Small steps and giant leaps


Oak and Crescent, Sierra Foothills, California
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
320 mm
1.6 seconds
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.

Workshop Schedule || Purchase Prints

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
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

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


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

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.


A Gallery of Yosemite Moons

The cure for blue skies

Sunrise Moonset, Sierra Crest, Alabama Hills, California

Sunrise Moonset, Sierra Crest, Alabama Hills, California
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/8 second
29 mm
ISO 200
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The prominent mountain on the left is 12,944 foot Lone Pine Peak. At 14,495 feet, Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the 48 contiguous United States; it’s the shark-tooth peak left of center. The slightly concave mountain on the far right is 14,380 foot Mt. Williamson.

A good landscape image usually involves, well…, a good landscape. But that’s only half the equation—photographers also need photogenic conditions—soft light, interesting skies, dramatic weather, or anything else that elevates the scene to something special. While we have absolute control over the time and location of our photo outings, the conditions have a significant random (luck) component.

Despite being less than a day’s drive from many of the most treasured photo destinations in the world, most of my photo trips are planned months in advance. Workshops in particular require at least a year of advance planning on my part, and many months of schedule adjustment and travel arrangements for the participants. I think I’ve pretty much established that positive thinking, finger crossing, divine pleas, and ritual incantation (no virgin sacrifice yet) are of zero value where photography is concerned—sometimes conditions work out wonderfully, sometimes not so much. And while I’ve photographed my workshop locations many times, I know most of my workshop participants haven’t, which is why I do my best to schedule my workshops when the odds are best for interesting skies.

My annual Death Valley / Mt. Whitney photo workshop is a perfect example: Among the driest places on Earth, Death Valley gets only about an inch of rain each year and suffers from chronic blue skies. Ever the optimist, I schedule my DV/Whitney workshop from mid-January through early February, when the odds, though still low, are at least best for clouds. And while I’ve actually been pretty lucky with the clouds in past workshops, to hedge my bets further, I always schedule this workshop to coincide with a full moon—if we don’t get clouds, the moon always seems to save the day (and night).

This year’s DV/Whitney workshop wrapped up Saturday morning. Unfortunately, it landed in the midst of what is on its way to becoming an unprecedented drought in California. After two dry winters, this winter is worse—a persistent high pressure system has set up camp above California, creating an impenetrable force field that deflects clouds and and bathes the state weather that is absolutely beautiful for everything but photography. In this year’s DV/Whitney workshop’s four+ days, we enjoyed highs in the glorious 80s, and I don’t recall seeing a single cloud (though there were unconfirmed rumors of a cloud sighting on the distant horizon late in the workshop).

But cloudless skies don’t need to mean lousy photography—they just shrink the window of opportunity. Places like Mosaic Canyon and Artist’s Palette are nice in the early morning or late afternoon shade. And in general, when clouds aren’t in the picture, the best photography skies are on the horizon opposite the sun before sunrise and after sunset. Last week I made a point of getting my group on location at least 45 minutes before sunrise, and kept them out well past sunset to photograph Death Valley’s one-of-a-kind topography beneath twilight’s shadowless pink and blue pastels. Among other things, in this light the dunes were fantastic (I was able to find a relatively footprint free area) all the way from shadowless twilight through high contrast early morning light, and the first light on Telescope Peak from Badwater was wonderful.

But the workshop’s real highlight, the element that elevated our week into something special, was the moon. The real moon show didn’t begin until it showed up above the primary views on our final two sunrises, but we got a nice preview on our first sunset when the waxing gibbous disk rose into the twilight wedge above the mountains east of Hell’s Gate. The next evening I took the group to panoramic Dante’s View; while the prime objective was photographing Death Valley’s last light and the sun setting from 5,000 vertical feet above Badwater, I instructed everyone to walk across the parking lot after sunset to catch the nearly full moon rising above the equally expansive (though significantly less spectacular) panorama of distant peaks to the east. The moon arrived early enough to allow at least ten minutes of quality photography, then we just kind of hung out to watch it for a little while longer. Very nice.

Friday morning’s sunrise we found the moon glowing as promised in the predawn indigo above Zabriskie Point. As the morning brightened, we watched the nearly round disk slide through twilight’s throbbing pink before disappearing directly behind Manly Beacon just a few minutes after sunrise.

But as nice as the Zabriskie shoot was, I think my personal favorite was the workshop’s final sunrise from the Alabama Hills. The group, now expert at managing the difficult contrast between foreground shadows and brilliant moon, immediately spread out to find their own foreground. One or two  headed straight for the Whitney Arch (aka, Mobius Arch), while the rest of us were quite content with the variety of boulders west and south of our the arch.

The thing that makes the Alabama Hills such a special location for sunrise is its position between towering peaks to the west, and relatively flat horizon to the east. At sunrise here, the Sierra crest juts into the blue and rose of the Earth’s receding shadow, then transitions to amber when the first rays of sunlight kiss its serrated peaks. You anticipate watch the sun’s arrival by watch the shadow descent the vertical granite until it bathes the weathered boulders with warm, ephemeral sunlight. Then, just like that, the show’s over.

I’ve shot this scene at sunrise so many times that I usually remain a spectator unless something special moves me to pull out my camera. Last Saturday, despite the absence of clouds, I just couldn’t resist the pull of the moon, which hovered like a mylar balloon in the night/day transition. At first there wasn’t enough light to photograph detail in the rocks and moon in a single frame, but eventually, with the help of a two-stop graduated neutral density filter, I was able to capture the image at the top of the blog.

Orion, Badwater by Moonlight, Death Valley

Orion, Badwater by Moonlight, Death Valley
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
15 seconds
17 mm
ISO 1600
* * *
Another great thing about timing the Death Valley workshop to coincide with a full moon is our moonlight shoots. Of all the workshop moonlight shoots I do throughout the year, I think I look forward to the Death Valley Badwater shoot the most. This year’s didn’t disappoint—not only was the photography great, there’s just something about the playa’s warm temperatures and utter stillness that creates a genuinely festive atmosphere.

Moonset, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California

Moonset, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California
* * *
Last year I photographed the same scene in different conditions. While this year’s capture highlights the Sierra crest and uses the blank sky and dark foreground to create a twilight feel, last year’s image was captured shortly after the sun lit the peaks and colored the clouds. I used a tighter composition to emphasize Mt. Whitney, the moon, and the pink clouds.

Moon chasing: The rest of the story

Gary Hart Photography: Moon!, Half Dome, Yosemite

Moon!, Half Dome, Yosemite
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/13 second
ISO 200
400 mm (slightly cropped)

Wow, it seems like only yesterday that the moon was just tiny dot hovering above Half Dome.

Moonrise Reflection, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite

Moonrise Reflection, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite

What happened?

No, the moon didn’t magically expand, nor did I enlarge it digitally and plop it into this image. What happened is that I waited two days and moved back; what happened is the difference between 40mm and 400mm; what happened is a perfect illustration of the photographer’s power to influence viewers’ reaction to a scene through understanding and execution of the camera’s unique view of the world.

The rest of the story

My workshop group captured the “small” moon at sunset on Thursday, when it was 93% full and the “official” (assumes a flat, unobstructed horizon) moonrise was 3:09 p.m (an hour and 40 minutes before sunset). That night the moon didn’t rise to 16 degrees above the horizon, the angle to Half Dome’s summit as viewed from our location beside the Merced River, until almost exactly sunset. Because it’s so much higher than anything to the west, Half Dome gets light pretty much right up until sunset—look closely and you can see the day’s last rays kissing Half Dome’s summit.

Flat horizon moonrise on Saturday, when the moon was 100% full, was at 4:24 p.m., only about twenty minutes before sunset. But Tunnel View is nearly 500 feet above Yosemite Valley; it’s also 5 1/2 miles farther than Half Dome than Thursday’s location—this increased elevation and distance reduces the angle to the top of Half Dome to just 6 degrees. So, despite rising over an hour later, when viewed from Tunnel View, the moon peeked above the ridge behind Half Dome just a couple of minutes after sunset (if we’d stayed at Thursday night’s location, in addition to being hungry and cold, by Saturday we’ have had to wait until after 6:00 for the moon to appear).


My objective for full moon photography is always to get the detail in the moon and the foreground. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, these were workshop shoots, and experience has shown me that the most frequent failure when photographing a rising moon in fading twilight is getting the exposure right—the tendency is to perfectly expose the foreground, which overexposes the daylight-bright moon (leaving a pure white disk). This problem is magnified when the moon catches everyone unprepared.

So, both evenings I had my group on location about 30 minutes before the moon. While we waited I made sure everyone had their blinking highlights (highlight alert) turned on, and understood that their top priority would be capturing detail in the moon. I warned them that an exposure without a blinking (overexposed) moon would slightly underexpose the foreground. And I told them that once they had the moon properly exposed (as bright as possible without significant blinking highlights), they shouldn’t adjust their exposure because the moon’s brightness wouldn’t change and they’d already made it as bright as they could. This meant that as we shot, the foreground would get continually darker until it just became too dark to photograph.

(A graduated neutral density filter would have extended the time we could have photographed the scene, but the vertical component of Yosemite’s horizon made a GND pretty useless. A composite of two frames, one exposed for the moon and one exposed for the landscape would have been a better way to overcome the scene’s increasing dynamic range.)

Compare and contrast

Winter Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

Thursday night’s scene, which would have been beautiful by itself, was simply accented by the (nearly) full moon. Contrast that with my visit a few years ago, when I photographed a full moon rising slightly to the left of its position last Saturday’s night. But more significant than the moon’s position that evening was the rest of the scene, which was so spectacular that it called for a somewhat wider composition that included the pink sky and fresh snow. And then there’s the above image, from last Saturday night—because the sky was cloudless (boring), and snow was nowhere to be seen, I opted for a maximum telephoto composition that was all about the moon and Half Dome.

The wide angle perspective I chose Thursday night emphasized the foreground by exaggerating the distance separating me, Half Dome, and the moon; the snowy moonrise image found a middle ground that went as tight as possible while still conveying the rest of the scene’s beauty. Saturday night’s telephoto perspective compressed that distance, bringing the moon front and center. Same moon, same primary subject: If Thursday night’s moon was a garnish, Saturday’s was the main course.

Learn more about photographing a full moon

Join me next fall as we do this all over again

A gallery of Yosemite moons

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

Chasing the moon in Yosemite

Moonrise Reflection, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite

Moonrise Reflection, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1.3 seconds
ISO 200
40 mm

The highlight of my just completed Yosemite Autumn Moon photo workshop was a full moon rising above Half Dome at sunset. But rather than settle for just one Half Dome sunset moonrise, I’d “arranged for” three. Clouds shut us out on sunset-moonrise number two, but sunset-moonrise number one was a huge success. (And sunset-moonrise number three, from Tunnel View, was so special that I’ll dedicate a whole blog post to it.)

Any location’s “official” sun and moon rise/set times assume a flat horizon—if you read that today’s moonrise is at 5:00 p.m., you need to account for the time it takes for the moon to rise above whatever obstacles (mountains, hills, trees) are between you and the flat horizon. And due to the same motion around Earth that causes the moon’s phases, anyone planted in the same location night after night would see the moon rise about fifty minutes later each day (this is an average—the nightly lag varies with many factors). For example, a moon that hovered right on the horizon at sunset last night will rise too late to photograph tonight.

While you can’t do anything about the moon’s absolute position in the sky, you can control the elevation of your horizon simply by changing your location. In other words, careful positioning makes it possible to photograph a moonrise at sunset on multiple nights—move lower and/or closer to the horizon to delay the moon’s appearance, higher and/or farther to view the moon sooner.

The earlier the moon will rise, the closer to your subject (for example, Half Dome) you should be to increase the angle of view; the later the moonrise, the farther back and higher you should be. So, positioning ourselves on the valley floor, close to Half Dome, provided a steep angle of view that delayed the moon’s appearance on Thursday night, when it rose (above a flat horizon) several hours before sunset. Conversely, standing at elevated Tunnel View a couple of nights later decreased our angle of view, enabling us to see the moon sooner when official moonrise is closer to sunset.

Last Saturday night, from Tunnel View on Yosemite Valley’s west side (farthest from Half Dome) the moon was “scheduled” to appear about five minutes after sunset—that would put it in the magenta, post-sunset band with just enough light for about ten minutes of shooting before the dynamic range (the brightness difference between the sunlit moon and darkening foreground) shut us down. While that was the shoot we were most looking forward to, for Friday night I’d picked a mid-valley spot by the Merced River that would put the moon above Half Dome just about sunset. And for our initial sunset on Thursday evening, I took the group to a riverside spot on Yosemite Valley’s east side, much closer to Half Dome.

Clouds obscured the moon Friday night, but Thursday night was a real treat. Not only did we find the fall color in the cottonwood trees upriver still hanging in there (despite a fairly early autumn in most of Yosemite Valley), the clouds parted just in time for the moon’s arrival. In addition to Half Dome, the trees, and the moon in the distance, we were able to get a mirror image of the scene reflected on the glassy surface of the Merced River at our feet.

While the downside of moving closer to Half Dome (or whatever your subject is) is that the wider focal length necessary to include the entire scene also shrinks the moon, I’ve always believed a small moon adds a powerful accent that makes an already beautiful scene even more special. But what if you prefer your moon big? Simple: just wait a day or two, and move back as far as possible. Stay tuned….

Join me next fall as we do this all over again.

*   *   *

One final point: Notice the cool (blue) color cast of this scene. This is an indication of not just the rapidly advancing twilight, but also the depth of the shade there in the shadow of the steep valley walls and dense evergreens. An image’s color temperature is a creative choice made during processing by photographers capturing in raw (unprocessed) mode. While warming the light would have made the trees more yellow, I decided that the coolness adds a soothing calmness that is lost in the warmth of a daylight scene.

A Yosemite Autumn Moon Gallery

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

I love it when things work out

Autumn Moon, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
.8 seconds
ISO 100

October 29, 2012

My Yosemite autumn workshop wrapped up last night with a spectacular moonrise above Half Dome at sunset. That my group was there to photograph it was both a source of pride, and great personal satisfaction—I doubt few things on Earth are more beautiful than a full moon rising above Half Dome at sunset, and I love being able to share it.

Some lunar perspective

Imagine a line connecting the sun and moon—the half of the moon skewered by that line is always fully lit. Because the moon orbits Earth, our position relative to that line changes daily. Once every 29 days Earth is on that line too, aligned with (and between) the sun and the moon, perfectly positioned to see all of the moon’s sunlit side during our night (in other words, the side of Earth facing the moon is the side facing away from the sun). Because this alignment is the only time the moon’s fully lit face is visible all night, a full moon always rises at sunset and sets at sunrise.

Why do we rarely see the moon rise exactly as the sun sets? There are a couple of reasons: First, local terrain usually gets in the way—if the moon has to rise above mountains, or the sun sets behind mountains, their rise and set times will be skewed. And second, the moon, sun, and Earth are only perfectly aligned for an instant—we see the moon as full on the day it’s most closely aligned with the sun and Earth, but we’ll only see the rising full moon precisely at sunset when sunset for our location coincides with the instant of perfect alignment, and no mountains are in the way. (There are other orbital and positioning factors, but sometimes technical minutia can clutter understanding, so I’ll just leave it here.)

Targeting Yosemite’s autumn moon

For most Yosemite visitors, viewing a glowing lunar disk above Yosemite Valley doesn’t require much more than being outside and looking up at the right time. But photographers have to be much more precise than that—the camera’s constrained view means anything but a tight composition reduces the moon to small accent (albeit a very beautiful one) to a very large scene. And the camera’s relatively limited ability to simultaneously capture shadows and highlights makes for an extremely narrow time window to photograph a full moon—too early and the moon is lost in still-bright sky (not enough contrast); too late and the dynamic range separating the rising (daylight bright) moon and (rapidly dimming) shadowed foreground terrain is to great for a camera to capture (too much contrast).

So what we want is a moon that rises in very close proximity to Half Dome, at just the right time. When I started planning my 2012 workshops more than a year in advance, I circled October 28 as the date for my favorite Yosemite full moon rise of the year. That was when the moon, 99 percent full, would rise above the steep granite walls of Yosemite Valley, in the general direction of Half Dome as viewed from the valley, at just the right time. I usually choose the famous Tunnel View vista, just east of the Wawona Tunnel, for the autumn moonrise, but my calculations told me that from Tunnel View the moon would rise a little farther to the right of Half Dome than I like, and just a little later than ideal (difficult to expose for anyone without rock-solid understanding of metering and exposure)—still a nice shot, and doable if you’re careful, but I thought there might be something better.

Wanting to be at a higher elevation than, and a little farther north of, my Tunnel View vantage point, I soon realized that the less heralded vista just west of the Wawona Tunnel would be just about right. Not only would this perspective better align the moon with Half Dome, it’s about a mile farther back and over 400 feet higher than Tunnel View (for a slightly earlier moonrise). And being farther back also meant we could use a longer focal length to maximize the distant moon’s size relative to the closer Half Dome. This vantage point doesn’t offer a view of Bridalveil Fall (it wouldn’t be in a telephoto image that includes Half Dome anyway), but that late in the afternoon in autumn Bridalveil is in full shade, and an extremely dry year had reduced it to a mere trickle anyway.

There are lots of apps and software that plot moonrise relative to terrain (Photographer’s Ephemeris being the most popular among photographers), but my moonrise (and set) workflow was in place long before they were available, so I still do it my “old fashioned” way. My technique involves getting the phase, rise/set time, altitude, and azimuth from a website or app (Focalware gives me everything I need), then plotting the moon’s direction with my (now obsolete) National Geographic Topo! software. Topo! gives me the horizontal and vertical distance separating my location and target feature (Half Dome). Plugging that info into my HP11C (scientific calculator) app, I compute the horizon’s altitude in degrees. I plot this altitude and the moon’s azimuth on my Topo! map to   pinpoint when and where the moon will appear (or disappear) from any location I choose. I like my approach because I can do everything I need to without Internet or cell service, but for most people it’s probably just simpler to use Photographer’s Ephemeris or PhotoPills before leaving home.

So anyway, I was able to determine that on October 28, from the vista west of the Wawona Tunnel, the moon would rise behind Half Dome’s Ahwiyah Point at around 5:45, and would be directly above (basically, appearing to sit on top of) Half Dome at around 5:50. With a 6:05 sunset, this was just about as perfect as could be.

The moon arrives

I got my group in position at around 5:30 and we just watched and waited. By the end of any workshop everybody has gotten to know each other quite well and idle time is an excuse for fun. This group was no exception. Though I’ve done this enough to be pretty confident the moon would deliver as promised, I couldn’t help feeling secretly anxious that a miscalculation would somehow render my promised workshop grand finale a flop (despite the fact that I’d checked, double-checked, triple-checked, and then checked some more). But a little after 5:40, just as the joviality peaked, a white arc started to glow behind Ahwiyah Point (below) and we were instantly down to business. With foreground for perspective you can really get a sense for how quickly the moon rises—fortunately, everyone was ready with their exposure and composition, so the clicking was pretty much instantaneous and I don’t think anyone missed anything.

As we shot, I encouraged the group to vary their compositions—while it was mostly a telephoto scene, there were wider and tighter versions, as well as horizontal and vertical orientations. I also frequently reminded everyone to monitor the moon’s highlights—as the moon rises, the foreground darkens but the moon remains daylight bright, making exposure increasingly difficult.

My favorite time of evening is the ten or fifteen minutes after sunset, when the shadows have left the landscape and the east horizon is layered with pink and blue pastels. As Earth’s shadow rises from the eastern horizon, the sky’s glow deepens to a rich magenta that and paints entire landscape. The image at the top of the post was one of the last of the evening, several minutes after sunset. If you look closely, you can see the sky’s pink glow bathing Half Dome’s reflective granite (my camera actually picked more of this color than you see here, but I desaturated it slightly in Photoshop).

(I’d love to say that this was the highlight of my day, but as beautiful as the moonrise was, it was trumped by listening to my Giants World Series victory on the drive home.)

This is the moon when it first appeared, about 20 minutes before sunset. As you can see, the contrast is pretty good, but the light isn’t nearly as nice as it was shortly after sunset.


A Yosemite Autumn Moon Gallery

There’s no whining in photography

Moonset, Soberanes Point, Big Sur
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
10 seconds
ISO 50
28 mm

January 2012

I just wrapped up a long week that underscores the best and worst of my life as a landscape photographer. In the plus column I’ll put visits to Big Sur and Yosemite and the opportunity to spend quality time with a great bunch of photographers; in the negative column goes long days, dull weather, and lots of solo miles.

Sunday morning I left for Big Sur to co-lead Don Smith’s winter workshop, where we spent three-and-a-half days yo-yoing up and down one of the most beautiful coasts in the world. Wednesday night, after photographing sunset with the group at Point Lobos, I made the long trip home, arriving with barely enough time to repack my suitcase and gas-up before hitting the road for Yosemite Thursday afternoon. Following a sunrise to sunset day guiding two photographers from the Netherlands around Yosemite, I drove home late Friday.

But when a long week includes scenes like today’s image, you can see I have little to complain about. I’m extremely fortunate to live where I do, less than four hours drive from locations people travel around the world to visit: Yosemite, Big Sur, San Francisco, Point Reyes, Muir Woods, the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts, the Napa and Sonoma Wine Country, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Lassen, Lake Tahoe, and Mono Lake.

As has become California’s norm this winter, Big Sur delivered mild temperatures and cloudless skies. But, since poor conditions should never be an excuse for staying inside, here’s a little secret for dealing with bland skies: the best light for photography comes before the morning sun reaches the scene, and after the evening sun leaves. Without direct light, the entire landscape is bathed in even, contrast-smoothing light reflected from the sky, and the pastel hues of the Earth’s shadow colors the sky and paints the horizon. All you need to capture the magic is a decent camera (any digital SLR will do) and sturdy tripod.

I time all of my moonrise/moonset shoots for the small window when the moon is in this day-night transition zone—often, the more clear the sky, the better the twilight color on the horizon opposite the sun (and right where the full moon sets/rises). But adding a full moon in limited light like this can be tricky—the moon is daylight bright, while the rest of the scene is in deep shade. Some photographers blend multiple images to handle the extreme contrast; I prefer graduated neutral density filters. For example, to capture the above image of the moon setting into the Pacific at Big Sur’s Sobranes Point, I used a Singh-Ray three-stop reverse GND filter to subdue the moon and hold the sky’s color during an exposure that had to be long enough to reveal the foreground detail.

It was more night than day when Don and I got the group to Sobranes Point for our sunrise shoot. A white strike of moonlight reflected on the black Pacific, and nearby sea stacks, mere shapes in the dark, were under continuous assault from the violent surf. Following a brief orientation, everyone spread out along the cliffs—Don led some of the group southward along the cliffs; I guided the rest northward toward a not yet visible arch. When my eyes adjusted and the light came up, I wound my way along a narrow path that ended on a granite prominence jutting thirty feet or so above the ocean. While most of the waves crashed harmlessly beneath me, every few minutes a particularly large surge would strike at just the right angle, obliterating my view with spray that rose twenty feet above my head (see below). Had the generally prevailing onshore wind not been absent that morning, I’d have been thoroughly drenched. After the first wave explosion I was a bit uneasy about my location, but once I realized I was out of range I kind of enjoyed the ride.

All the visual activity makes this a tricky scene to photograph—I’ve shot here a number of times, but until now have never come away with anything that completely satisfies me here. With most of the action is on the right side of the frame, I’ve always found wide, horizontal compositions unbalanced. Going for a tighter vertical orientation to emphasize the strong coastline, I never find a left edge that doesn’t cut the sea stacks awkwardly. And horizontal or vertical, with a host of smaller rocks protruding from the nearby surf, I struggle placing the bottom of my frame. But adding the moon’s significant visual weight to the left of the frame gave me the horizontal balance I wanted, and hiding the protruding foreground rocks behind the weathered granite cliff gave a solid base for my composition.

When I finally found a composition that worked, I needed to find the focus point that would maximize the depth of field. A quick check of the hyperfocal app on my iPhone told me that f16 at 28mm would give me sharpness from 2 1/2 feet to infinity if I focused on the foreground granite about five feet away. To ensure correct focus, I used my camera’s live view and magnified my focus point 10x. There wasn’t enough light to even think about freezing the surf at a useable ISO, so I just went with a long exposure that smoothed the water.

When photographing waves, many photographers fail to account for the change from one frame to the next. So, knowing my composition was locked securely in place on my tripod, I stood back and monitored the waves closely, clicking about a dozen frames to capture a range of surf action, from placid to violent. This ten second exposure included a single moderate wave and several minor swells.

I was probably cold, damp, and sleepy, but I don’t remember. And it would have been easy to complain about the boring skies, or feel sorry for myself during my many lonely hours behind the wheel, but mornings like this one are exactly why I do this, and a perfect example of why there really is no whining in photography.

Magenta moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

Magenta Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

With my camera I’m able to create my own version of any view, adjusting focal length (the amount of magnification) and composition to emphasize whatever elements and relationships I find most compelling. Today’s image was captured on the  final shoot ofmy most recent fall workshop, three sunsets after my previous image, from virtually the same location.

On Sunday evening (the first sunset), with Yosemite Valley emerging from swirling clouds and the moon high above Leaning Tower, I chose a wide composition that encompassed the entire scene. Wednesday evening the eastern horizon was partially obscured by a uniform layer of translucent clouds. As the sunset progressed, we watched the moon’s glow rise through the throbbing pink clouds. When it slipped into a small opening I quickly tightened my composition to create a frame that was all about Half Dome and the moon. I made the Sunday moon a delicate accent, the Wednesday moon a bold exclamation point. These decisions remind me that photography is more than simply documenting a moment; it’s taking that moment and using the camera’s unique vision to convey its essence.

One more thing: By the last day of a workshop, relationships have been forged and inside jokes have blossomed.  The group interaction feels more like a family gathering (minus the disfunction) than the assembly of diverse strangers we were three-and-a-half days earlier. On this evening in particular we had a great time laughing about things that anyone who hadn’t been in the workshop couldn’t appreciate. It was lots of fun, and a wonderful way for me to wrap up this year’s fall workshop season.

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