daylight-bright moon) made this an extremely tricky exposure for anyone (like me) not interested in compositing two images (one with the moon properly exposed, another with the scene properly exposed). To capture this scene with a single click, I closely monitored the pre-capture “zebra stripes” highlight alert in my a7RII and pushed my exposure 2/3 stop after the first hint of the alert appeared. To hedge my bets and give myself processing options, I varied my exposure 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop in either direction (an exception to my standard workflow because the moon is too small to register on the histogram).

The result was a scene that looked quite dark on my LCD, and a moon with no detail. No problem, I reassured myself, for my a7RII’s ridiculous dynamic range. This morning in Lightroom I adjusted the white balance, pulled up the shadows, and pulled down the highlights. In Photoshop I applied a moderate dose of Topaz DeNoise and did a few minor dodge/burn moves to get the image you see here.

One more thing

The size of the moon in this image has virtually nothing to do with the fact that this was a “supermoon,” and virtually everything to do with the fact that I was far enough away to be able to use a 600mm lens. Click below to read about how to capture your own big moon:


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The Moon in all Shapes and Sizes

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How do you do that?: Big Moon

The Secret for Supersizing the Moon

Gary Hart Photography: Foothill Moonrise, Sierra Foothills, California

Foothill Moonrise, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a6000
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/100 second
F/8
ISO 400

(This is not a composite)

A few days ago I saw a picture of an oversize moon above the Golden Gate Bridge; beneath the picture someone had commented that the image was obviously was faked because the moon isn’t that big. Though I didn’t scrutinize the picture, I suspect that the commenter’s accusation was right, but for the wrong reason.

While some photographers take the easy (and deceptive) approach and just plop a huge moon into their beautiful scene, the mere presence of a large moon doesn’t mean that the image is a fake. In fact with the right equipment and a little preparation, any photographer can photograph the moon large in their images (without cheating).

Size matters

Most people understand that the longer the focal length, the larger the moon will appear in an image. But focal length is only half the equation, a fact that becomes clear when you take the extreme telephoto approach to the limit and attach a camera to a telescope. True, with a telescope you’ll achieve the maximum enlargement possible, but you’ll also end up with the moon and nothing else—you could capture the very same image whether you’re standing on a tropical beach, atop a towering peak, or in the comfort of your own backyard.

Size isn’t everything

Rather than simply photographing a large moon, what we landscape photographers really want is a moon that appears large relative to the rest of the image. And while the size of the moon in your frame is determined by the focal length, its size relative to the landscape has nothing to do with the focal length.

The moon’s extreme distance  means that it will appear the same size to our eye (or lens) regardless of our location on earth. We can enlarge the moon with optics (a lens or telescope), but not by moving closer (without a rocket). On the other hand, the perceived size of earthbound objects changes dramatically with distance—move closer and things get bigger, move back and they get smaller.

So, if the perceived size of the moon from earth is constant, but earthbound subjects shrink with distance, you can make the moon look larger compared to earthbound subjects foreground by moving back and shrinking the foreground—then, once you’re farther back,  you can use a telephoto to enlarge everything.

Understanding this makes it easier to see why the moon looks so small in most images because the photographer was too close to the subject: The closer we are to the scene we’re photographing, the shorter (wider) the focal length required to include all of the scene in the frame, and the wider our field of view, the smaller the moon will appear in the scene.


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The two images above were taken from the same location (at different times). The size of the moon relative to Half Dome is the same, but in one image I shrank the scene and enlarged the moon with a telephoto; in the other, I widened the scene and shrank the moon with a wide angle lens. To get the wide scene and the large moon, I’d need a vantage point with the same angle of view, only much farther back (sadly, that vantage point doesn’t exist).


Gary Hart Photography: Foothill Moonrise, Sierra Foothills, California

Foothill Moonrise, Sierra Foothills, California

The story of this image

Armed with this knowledge, I’m on constant lookout for distant subjects that stand out against the east or west horizon. This oak tree in the foothills west of Sacramento has been on my radar for awhile—for years I’ve noted it from the road, but was always on my way somewhere else and never had time to hunt for a vantage point that would work for the moon.

One evening I found myself with a little extra time when conditions changed and a planned foothills shoot didn’t materialize as hoped. Instead of heading straight home, I spent the hour or so of remaining daylight searching west of this tree for a vantage point that would align it with the upcoming moonrise. (Not only do I need a distant enough view that puts the tree against the sky, that view needs to align with the rising moon.)

Back home I did a little more plotting with my topographic software and came up with a tentative plan, and on the evening of the full moon I made my way back up to the foothills. I knew about where the moon would rise, but because I don’t know the exact altitude (in degrees) of the hillside from my planned location, I couldn’t be sure exactly when the moon would appear. (That’s not a problem once I’ve photographed a moonrise from a location, like Yosemite.)

Unfortunately, I got hung up by traffic that sapped all the extra time I’d factored into my plan, and ended up arriving at my location right at the beginning of the window when I thought the moon might appear. I started extracting and assembling my camera, lens, and tripod with one eye on the east horizon and did a double-take when I realized that the moon was indeed coming up. It was just slightly downhill from (west of) the tree, so I grabbed my gear and sprinted east a couple of hundred yards until they were aligned.

I used my Sony a6000 with my Tamron 150-600 lens (Canon-mount with a Metabones adapter). I maxed the focal length to 600mm, but since the a6000 is a 1.5 crop sensor, my effective focal length was 900mm. I quickly focused on the moon, metered, and started clicking. I used ISO 400 to speed my shutter and mitigate micro-vibrations that can be easily magnified at such a long focal length.

The tree was about a mile-and-a-half away. If I hadn’t been so rushed I’d have probably stopped down to f/11 or f/16 to ensure more depth of field (the hyperfocal distance was over 7,000 feet), but fortunately, focusing on the moon at f8 did the job. In Lightroom I cropped the image slightly (less than 15 percent) for framing and to enlarge the tree and moon a little more.

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The Moon, Big and Small

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Yosemite Moon

Gary Hart Photography: Moonrise, Bridalveil Fall and the Merced River Canyon, Yosemite

Spring Moonrise, Bridalveil Fall and the Merced River Canyon, Yosemite
Sony a7R II
Sony 70-200 f4
1/2 second
F/8
ISO 100

I’m a relationship photographer. By that I mean I’ve never been one of those photographers who expands his portfolio by adding new locations. Rather, I like to get a feel for a place, not just the where and when of its photo opportunities, but its history, geology, flora, and fauna. I much prefer digging deeply into one scenic area to visiting a large variety of scenic areas. This is a personal style thing, and I know my more deliberate approach would drive many photographers crazy, but I’ve learned that I’m rarely very productive on my first visit anywhere, and often not until I’m several visits in.

I’m probably several hundred (thousand?) visits into my Yosemite relationship, with no end in sight. But despite this extensive history, any moonrise above Yosemite Valley, regardless of the phase, still takes my breath away. Orbital geometry aligns Yosemite’s moon with different features as the seasons change, and I try to be there for as many moonrises as possible. Whether it’s the late fall and winter full moon hovering above Yosemite Valley, the summer crescent moon appearing from behind Half Dome, or the spring full moon rising above Bridalveil Fall, I just can’t get enough of it.

As with most of my Yosemite workshops, a planned highlight for this year’s April Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop was a moonrise, this time the Bridalveil Fall full moon. Throughout the workshop we’d enjoyed a Yosemite Valley bursting with more water than I’d seen in several years, a dogwood bloom that was just about at peak, and a sky enhanced by an assortment of beautiful clouds.

When the moonrise day came and the clouds stayed, there were a few concerns for our moonrise. But knowing Yosemite well enough to understand that you can’t predict the conditions five minutes from now based on the conditions right now, I made sure we were in position with cameras ready (and fingers crossed).

Moon or not, the view up the Merced River Canyon that evening was beautiful, but when the moonrise time arrived and the moon didn’t, I scanned the clouds for hints of the moon’s glow. Though there was no sign of it, a little higher, and directly in the moon’s path, the clouds appeared thinner; higher still, actual stripes of blue sky gave me hope.

By the time the moon emerged, nearly ten minutes after sunset, the entire sky had taken on a rich magenta hue. The Merced River Canyon below had become quite dark, but my Singh-Ray two-stop hard-transition graduated neutral density filter held back the (daylight-bright) moon enough for me to give the canyon the light it needed. The final step for this image came in Lightroom and Photoshop, which enabled me to add a little more light to both the canyon and the clouds (which had been darkened along with the moon by the GND), and pull back the highlights in the moon.

One more thing

People ask me if I ever tire of Yosemite, and I can honestly answer, no. Part of keeping it fresh is the infectious excitement when the people I’m with witness something like this moonrise. (I don’t think this makes me unusual—most people get vicarious pleasure from the joy of others’ first experience of something that’s special to us.) This night the moonless pink sky was enough to thrill everyone, but when the moon poozed out, it became one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments for everyone in the group. That just never gets old.

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Yosemite Moons

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Tips to improve your full moon photography

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Moon, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley

Winter Moon, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f4
1/6 second
F/8
ISO 100

Have you ever seen a glowing full moon suspended above a beautiful landscape and been moved enough to grab your camera? And how many times have those pictures actually matched your memory of the moment? Not too many, I’d guess. Either your landscape was completely black, or (more likely) the moon was an ugly white blob. You’ve just experienced an example of the human eye’s vastly superior dynamic range—while you could see detail in the landscape and the moon, your camera could only see one or the other.

Lot’s of scouting and plotting goes into aligning a full moon with a terrestrial subject, as close to the horizon as possible, when the light’s just right. For me, just right means a sky dark enough for the moon to stand out (the darker the better), but not so dark that I lose foreground detail in the twilight shadow. Since I don’t blend images, I need to get the landscape and lunar detail with a single click.

I’ve found that the “right-time” sweet spot for single-click full moon photography is a window about 10 minutes on either side of sunrise/sunset. Since the published sun/moon rise/set times assume a flat-horizon—unless you’re on a boat at sea, the sun and moon will probably be below the horizon when they’re advertised to be rising and setting.

It helps to know that as the moon goes through its 29-day cycle from new to full and back, it rises a little less than an hour later each day (that’s an average that varies with several factors, but it’s a good rule-of-thumb). This generally makes the moon visible in my 20-minute exposure sweet spot the day before it’s full for a sunset moonrise, and the day after it’s full for a sunrise moonset, because there’s more foreground light to work with. But even then the landscape will be bathed in shadow, while the moon remains daylight bright, so getting myself on location in this 20 minute window is only half the battle.

In general, digital cameras have made exposure easier. Shooting film, difficult exposures meant a lot of guessing, bracketing, and (especially) hoping. Shooting digitally, not only can we instantly eyeball each image, the histogram shows us exactly how our exposure worked. Unfortunately, the histogram isn’t much help when the moon’s involved, because the moon doesn’t usually occupy enough image real estate to register on the histogram. If you’re not careful, you might find yourself reveiwing an evening’s worth of images with beautiful histograms and a hopelessly blown moon. What’s a photographer to do?

The key to exposing any high dynamic range scene is pushing the highlights as far as you can without blowning them out. For most scenes the histogram is sufficient, but exposing for the moon requires help from your camera’s Highlight Alert (blinking highlights) feature. And since most cameras allow you to view images in multiple modes (e.g., with the luminosity histogram, RGB histogram, no histogram, full capture information, no capture information, and so on), it’s also important to determine which view or views actually show the blinking highlights (not all do)—if you’re not sure, I suggest intentionally overexposing a scene and reviewing the image in the camera’s various display modes.

Moonrise

When photographing a rising full moon at sunset, simply metering for the landscape works at the outset because there’s still plenty of light to capture foreground detail without overexposing the moon. At this point the histogram tells me everything I need to know. But as the sky darkens, so does the foreground, while the moon remains unchanged.

To keep my histogram in the ideal range as twilight deepens, I add light to my image by bumping the shutter speed in 1/3 stop increments. Each time I increase the shutter speed, I check the image to ensure that the moon’s not blinking. As soon as my exposure causes the moon to blink, I know I’ve reached my highlight threshold and I’m pretty much done adding light.

Once I’ve pushed the moon to my camera’s highlight threshold, I continue shooting until the shadows are so dark that no useable data can be recovered. Because highlight and shadow recovery varies with the camera, I strongly encourage you to familiarize yourself with your camera’s shadow and highlight threshold (how far to the left and right can push the histogram and still get usable detail).

If you’re shooting raw, you can probably push your exposure until part of the moon is blinking, but if the entire lunar disk blinks, you almost certainly will need to back down your exposure. Adding a graduated neutral density filter will hold back the moon enough to buy you five or ten minutes of shooting before the moon blows out.

Moonset (an example)

Photographing a setting full moon at sunrise is the sunset process in reverse—we start with the moon glowing above a landscape much too dark to get detail without hopelessly blowing out the moon, and finish when the moon sets, or when the sky brightens to the point that the moon starts to wash out.

In January, I got my Death Valley Winter Moon workshop group out to Zabriskie Point about 45 minutes before sunrise. The moon was indeed beautiful, but far too bright to photograph with the dark foreground. But it was high enough that I was able to do long exposures without the moon while I waited for the scene to brighten.

About 20 minutes before sunrise I pulled out a 3-stop hard-transition graduated neutral density filter and started including the moon, dialing my exposure down until the moon stopped blinking—the most light I could give the scene without losing the moon. At first the foreground was still far too dark to contain usable detail, but within 5 minutes I started to feel like the scene had brightened enough to allow usable detail (albeit with a fair amount of Lightroom Shadow/Highlight work later).

From that point on, I just worked on a variety of compositions that included the moon. Monitoring my histogram, I shortened my shutter speed to reduce the exposure as the foreground brightened. Eventually the foreground brightened enough that I didn’t need the GND filter.

In a perfect world the moon reaches the horizon while it’s in the sunrise/sunset 20(-ish) minute exposure sweet-spot (sky dark enough that the moon stands out, but not so dark that I can’t get landscape and lunar detail), but this morning the moon was high enough that the contrast flattened before it set.

The above image I captured early in the sweet spot—the foreground looked quite dark on my LCD, while the moon was mostly intact, with a couple of blinking specks. But I knew my Sony a7R II well enough to be confident that simple highlight and shadow adjustments in Lightroom would recover all the necessary detail.

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A full moon gallery

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The twilight edge

Gary Hart Photography: Moonlight on the Water, Garrapata Beach, Big Sur

Moonlight on the Water, Garrapata Beach, Big Sur
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
6 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

I sometimes hear comments and questions that make me think people believe pro photographers have “secrets” that enable us to photograph things the amateur public can’t. Let me assure you that this is not true. What is true is that successful landscape photographers have an understanding of the natural world that helps us know where and when to look for our images, and we know that often the best pictures aren’t in the same place as the best view.

For example, it’s hard to deny the beauty of a sunrise or sunset. But it seems that most people are so mesmerized by the scene facing the sun that they miss exquisite beauty in the other direction. The next time you find yourself out photographing (or simply enjoying) a sunrise or sunset, do yourself a favor and check out the world behind you. Beneath clear skies you’ll see the earth’s shadow, often called the “twilight wedge,” overlaid by the pink “Belt of Venus.” I call the sky in this direction the “twilight edge,” not only because it’s found at the day’s leading or trailing edge, but also for the advantage it gives photographers who understand how easy this under-appreciated (and oft missed) perspective is to photograph.

Unlike the view toward the rising or setting sun, where cameras struggle to expose the full range of shaded subjects against a bright sky, the scene opposite the sun is bathed light that has been bent, scattered, colored, and subdued by its long trip through the atmosphere. While not as dramatic to the eye as an electric crimson sky or throbbing orange sun, a camera loves the long shadows and warm tones away from the sun.

But the great light doesn’t begin at sunrise, or end at sunset. When the sun is about ten degrees or closer to the horizon, the sky in the opposite direction is bright enough to fill the landscape with soft, shadowless light that makes photography a breeze. And while the scene may appear quite dark to the eye, a long exposure and/or slightly higher ISO (like 400 or 800) will reveal the world in a way that’s impossible in daylight. Case in point:

Before Sunrise, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California

Before Sunrise, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California
This is a 30 second exposure at ISO 400, captured about 30 minutes before sunrise on a windy Eastern Sierra winter morning, when the world was still dark enough to require a flashlight to maneuver.

Twilight components

Above the shadowless pre-sunrise/post-sunset landscape, when the sun is around six degrees or closer to the horizon (civil twilight), soft bands of color stacked like pastel pillows materialize. The blue-gray band earth’s shadow directly above the horizon earned its “twilight wedge” designation because you can sometimes see the earth’s curve in the shadow, giving it something of a wedge shape. At sunset, the gradual upward motion of the shadow gives the appearance of a wedge being driven into the darkening sky.

Above the earth’s shadow, but not quite high enough to receive the full complement of solar wavelengths, the atmosphere basks in the slightly brighter pink glow of scattered sunlight. In this region the shorter wavelengths have been dispersed, leaving only the longest, red wavelengths—the Belt of Venus. You’ll first see its pink stripe high in the pre-sunrise sky, descending and brightening as the sun rises, until the pink is finally overcome by the first rays of sunrise; after sunset the pink band starts low, climbing skyward and darkening, eventually blending into the oncoming night.

Alpenglow

A particularly striking sunrise/sunset phenomenon is the “alpenglow” that spreads atop mountaintops that rise so far above the surrounding terrain that they jut into the BoV, assuming its pink glow. My favorite place to photograph alpenglow is the Alabama Hills, 10,000 vertical feet below Mt. Whitney and the Sierra crest, but alpenglow paints peaks throughout the world.

Alpenglow, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra

Alpenglow, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra
From my vantage point the sun was still well below the horizon, but Mt. Whitney, 10,000 feet above me jutted into the scattered pink rays of the rising sun.

Moonrise, moonset

Quite conveniently, the earth shadow and Belt of Venus also happen to be where you’ll find a setting (at sunrise) and rising (at sunset) full moon. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that the full moon (more or less) rises in the east at sunset, and sets in the west at sunrise. Many of my favorite images use just such a moonrise or moonset to accent an empty but colorful sky.

The image at the top of this post is a recent attempt at a sunrise moonset. I was in Big Sur last week to help my good friend Don Smith with his Big Sur winter workshop. Don and I guided the group down to the beach much too early to photograph the moon, but the extra time allowed everyone to search for a suitable foreground.

With the tide quite high, many of the beach’s most photogenic rocks were partially or completely submerged, but we certainly weren’t lacking for subjects. Don helped half of the group work the rocks along the south part of the beach, while the other half followed me north. Just a couple of hundred yards up the beach we found a pair of boulders amidst the crashing surf. Taking care not to scar the pristine sand with footprints, we spent the rest of the sunrise moving around, framing the setting moon with these and a couple of other nearby boulders.

I clicked the frame here extremely early in the window of usable light, when the foreground was just bright enough that capturing usable detail didn’t require overexposing the moon (remember, if I can’t capture the entire scene with one click, I won’t shoot it). Vanquishing this extreme dynamic range was aided by the amazing sensor of my new Sony a7R (thank you very much), combined with my trusty Singh-Ray 3-stop hard graduated neutral density filter.

Even with those advantages, I still needed to massage the shadows up and highlights (the moon only) down in Lightroom and Photoshop. The advantage of photographing the scene this early was the ability to capture the moonlight reflected on the ocean, something I’d have lost if I’d waited for the foreground to brighten.

A Gallery of the View Opposite the Sun

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


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World in motion

Gary Hart Photography: Moon on the Rocks, Soberanes Point, Big Sur

Moon on the Rocks, Soberanes Point, Big Sur
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
5 seconds
F/11
ISO 200

As a full-time landscape photographer, I often joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves—no wildlife, no pets, no portraits, no sports. And don’t even think about asking me to do your wedding. I’ve always been a deliberate shooter who likes to anticipate and prepare my frame with the confidence my shot will still be there when I’m ready—landscape photography suits me just fine (thank-you-very-much).

But as much as I appreciate the comfortable pace of a static landscape, the reality is that nature is in constant motion. Earth’s rotation spins the moon and stars across our night sky, and continuously changes the direction, intensity, and color of the sunlight that rules our day. Rivers cascade toward sea level, clouds scoot and change shape overhead, ocean waves curl and explode against sand and rock, then vanish and repeat. And even a moderate breeze can send the most firmly rooted plants into a dancing frenzy.

Photographing motion is frustrating because a single image can’t duplicate the human experience (not to mention the technical skill required to subdue it without compromising exposure and depth). But motion also presents a creative opportunity for the photographer who knows how to create a motion-implying illusion that conveys power, flow, pattern, and direction.

While a camera can’t do what the human eye/brain do, it can accumulate seconds, minutes, or hours of activity with one “look,” recording a scene’s complete history in a single image. Or, a camera can document an instant, an ephemeral splash of water or bolt of lightning that’s gone so fast it’s merely a memory by the time a viewer’s conscious mind processes it. This is powerful stuff—accumulating motion in a long frame reveals hidden patterns; freezing motion saves an instant for eternal scrutiny.

For example

When I photograph the night sky, I have to decide how to handle the motion of the stars (insert obligatory, “It’s not the stars that are moving” comment here). Freezing celestial motion is a balancing act that combines a high ISO and large aperture with a shutter speed to maximize the amount of light captured, while concluding before discernable streaks form. My goal is to hold the stars in one spot long enough to reveal many too faint for the eye to register. Or, I can emphasize celestial motion by holding my shutter open for many minutes.

Lightning comes and goes faster than human reflexes can respond. At night, a long exposure can be initiated when and where lighting might strike, recording any bolt that occurs during the exposure. But in daylight I need a lightning sensing device like a Lightning Trigger, that detects the lightning and fires the shutter faster than I can.

Moving water is probably the most frequently photographed example of motion in nature, with options that range from suspended water droplets to an ethereal gauze. I’m always amused when I hear someone say they don’t like blurred water images because they’re not “natural.”

Ignoring the fact that it’s usually impossible to achieve a shutter speed fast enough to freeze airborne water in the best (shade or overcast) light, I don’t find blurred water any less natural than a water drop suspended in midair (when was the last time you saw that). Blurred water isn’t unnatural, it’s different.

Which brings me to the image at the top of the frame, of the waves and rocks at Big Sur’s of Soberanes Point, and a (nearly) full moon dropping through the twilight on the distant horizon. I could have increased my aperture and ISO until my shutter speed stopped the motion of the waves, and timing the exposure just right, might have recorded an explosive collision of wave and rock—dramatic, but understating turbulence of the ocean/land interface. Instead, I opted for an exposure long enough to convey the action and extent of the agitated surf, but fast enough to hold the setting moon in place.

A gallery of motion in nature

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

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