Posted on January 20, 2014
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.
Posted on November 19, 2013
Wow, it seems like only yesterday that the moon was just tiny dot hovering above Half Dome.
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
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.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on November 18, 2013
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….
* * *
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.
Posted on October 29, 2012
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.)
Posted on January 14, 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.
Posted on November 21, 2011
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.