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

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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

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Revisiting photography’s 3 P’s

Moonrise Through the Storm, Yosemite Valley

Parting the Clouds, Yosemite Valley
Sony a7R
72 mm
1/15 second
F/11
ISO 100

Let’s review

I often speak and write about “The 3 P’s of nature photography,” sacrifices a nature photographer must make to consistently create successful images.

  1. Preparation is your foundation, the research you do that gets you in the right place at the right time, and the vision and mastery of your camera that allows you to wring the most from the moment.
  2. Persistence is patience with a dash of stubbornness. It’s what keeps you going back when the first, second, or hundredth attempt has been thwarted by unexpected light, weather, or a host of other frustrations, and keeps you out there long after any sane person would have given up.
  3. Pain is the willingness to suffer for your craft. I’m not suggesting that you risk your life for the sake of a coveted capture, but you do need to be able to ignore the tug of a warm fire, full stomach, sound sleep, and dry clothes, because the unfortunate truth is that the best photographs almost always seem to happen when most of the world would rather be inside.

Picking an image and trying to assign one or more of the 3 P’s to it is a fun little exercise I sometimes use to remind myself to keep doing the extra work. Take a few minutes to scan your favorite captures; ask yourself how many didn’t require at least one of the 3 P’s. (I’ll wait.) …….. See what I mean?

So which of my 3 P’s do I credit for this one? Well, there was the Persistence to continue going out in the rain all week, with no guarantee we’d see anything beyond 100 yards (because in Yosemite, if you stay inside until the rain stops, you’re too late). And of course photographing in the rain is nothing if not a Pain. But more than anything else, this one was about…

Preparation

(If you discount the unavoidable knowledge gained by a lifetime of Yosemite visits and and decades of plain old picture clicking) the preparation for this image started when I plotted the 2014 December moon and determined that it would rise at sunset, nearly full, above Half Dome in the month’s first week. So of course I scheduled a workshop for that week.

But there was more to the preparation than just figuring out where the moon would be. Of course as the workshop approached, I monitored the weather forecast and arrived in Yosemite prepared for rain. (Duh.) And throughout the workshop I monitored the weather obsessively, scouring each National Weather Service forecast update (every six hours), monitoring radar, not to mention the good old fashioned walk-outside-and-look-up technique.

Before going out for our penultimate afternoon shoot, I determined exactly what time the moon would appear above Half Dome, though I had little hope that the clouds would part enough to reveal it. Nevertheless, I wanted to to keep the group within striking distance of Tunnel View, just in case. When the latest weather forecast indicated a possible break in the rain late that afternoon, I started watching the sky closely—a clearing storm plus the moon would be pretty cool for everyone (including this life-long Yosemite photographer). The instant the clouds showed a hint of brightening (a subtle precursor to an imminent break that every photographer should be able to read), I raced everyone back up to Tunnel View.

As we pulled into the Tunnel View lot, not only was the storm starting to clear, a small patch of the first blue sky we’d seen in two days was widening above Half Dome. I held my breath and crossed my fingers for the blue to expand just a little more, because I knew exactly where the moon was and it was oh so close.

We didn’t need to wait long—within five minutes a thin piece of moon poked through, then a little more, and soon there it was, floating in that small blue patch between Half Dome and Sentinel Dome. It hung in there for less than five minutes before the clouds regrouped and swallowed the sky.

Epilogue

With more rain in the forecast, driving down from Tunnel View that night I felt certain that this unexpected, brief convergence of moon and sky was a one-time gift, that the planned moonrise for our final sunset would surely be lost to the clouds. And given what we’d just seen, I was okay with that. But Nature had a different idea….

 

A gallery of extreme weather rewards

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Moon whisperer

Gary Hart Photography, Moonrise, Yosemite

Twilight Moonrise, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite
Canon EOS SL1
.4 seconds
F/11
ISO 100
140 mm

Just when you start getting cocky, nature has a way of putting you back in your place. Case in point: last week’s full moon, which my workshop group photographed to great satisfaction from the side of Turtleback Dome, near the road just above the Wawona Tunnel.

I love photographing the moon, in all of its phases for sure, but especially in its full and crescent phases, when it hangs on the horizon in nature’s best light. I’ve developed a method that allows me to pretty much nail the time and location of the moon’s appearance from any location, and love sharing the moment with my workshop students. (Because my workflow has been in place for about ten years, I don’t use any of the excellent new software tools that automate the moon plotting process.)

Last week’s workshop was no exception, and after much plotting and re-plotting, I decided that rather than my usual Tunnel View vantage point, the view just west of the Wawona Tunnel would work better for this November’s full moon. Arriving about 30 minutes before “showtime,” I gathered everyone around and pointed a spot on Half Dome’s right side, about a third of the way above the tree-lined ridge, and told them the moon would appear right there between 4:45 and 4:50.

Sure enough, right at 4:47 there it was and I exhaled. We photographed the moon’s rise for about 30 minutes, until difference between the darkening valley and daylight-bright moon became too great for our cameras to capture lunar detail. Everyone was thrilled, and I was an instant genius—I believe I even heard “moon whisperer” on a few lips.

The workshop wrapped up the next evening, and I was still basking in my new-found moon whisperer status as I drove home down the Merced River Canyon with my daughter Ashley in the passenger seat. In a car behind us was workshop participant Laurie, who had never been down that road and wanted to follow me to the freeway in Merced.

Hungry, we stopped at one of my favorite spots, Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort in Midpines (check it out), for dinner. About an hour later, our stomachs full, we were walking back to the cars when someone pointed to a glow atop the mountain ridge above the resort. Ashley and I recognized it as the rising moon, but since this wasn’t a full disk, immediately entered into a friendly debate as to whether the moon was just peeking above the ridge, or had already risen and was disappearing behind a cloud.

We actually got quite scientific, escalating the passion with each point/counterpoint to make our cases (lest you think this was an unfair contest, I should add that Ashley’s a lawyer). Laurie remained silent. I’m not really sure how long we’d been debating when Laurie finally nudged us and pointed skyward, where, in full view of the entire Western Hemisphere, glowed the landscape illuminating spotlight of the actual full moon. Moon whisperer indeed.

(We never did figure out what the glow was.)

A full moon gallery

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Small steps and giant leaps

_DSC1033MoonVenusOaks_screensaver

Oak and Crescent, Sierra Foothills, California
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
320 mm
1.6 seconds
F/11
ISO 400

July, 1969

I turned 14 that month. I was into baseball, chess, AM radio, astronomy, and girls—not necessarily in that order. Of particular interest to me in 1969 was the impending moon landing, a milestone I’d been anticipating since tales of American aerospace engineering ingenuity and our heroic astronauts started headlining  the Weekly Reader, and my teachers began gathering the class around a portable TV to watch the latest Gemini or Apollo launch or splashdown. If you remember the Sixties, you understand that the unifying buzz surrounding each Apollo mission briefly trumped the divisive tension surrounding headlines detailing Vietnam battles and demonstrations, the Civil Rights movement, and Communist paranoia. Unfortunately, without checking NASA’s schedule or asking for my input, my parents and three couples they knew from college decided mid-July 1969 would be the ideal time for our four families to join forces on a camping trip in the remote, television-free redwoods of Northern California. (“What could we possibly need a television for?”)

Apollo 11 was halfway to the moon when the Locher and Hinshaw families pulled up to our home in Berkeley (the Hardings, coming down from Eastern Washington, would meet us at the campground a couple of days later). The warm greetings exchanged by the adults were balanced by the cool introductions forced on the unfamiliar children. We departed the next morning, caravan style, our cars connected by woefully inadequate walkie-talkies that we’d almost certainly have been better off without (it had seemed like such a good idea at the time). I remember my dad keeping a safe distance behind Hinshaws, as he was convinced that their borrowed trailer, that seemed to veer randomly and completely independently of their car, would surely go careening into the woods on the next curve. But somehow our three-car parade pulled safely into Richardson’s Grove State Park late that afternoon.

In true sixties style, the three dads went immediately to work setting up campsites while the moms donned aprons and combined forces on a community spaghetti dinner. Meanwhile, the younger kids scattered to explore, while the four teens, having only recently met and being far too cool for exploration or anything remotely resembling play, disappeared into the woods, ostensibly on a firewood hunt. Instead, we ended up wandering pretty much aimlessly, kicking pinecones and occasionally stooping for a small branch or twig, just far enough from camp to avoid being drafted into more productive (and closely supervised) labor by the adults.

But just about the time we teens ran out of things not to do, we were relieved to be distracted by my little brother Jim, who had just rushed back into camp breathless, sheet-white, and alone. We couldn’t quite decipher his animated message to the parents, but when we saw our dads drop their tarps and tent poles and rush off in Jim’s tracks toward the nearby Eel River, we were (mildly) curious (to be interested in anything involving parents was also very not cool). So, with feigned indifference, the four of us started wandering in the general direction of the river until we (somehow) found ourselves peering down from the edge of a 50 foot, nearly vertical cliff at the river toward what was clearly the vortex of all the excitement. It was that instant when I think we all ceased being strangers.

The scene before us could have been from a bad slasher movie: Flat on the ground and unconscious (at the very least) was 11 year-old Paul Locher; sitting on a rock, stunned, with a stream of blood cascading from his forehead, was Paul’s 10 year-old brother John. As disturbing as this sight was, nothing could compare to seeing father Don Locher orbiting his injured sons, dazed and covered in blood. The rest of this memory is a blur of hysterics, sirens, rangers, and paramedics.

It wasn’t until the father and sons were whisked away to the small hospital in Garberville, about 10 miles away, that we were able to piece together what had happened. Apparently Paul and John, trying to blaze a shortcut to the river, miscalculated risk and had tumbled down the cliff. My brother at first thought they were messing with him, but when John showed him a rock covered with blood, he sprinted back to fetch the parents. Arriving at the point where the kids had gone over, the fathers made a quick plan. My dad and Larry Hinshaw would rush back to to summon help, and see if they could find a safer path down to the accident scene. Don would stay put and keep an eye on his sons. But shortly after my dad and Larry left, John had looked down at his brother cried, “Daddy, I can see his brains!” Hearing those words, Don panicked and did what any father would do—attempt to reach his boys. Thinking that a small shrub a short distance would make a viable handhold, Don took a small step in its direction, reached for and briefly grasped a branch, lost his grip, and tumbled head-over-heals down to the river.

After what seemed like days but was probably only an hour or two, we were relieved to learn that John needed no more than a few stitches; he was back in camp with us that night. Paul had faired slightly worse, with a concussion and a nasty cut behind his ear—the “brains” his brother had seen was ear cartilage. Paul spent the night in the hospital and was back with us by the time the Harding clan arrived the following afternoon. Don, however, wasn’t quite so fortunate. In addition to a severe concussion, he had opened up his head so completely that over 150 stitches were required to zip things back together. Though Don spent several days in the hospital, needless to say, we were all relieved by the understanding that it could have been much worse.

By Sunday, Don was feeling much better but was still a day or two from release to the dirt and fish guts of our four family campsite. Most of us had visited at one time or another, going in small, brief waves and respecting the hospital’s visiting hours. Nevertheless, there was another priority that had gone unspoken in the first few days following the accident came to prominence with the realization that Don would be fine. I can’t say who first recognized the opportunity, but I’m guessing that Larry Hinshaw had something to do with convincing the nursing staff to look the other way when Don was suddenly host to 20 simultaneous visitors that night. Whatever magic was worked, I’ll never spending that Sunday evening, July 20, 1969, shoehorned into a tiny hospital room, sharing a tiny black-and-white television screen with 20 pairs of eyes, witnessing history.

Besides my parents and two brothers, the rest of the crew that night I’d only met just a few days earlier, but I can still name every single one of them. The relationships formed that week continue to this day. And so do the stories, which, like this story, are filled with some of the greatest joy I’ve ever experienced, and also with some of the greatest tragedy. But it’s this story in particular, the catalyst for all the stories that follow, that explains why the words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” have a very personal significance for me.

Today it’s hard for me to look at the moon without remembering that hospital room and the emotional events that enabled me to witness Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps with those special people. As a child of the Sixties who very closely followed all of the milestones and tragedies leading up to that moment,  I couldn’t help but wonder while assembling the images for the gallery below about that week’s role in shaping who I am and what I do today.

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A lunar gallery

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

Another day, another moonrise

Moonrise, Mt. Starr King, Yosemite

Moonrise, Mt. Starr King, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
Canon 100-400L
1/10 second
F/8
ISO 400

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Previously on Eloquent Nature

Moonrise, Glacier Point, Yosemite

Moonrise, Glacier Point, Yosemite

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May 13, 2014

After seeing the images captured by the people in my group followed me on Monday evening, during the next day’s image review session a few in my workshop group asked if we could go back up to Glacier Point for sunset that night. I did a quick-and-dirty plotting and showed them about where the moon would be at sunset (I usually tend to be more OCD about precision when plotting the moon, but “about” was good enough for our purposes), explaining that I’d planned to photograph the moonrise from a different spot that night, but I’d be willing to forego that shoot in favor of a Glacier Point reprise if that’s what everyone preferred. But, I warned, tonight would also be our only opportunity to photograph the Lower Yosemite Fall moonbow—if we drive up to Glacier Point, we probably won’t make it back down to the valley for the moonbow shoot until after 9:00. While that would be plenty early enough for the moonbow, it would mean we’d have been going from before 6:00 a.m. until about 11:00 p.m. But the vote was unanimous, so back up we went.

I love plotting a moonrise. I’ve been doing it for a long time—when done right there’s no mystery to the time and location of the moon’s arrival, but there’s just something thrilling about the watching the moon peek above the horizon. (Not to mention the (unjustified) awe my workshop groups express when it happens exactly when and where I’d predicted.) When we considering altering the schedule I’d them that we’d see the at around 7:40, give or take five minutes, just a little to the left of Mt. Starr King. And sure enough, at 7:36 there it was, a white wafer poking from behind the left flank of Gray Peak (the left-most peak in the above image).

Full disclosure

Before you decide that my moon prediction makes me some kind of photography savant, I should probably explain why the camera I used to photograph this scene was my backup, 1DS Mark III, and not my primary, 5D Mark III. (The 1DS III is still a great camera, it’s just seven-year old technology.) That would be because, genius that I am, my camera bag, complete with camera, lenses, tripod, and filters was still back at the hotel. Fortunately, knowing the way workshops force me out of my routine (leading to a long history of forgotten tripods and cameras abandoned by the roadside), I always have a backup tripod and camera bag with my backup camera and a lens or two in the back of my car. Which is how my 1DS III and 100-400 lens (which I find too bulky and awkward for everyday use) were back there and ready for action. What I didn’t have was my remote release and graduated neutral density filters, essential to my twilight moonrise workflow. Fortunately, one of the workshop students took pity on me and loaned me a GND she wouldn’t be using (thanks, Lynda!); I turned on the 2-second timer to eliminate shutter-press vibrations.

But anyway…

As cool as the moon’s appearance was, the best full moonrise photography doesn’t come until a little later. From about five minutes before sunset, when the sky has darkened enough for the daylight-bright moon stand out, until about ten minutes after sunrise, when the foreground has darkened too much to be captured with a single frame (even with the use of a GND), is my moonrise “prime time.”

But even though the best stuff wouldn’t come until later, I photographed the moonrise from its first appearance, varying my composition as much as the 100-400 lens would allow—getting Half Dome in the frame was out of the question, but since I’d already covered that the night before, this was going to be more of a telephoto shoot anyway. Everything was at infinity, but in this case I opted for f8 (f11 is my usual “default” f-stop) and ISO 400 because, given the weight of the 1DSIII and 100-400 lens, I was a little concerned about my tripod’s ability to dampen completely after 2-seconds. By the time the light got really good and the sky started to pink-up, I was quite familiar with all the compositions and was able to cycle through them very efficiently.

By about 8:15 we were hustling back down the mountain to our date with the moonbow. But that’s a story for a different day….

Join me as we do it all over again in next year’s Yosemite Moonbow and Dogwood photo workshop

 

Glacier Point moonrise

Moonrise, Glacier Point, Yosemite

Moonrise, Glacier Point, Yosemite
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1.3 seconds
21 mm
ISO 100
F11

May 12, 2014

I’ve been in Yosemite for my annual Moonbow and Dogwood photo workshop. Monday night I took the group to Glacier Point for sunset—an unexpected benefit of California’s drought that allowed Glacier Point Road to open weeks earlier than normal. I knew a nearly full moon would be rising above the Sierra crest that evening, but figured that since it would be so far south, we wouldn’t be able to do a lot with it. But when I arrived Glacier Point and saw the moon rising above Mt. Starr King, I realized that shifting slightly south, away from the popular Glacier Point View, might just allow us to include the moon and Half Dome in a wide shot. Hmmm. But because we had people in the group who had never been to Glacier Point, I decided now was not the time for exploration.

As always happens at Glacier Point on these predominantly clear evenings, the light on Half Dome warmed beautifully as the sun dropped to the horizon behind us. Organizing an expansive landscape into a coherent image can be difficult, especially for first timer visitors. But as I moved between the students positioned along the rail, it seemed that all were doing fine and realized that my greatest value at the moment was to stay out of the way. Appreciating the view, I just couldn’t get that moon, blocked by trees from our vantage point, out of my mind.

When a couple of people in the group asked why I wasn’t shooting (it always makes them nervous when the leader is looking at the same view they’re photographing but shows no interest in shooting), I told them I was simply enjoying the view (quite true). But when someone asked if I had any suggestions for something different, my ears perked up. I told them if I were to be shooting, I’d go back up the trail a hundred yards or so to see if I could get around the trees and find something that included the moon.

When several people sounded interested, I warned them that there’s no guarantee we’d find anything photo-worthy, and relocating so close to sunset would risk missing the show entirely. Much to my delight, a couple of people said, “Let’s do it,” and that was all I needed to hear. I told Don (Don Smith, who’s assisting this workshop—for those who haven’t been paying attention, Don assists some of my workshops, I assist some of Don’s, and we do a few workshops as equal collaborations) that I was taking a few people back up the trail and off we went.

I ended up with five (nearly half the group) at the view just below the Glacier Point geology exhibit. I chose this spot for its open view, and for the way it allowed us to frame the scene with Half Dome on the left, triangular Mt. Starr King and the moon on the right, and Nevada and Vernal Falls in the center. With a couple of trees and dark granite for the foreground, the scene couldn’t have been more ideal if I’d have assembled it myself.

I took out my 16-35 and composed this scene that pretty much seemed to frame itself. Even though I had subjects ranging from the fairly close foreground the the extremely distant background, at 21mm I knew I’d have enough depth of field at f11. I used live view to focus on the foreground tree, more than distant enough to ensure sharpness throughout my frame.

While I almost always rely on my RGB histogram to check my exposure, my general exposure technique when photographing a full moon in twilight is to forego the histogram and concentrate on the moon. As far as I’m concerned, a shot is a failure if the moon’s highlights are blown (a white disk), but since the moon is such a tiny part of the frame, it barely (if at all) registers on the histogram. What does register is the blinking highlight alert that signals overexposed highlights. When the foreground is dark, I’ll continue pushing my exposure up until the moon just starts to blink (not the entire disk, just the brightest spots). I know from experience that I can recover these blown highlights in post processing. I also know that this is the most light I can give the scene, because the moon’s brightness won’t change as the foreground darkens. (While I don’t blend images, for anyone so inclined it’s quite simple to take two frames, one exposed for the foreground and the other exposed for the moon, and combine the two in Photoshop.) In this case I spot metered on the foreground to ensure enough light to retain color and detail in the rapidly darkening shadows, then used a Singh-Ray 2-stop hard graduated neutral density filter to hold back the sky and (especially) protect against blowing the moon.

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About this scene

This is the view looking east from near Glacier Point. From left to right: Cloud’s Rest (just behind Half Dome), Half Dome, Vernal Fall (below—the white water beneath Vernal Fall is cascades on the Merced River), Nevada Fall (above), Mt. Starr King (triangle shaped peak).

 

Join me as we do it all over again in next year’s Yosemite Moonbow and Dogwood photo workshop

 

Four sunsets, part three: A marvelous night for a moondance

_m7c2328ynpcamp6moonrise_screensaver

Moondance, Half Dome, Yosemite
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/5 second
125 mm
ISO 100
F11

How many Yosemite moonrise images are too many? I have no idea, but I’ll let you know as soon as I find out.

5:10 p.m.

I stand on the bank of the Merced River, eyes locked on the angled intersection of Half Dome’s sharp northeast edge and its adjacent, tree-lined ridge. If the clouds cooperate, and I’ve done my homework right, a nearly full moon (96%) will be poking above this intersection any minute. We’d been fortunate the first two sunsets of my workshop; dare I hope for one more?

If the moonrise happens as I plan (hoped), the sight could rival what we’d gotten from Horsetail Fall on the first two nights of our workshop. But right now the sky behind Half Dome is smeared with thin-ish clouds—how thin I won’t know until the moon appears (or doesn’t). Gazing heavenward, I find it odd that a moonrise, something that can be predicted with such absolute precision, is so subject to weather’s fickle whim. And the clouds aren’t my only concern—just a half-degree error in my plotting would put the moon behind Half Dome and out of sight.

Few things in nature thrill me more than a moonrise. Camera or not, crescent or full, I love everything about a it: the obsessive plotting and re-plotting that gets me out there in the first place; the hand-wringing anticipation while I await the moon’s appearance; the first white pinprick of moonlight on the horizon (Is that it? There it is!); the ridge-top evergreens silhouetted against the rising disk; the glowing sphere hovering above the darkening landscape; and finally, the moonlit landscape beneath a star-studded sky. Everything.

So it shouldn’t surprise that virtually all of my photo trips—workshops and personal—are scheduled around the moon’s phase and some condition of the night sky. Sometimes I target a full moon, sometimes a crescent, and sometimes I want no moon at all (for dark skies that reveal the most stars)—the choice depends on the kind of moonrise and/or night photography I think best suits the landscape I’m traveling to photograph. But because this workshop is timed to coincide with the few February days that Horsetail Fall might turn a molten red at sunset, a calendar window I shrink even further to avoid the crowds that flock a little later in February, the moon is rarely a priority when I schedule the Horsetail Fall workshop. But I still check. And when I started planning my 2013 Yosemite Horsetail Fall workshop a couple of years ago, I was thrilled to discover that not only could I could time this trip for a full moon, I’d also be able to align that moon with Half Dome at sunset. Twice.

5:13 p.m.

I check my watch: 5:13. Sunset is 5:35; the moon should appear almost adjacent to Half Dome at about 5:15, then slowly rise, like a ball rolling uphill along Half Dome’s left side. By 5:30 the disk will have almost reached Half Dome’s summit, less than its own width with from the granite face. That is, if I’ve done my homework right. 5:14.

Any minute now….

I’d done all my figuring months in advance, which of course didn’t stop me from double-, triple-, quadruple-, and so-on-checking my results in the days leading up to my waiting beside the Merced River with a dozen or so other photographers. Part of my anxiety is the particularly fortuitous alignment of location, moon, and time that put the moon appearance above Half Dome right in my “ideal” sunset window as viewed from one of my favorite Yosemite locations. Not only does this spot provide a clear, relatively close view of Half Dome, it also is at a nice, reflective bend in the Merced River. Even without the moon this is a nice spot, end everyone in the group seems to be finding things to photograph. But I want the moon tonight. Really, really want the moon.

(You really don’t need to read this section)

My moonrise/set workflow was in place long before smartphones apps and computer software laid it all out for any photographer willing to look it up. But those tools are new tricks and I’m an old dog. So here’s how I’ve done it for years:

  1. Use my topo map software to determine the latitude and longitude of the location I want to photograph.
  2. Give my location’s latitude and longitude to my Focalware app (or, if I need the data to be a little more granular, the US Naval Observatory website), which returns the moon and sun rise/set altitude (degrees above a flat horizon) and azimuth (the angular distance relative to due north, from 0 to 360 degrees—imagine a clock: 12 is 0 degrees; 3 is 90 degrees; 6 is 180 degrees and so on).
  3. Next I plug the moon’s altitude/azimuth for my location into the plotting tool of my computer’s mapping software. This draws a line from my location (where I’ll be with my camera) to the location of the moonrise (or set). Most importantly, the line shows the moon’s alignment with whatever landscape feature I’m interested in (such as Half Dome). It also gives me both the distance and the elevation change between my location and the point above which it will rise.
  4. Finally, I use the elevation and distance data with the trig functions of a scientific calculator to get the altitude to which the moon must rise before it’s visible from my vantage point.

If this all sounds convoluted, that’s probably because it is. I suggest that you try something like The Photographer’s Ephemeris or Photo Pills, which does all this for you. But like I say, that’s a new trick….

5:15 p.m.

I squint, hoping to engage my x-ray vision enough to make out the moon’s outline through the clouds. Nothing. With conditions fairly static, the group has gotten their shots and is chatting more than clicking. Moon or not, the photography will improve as the light warms toward sunset. I walk uphill, away from the river and slightly upstream to improve my angle of view. Still nothing. (Did Ansel Adams experience this angst?)

We’ve reached the time that I expect the moon to appear. I’ve been plotting the moon long enough to be fairly confident within about one moon’s width (a half degree in either direction) of where it will rise, and within plus/minus two minutes of when it will rise. But the whether of seeing a moonrise depends on, well, the weather. Will rain, snow, or even just a rouge cloud shut us out?  There’s really no way to know until the day arrives. And sometimes, for example this very instant, I can’t tell whether the sky will cooperate until I actually see the moon.

I’ve learned that the best time to photograph a full moon (when I say “full,” I often mean almost full, generally between 95 and 100 percent of the complete disk illuminated) is during a ten minute window straddling sunset. Much earlier and the light isn’t particularly interesting, and there isn’t enough contrast between the moon and the sky for the moon to stand out dramatically; much later and there’s too much contrast between the moon and everything else in the scene for the camera to handle.

Choosing this location introduces another unknown. Remember when I said that I can pinpoint the moonrise within about its width? Well, in this case that margin of error is just enough to give me pause, because rising slightly to the right of where I think it will rise puts the moon behind Half Dome until about five minutes after sunset. Sentinel Bridge, just a short distance downstream, would have been safer, but the Sentinel Bridge Half Dome shot is far more common, the bridge is usually teaming with people at sunset, and the moon would have been a little higher in the sky during “prime time.” So here we stand.

5:17 p.m.

What’s that faint white blob in the clouds? Without saying anything I squint and look closer. Sure enough, there it is, barely visible, less than one degree above the ridge (its rise above the ridge a couple of minutes ago must have been obscured by the clouds), pretty much where I expect it. Phew. I announce the moon’s arrival to the rest the group, but need to guide their eyes to it. As everyone’s attention returns to their cameras, I cross my fingers for the clear sky in its path to hang in there until at least sunset.

5:25-5:45 p.m.

The moon finally climbs above the clouds and I exhale. Still daylight bright, it now makes a striking contrast against the darkening sky. For the next fifteen minutes we shoot continuously, pausing only to recompose and monitor the highlights. Compositions, which I’d had everyone practice before the moon arrived, range from wide reflections that reduce the moon to a tiny accent, to tight isolations of the moon and Half Dome’s face.

As sunset approaches, the biggest concern becomes those lunar highlights—too small to register on the camera’s histogram, the moon’s face is easily blown out as we try to give the darkening foreground more light. Before we started I made certain everyone has engaged their camera’s Highlight Alert (“blinking highlights”) feature. They all know that when the moon starts flashing, they’ve reached the exposure threshold and must back off on their exposure and lock it in (a few “blinkies” are recoverable in Lightroom or Photoshop, but if the entire disk is flashing, the moon’s detail is probably lost for good)—while the moon will remain the same brightness (can’t take any more exposure), from that point on the foreground will continue darkening until it becomes too dark to photograph. Then we go to dinner.

Like everyone else, I used a variety of compositions. I already have a wide reflection image from a prior shoot, so the image I share here is a moderate telephoto—any tighter (to enlarge the moon further) would have truncated some of Half Dome’s face, something I just cant bring myself to do.

We finally wrapped up at about 5:45, when long exposures to bring out detail in the dark landscape made capturing detail in the bright moon impossible. Everyone was pretty thrilled at dinner, and even though the clouds thickened and washed out our planned moonlight shoot, there were no complaints. And little did we know, Mother Nature had concocted a grand finale for our final sunset.

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A Gallery of Yosemite Moons

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