Posted on July 12, 2020
When I was ten, my best friend Rob and I spent most of our daylight hours preparing for our spy careers—crafting and exchanging coded messages, surreptitiously monitoring classmates, and identifying “secret passages” that would allow us to navigate our neighborhood without being observed. But after dark our attention turned skyward. That’s when we’d set up my telescope (a castoff generously gifted by an astronomer friend of my dad) on Rob’s front lawn to scan the heavens in the hope that we might discover something: a supernova, comet, black hole, UFO—it didn’t really matter.
Our celestial discoveries, while not Earth-changing, were personally significant. Through that telescope we saw Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings, and the changing phases of Venus. We also learned to appreciate the vastness of the universe with the insight that, despite their immense size, stars never appeared larger than a pinpoint, no matter how much magnification we threw at them.
To better understand what we saw, Rob and I turned to astronomy books. Pictures of planets, galaxies, and nebula amazed us, but we were particularly drawn to the comets: Arend-Roland, Ikeya–Seki, and of course the patriarch of comets, Halley’s Comet (which wouldn’t return until 1986, an impossible wait that might as well have been infinity). With their brilliant comas and sweeping tails, it was difficult to imagine that anything that beautiful could be real. When the opportunity came to do a project to enter in our school’s Science Fair, comets were an easy choice. And while we didn’t set the world on fire with our project presentation, Rob and I were awarded a yellow ribbon, good enough to land us a spot in the San Joaquin County Fair.
The next milestone in my comet obsession occurred a few years later, after my family had moved to Berkeley and baseball had taken over my life. One chilly winter morning my dad woke me and urged me outside to view what I now know was Comet Bennett. Mesmerized, my smoldering comet fascination flamed instantly, expanding to include all things celestial, and stayed with me through high school (when I wasn’t playing baseball).
I can trace my decision to enter college with an astronomy major all the way back to my early interest in the night sky in general, and comets in particular. I stuck with the astronomy major for several semesters, until the (unavoidable) quantification of magnificent concepts sapped the joy from me.
Though I went on to pursue other interests, my affinity for astronomy hadn’t been dashed, and comets in particular remained special. Of course with affection comes disappointment: In 1973 Comet Kohoutek broke my heart, a failure that somewhat prepared me for Halley’s anticlimax in 1986. By the time Halley’s arrived, word had come down that it was poorly positioned for its typical display (“the worst viewing conditions in 2,000 years”), that it would be barely visible this time around (but just wait until 2061!). Nevertheless, venturing far from the city lights one moonless January night, I found great pleasure locating (with much effort) Halley’s faint smudge in Aquarius.
After many years with no naked-eye comets of note, 1996 arrived with the promise of two great comets. While cautiously optimistic, Kohoutek’s scars prevented me from getting sucked in by the media frenzy. So imagine my excitement when, in early 1996, Comet Hyakutake briefly approached the brightness of Saturn, with a tail stretching more than twenty degrees (forty times the apparent width of a full moon). But as beautiful as it was, Hyakutake proved to be a mere warm-up for Comet Hale-Bopp, which became visible to the naked eye in mid-1996 and remained visible until December 1997—an unprecedented eighteen months. By spring of 1997 Hale-Bopp had become brighter than Sirius (the brightest star in the sky), its tail approaching 50 degrees. I was in comet heaven.
Things quieted considerably comet-wise after Hale-Bopp. Then, in 2007, Comet McNaught caught everyone off-guard, intensifying unexpectedly to briefly outshine Sirius, trailing a thirty-five degree, fan-shaped tail. But because of its proximity to the sun, Comet McNaught had a very small window of visibility in the Northern Hemisphere and was easily lost in the bright twilight—it didn’t become anywhere near the media event Hale-Bopp did. I only learned about it on the last day it would be easily visible in the Northern Hemisphere. With little time to prepare, I grabbed my camera and headed to the foothills east of Sacramento, where I managed to capture a few faint images and barely pick the comet out of the twilight with my unaided eyes. McNaught saved its best show for the Southern Hemisphere, where it became one of the most beautiful comets ever to grace our skies (google Comet McNaught and you’ll see what I mean).
After several years of comet crickets, in 2013 we were promised two spectacular comets, PanSTARRS and ISON. A fortuitous convergence of circumstances allowed me to photograph PanSTARRS from the summit of Haleakala on Maui—just 3 degrees from a setting crescent moon, it was invisible to my eye, but beautiful to my camera. Comet ISON on the other hand, heralded as the most promising comet since Hale-Bopp, pulled an Icarus and and disintegrated after flying too close to the sun.
Since 2013 Earth has been in a naked-eye comet slump. Every once in a while one will tease us, then fizzle. In fact, 2020 has already seen two promising comets flop: Comets Atlas and Swan. So when Comet NEOWISE was discovered in March of this year, no one got too excited. But by June I started hearing rumblings that NEOWISE might just sneak into the the naked-eye realm. Then we all held our breath while it passed behind the sun on July 2.
Shortly after NEOWISE’s perihelion, astronomers confirmed that it had survived, and images started popping up online. The first reports were that NEOWISE was around magnitude 2 (about as bright as Polaris, the North Star) and showing up nicely in binoculars and photos. Unfortunately, NEOWISE was so close to the horizon that it was washed-out to the naked eye by the pre-sunrise twilight glow.
Based on my experience with PanSTARRS, a comet I’d captured wonderfully when I couldn’t see it in the twilight glow, I started making plans to photograph Comet NEOWISE. But I needed to find a vantage point with a good view of the northeast horizon, not real easy in Sacramento, where we’re in the shadow of the Sierra just east of town. After doing a little plotting, I decided my best bet would be to break my stay-away-from-Yosemite-in-summer vow and try it from Glacier Point. Glacier Point is elevated enough to offer a pretty clear view of the northeast horizon, and from there Half Dome and the comet would align well enough to easily include both in my frame.
While Yosemite is currently under COVID restrictions that require reservations (sold out weeks in advance) to enter, I have a CUA (Commercial Use Authorization that allows me to guide photo workshops) that gives me access to the park if I follow certain guidelines. So, after checking with my NPS Yosemite CUA contact to make sure all my permit boxes were checked, my brother Jay and I drove to the park on Thursday afternoon, got a room just outside the park, and went to bed early.
The alarm went off at 2:45 the next morning, and by 2:55 we were on the road to Glacier Point. After narrowly averting one self-inflicted catastrophe (in the absolute darkness, I missed a turn I’ve been taking for more than 40 years), by 4:00 we were less than a mile from Glacier Point and approaching Washburn Point, the first view of Half Dome on Glacier Point Road. Unable to resist the urge to peek (but with no expectation of success), I quickly glanced in that direction and instantly saw through my windshield Comet NEOWISE hanging above Mt. Watkins, directly opposite Tenaya Canyon from Half Dome. I knew there’d be a chance NEOWISE would be naked-eye visible, but I never dreamed it would be this bright.
Everything after that is a blur (except my images, thankfully). Jay and I rushed out to the railed vista at the far end of Glacier Point and were thrilled to find it completely empty. We found Half Dome beautifully bookended by Comet NEOWISE on the left, and brilliant Venus on the right. I set up two tripods, one for my Sony a7RIV and 24-105 G lens, and one for my Sony a7RIII and Sony 100-400 GM lens. Shut out of all the locations I love to photograph by COVID-19, I hadn’t taken a serious picture since March, so I composed and focused carefully to avoid screwing something up. The image I share here is one of the first of the morning, taken with my a7RIV and 24-105.
By 4:30 or so (about 80 minutes before sunrise) the horizon was starting to brighten, but the comet stayed very prominent and photogenic until at about 4:50 (about an hour before sunrise). When we wrapped up at around 5:00, NEOWISE was nearly washed out to the unaided eye; while our cameras were still picking it up, we knew that the best part of the show was over.
It’s these experiences that so clearly define for me the reason I’m a photographer. Because I’ve always felt that photography, more than anything else, needs to make the photographer happy (however he or she defines happiness), many years ago I promised myself that I’d only photograph what I want to photograph, that I’d never take a picture just because I thought it would earn me money or acclaim. My own photographic happiness comes from nature because I grew up outdoors (okay, not literally, but outdoors is where my best memories have been made) and have always been drawn to the natural world—not merely its sights, but the natural processes and forces that, completely independent of human intervention and influence, shape our physical world.
I think that explains why, rather than settle for pretty scenes, I try to capture the interaction of dynamic natural processes with those scenes. The moon and stars, the northern lights, sunrise and sunset color, weather events like rainbows and lightning—all of these phenomena absolutely fascinate me, and the images I capture are just a small part of my relationship with them. I can’t imagine photographing something that doesn’t move me enough to understand it as thoroughly as I can, and enjoy learning about my subjects as much as I enjoy photographing them.
The converse of that need to know my subjects is a need to photograph those things that drive me to understand them. Most of the subjects that draw me are relatively easy to capture with basic preparation, some effort, and a little patience. But the relative rarity of a few phenomena make photographing them a challenge. This is especially true of certain astronomical events. I’m thinking specifically about the total solar eclipse that I finally managed to photograph in 2017, and the northern lights, which finally found my sensor last year. But comets have proven even more elusive, and while I’ve seen a few in my life, and even photographed a couple, I’ve never had what I’d label an “epic” comet experience that allowed me to combine a beautiful comet with a worthy foreground. Until this week. And I’m one happy dude.
Comets in General
I want to tell you how to photograph Comet NEOWISE, but first I’m going to impose my personal paradigm and explain comets.
A comet is a ball of ice and dust a few miles across (more or less), typically orbiting the sun in an eccentric elliptical orbit: Imagine a circle stretched way out of shape by grabbing one end and pulling–that’s what a comet’s orbit looks like. Looking down on the entire orbit, you’d see the sun tucked just inside one extreme end of the ellipse. (Actually, some comets’ orbits are parabolic, which means they pass by once and then move on to ultimately exit our solar system.)
The farther a comet is from the sun the slower it moves, so a comet spends the vast majority of its life in the frozen extremities of the solar system. Some periodic comets take thousands or millions of years to complete a single orbit; others complete their trip in just a few years.
As a comet approaches the sun, stuff starts happening. It accelerates in response to the sun’s increased gravitational pull (but just like the planets, the moon, or the hour hand on a clock, a comet will never move so fast that we’re able to visually discern its motion). And more significantly, increasing solar heat starts melting the comet’s frozen nucleus. Initially this just-released material expands to create a mini-atmosphere surrounding the nucleus; at this point the comet looks like a fuzzy ball when viewed from Earth. As the heat increases, some of the shedding material is set free and dragged away by the solar wind (charged particles) to form a tail that glows with reflected sunlight (a comet doesn’t emit its own light) and always points away from the sun. The composition and amount of material freed by the sun, combined with the comet’s proximity to Earth, determines the brilliance of the display we see. While a comet’s tail gives the impression to some that it’s visibly moving across the sky, a comet is actually about as stationary against the stellar background as the moon and planets—it will remain in one place relative to the stars all night, then appear in a slightly different place the next night.
With millions of comets in our Solar System, it would be natural to wonder why they’re not regular visitors to our night sky. Actually, they are, though most comets are so small, and/or have made so many passes by the sun, that their nucleus has been stripped of reflective material and they just don’t have enough material left to put on much of a show. And many comets don’t get close enough to the sun to be profoundly affected by its heat, or close enough to Earth to stand out.
Most of the periodic comets that are already well known to astronomers have lost so much of their material that they’re too faint to be seen without a telescope. One notable exception is Halley’s Comet, perhaps the most famous comet of all. Halley’s Comet returns every 75 years or so and usually puts on a memorable display. Unfortunately, Halley’s last visit, in 1986, was kind of a dud; not because it didn’t perform, but because it passed so far from Earth that we didn’t have a good view of its performance on that pass.
Comet NEOWISE in particular (and some tips for photographing it)
Comet NEOWISE is a periodic comet with an elliptical orbit that will send it back our way in about 6700+ years. On it’s current iteration, NEOWISE zipped by the sun on July 2 and is on its way back out to the nether reaches of our solar system. The good news is that NEOWISE survived the most dangerous part of its visit, its encounter with the sun. The bad news is that NEOWISE’s intrinsic brightness decreases as it moves away from the sun. But if all goes well, we’ll be able to see it without a telescope, camera, or binoculars for at least a few more weeks. And it doesn’t hurt that until perigee on July 22, NEOWISE is still moving closer to Earth.
Because a comet’s tail always points away from the sun, and NEOWISE is now moving away from the sun, it’s actually following its tail. If you track the comet’s position each night, you’ll see that it rises in the northeast sky before sunrise, which makes it a Northern Hemisphere object (the Southern Hemisphere has gotten the best 21st century comets, so it’s definitely our turn). Each morning NEOWISE will rise a little earlier, placing it farther from the advancing daylight than the prior day, so even if its intrinsic brightness is waning, it should stand out better because it’s in a darker part of the sky. And as a bonus, the moon is waning, so until the new moon on July 21, there will be no moonlight to compete with NEOWISE.
Until now, Comet NEOWISE has been an exclusively early morning object, but that’s about to change as it climbs a little higher each day. Starting tonight (July 12), you might be able to see it shortly after sunset near the northwest horizon, and each night thereafter it will be a little higher in the northwest sky. Your best chance to view Comet NEOWISE in the evening is to find an open view of the northwest sky, far from city lights.
Photographing Comet NEOWISE will require some night photography skill. Since the moon is waning, you won’t have the benefit of moonlight that I had when I photographed the comet in Yosemite on the morning of July 10, when the moon was about 75% full. This won’t be a huge problem if you just want to photograph NEOWISE against the stars, but if you want to include some landscape with it, your best bet may be to stick to silhouettes, or stack multiple exposures, one for the comet and one or more for the foreground.
To photograph it against the starry sky, I recommend a long telephoto to fill the frame as much as possible. If you want to include some landscape, go as wide as necessary, but don’t forget that the wider you go, the smaller the comet becomes. Whatever method you use to focus (even if you autofocus on the comet itself), I strongly recommend that you verify your focus each time you change your focal length. If you choose the multi-exposure blend approach, please, please, please, whatever you do, don’t blend a telephoto NEOWISE image with a wide angle image of the landscape (because I’ll know and will judge you for it).
Camera or not, I strongly encourage you to make an effort to see this rare and beautiful object, because you just don’t know when the next opportunity will arise—it could be next month, or it might not happen again in your lifetime.
Posted on November 18, 2018
Yosemite, like most of the Sierra Nevada, was carved from an intrusive igneous rock (subterranean magma that cooled without reaching the surface). This subterranean magma cooled slowly enough for its primary constituents, quartz and feldspar, plus mica and other minerals, to form crystals that fuse into an extremely hard matrix: granite. The granite waited patiently in the dark while overhead oceans advanced and receded, leaving thousands of feet of new sediment behind.
Beginning tens of millions of years ago, a slow-motion collision of tectonic plates uplifted the granite and its overlying sedimentary layers. As the ancient mountain range rose, erosion accelerated the demise of the sedimentary layers, eventually exposing the much harder granite. As the uplift continued, rivers moved faster, carving V-shaped river valleys that included the predecessor of what we now know as Yosemite Valley.
Then came the glaciers, an irresistible force meeting granite’s immovable object. Instead of breaking apart and collapsing as a lesser rock might, Yosemite’s granite stood tall as the glaciers cleared out the ancient Yosemite Valley, carving it into the U-shaped feature we know today—a flat floor bounded by vertical cliffs.
Granite’s hardness also affects the way it breaks up when exposed to the elements of weathering. Instead of crumbling under wind and rain like softer rock, or cleaving along aligned planes of weakness, granite retains its shape until fracturing along microscopic cracks caused by external stress such as pressure or weathering. These cracks allow water to seep into the rock. Of course you remember from high school science (right?) that unlike most substances, water expands when it freezes. This expansion pushes open the cracks, allowing even more water to seep in after the ice melts. This crack/seep/freeze/expand cycle continues until the rock fails, splitting along the expanded crack. In this process large chunks of granite are shed, often quite suddenly, while the remaining granite stands tall.
Granite’s unique qualities are on exquisite display in Yosemite Valley, where streams bursting with snowmelt tumble over shear granite walls, and granite monoliths tower 3,000 feet above the Merced River. Yosemite and Bridalveil Falls are Yosemite’s most recognized waterfalls, but look up on a spring day and you might count a dozen or more. The waterfalls dominate in spring, but Yosemite’s monoliths endure year-round, drawing visitors from around the world in every season. El Capitan, the largest chunk of granite in the world, is a climbers’ mecca, and few mountains have a more recognizable profile than Half Dome.
Half Dome is a bit of a misnomer, but one look at it the name is easy to visualize a rounded dome that lost a full half of its mass to a passing glacier. The reality is that Half Dome’s current shape is fairly close to the rock that was exposed by millions of years of erosion. While Yosemite’s glaciers filled most of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome was tall enough to protrude from the ice sheet and avoid direct contact. Half Dome’s shear face resulted from a single fracture that separated a large slice of granite to expose the flat granite face we all recognize.
After a nice day photographing fall color and reflections El Capitan’s shadow, we finished our day at Glacier Point for a face-to-face view Half Dome. The gray stratus blanket that had permitted a full day of sweet photography in diffuse the sunlight was about to become a liability for anyone longing for a colorful sunset.
Half Dome gets light all the way up to, and in fact even a couple of minutes beyond, the “official” (flat horizon) sunset. But because the view of Half Dome faces east, and the view to the west is obscured by terrain, there’s no way to know whether the horizon is clear in the direction of the setting sun. Even on cloudy days like this, my rule in Yosemite is to never give up on sunset until at least five minutes the after the official sunset time has passed. When a couple of people in the group started rumbling about heading back to the cars, I issued one of my favorite Yosemite proclamations to all within earshot: Never try to predict the conditions in five minutes based on the conditions now. I knew the odds were long for capturing anything more than darkening shades of gray fading to black, but without cameras they’d be zero.
I have no idea whether they truly believed me, or simply stayed put to humor me, but either way, I started to look pretty smart about five minutes before sunset when we spotted a faint glow on Half Dome. I held my breath as the sun slipped into a clear slot of unknown size on the horizon behind us to paint Half Dome with warm light. I hadn’t planned to shoot that evening, but as the light intensified I was glad I’d dragged my bag around anyway. As I quickly set up my tripod and extracted my camera, I urged everyone to keep shooting because there was no guarantee that this would last—just as I’ve witnessed many of these last minute miracles in Yosemite, I’ve also seen euphoria dashed in a heartbeat when the sun was suddenly snuffed right at the climactic moment (Horsetail Fall is notorious for this). But this evening the light held strong, warming to a golden crescendo, then fading to pink that intensified to a rich red that colored the sky from horizon to horizon.
The light tones of quartz and feldspar, plus its crystalline nature, make granite especially reflective. So while Yosemite isn’t especially known for its sunsets, when they do get red like this, granite’s inherent reflectivity causes the entire landscape to throb with a crimson glow. It’s one of my favorite phenomena in nature.
I ended up photographing the entire sunset with my Sony 100-400 GM lens on my Sony a7RIII. Not because I didn’t have a wealth of wide angle shots to choose from (I did!), but because I was working with my group and the telephoto compositions were simpler. Simpler in the sense that (for me at least) a wide shot requires a bit more strategic planning to first identify the frame’s foreground, middle-ground, and background elements, then position myself to give them a coherent relationship. A telephoto composition, on the other hand, has always felt more intuitive than strategic (though each generally requires elements of strategy and intuition), so I’m usually able to put my camera and telephoto to my eye, then move and zoom until something feels right.
With so many views at Glacier Point, the group had scattered a little before sunset, so I was only with about half of them for the good stuff at the end. Back at the cars I checked in with those who had gone elsewhere and found that while most had photographed it, a couple had watched the show from the parking lot. Sigh.
Posted on April 27, 2016
I spend much of my photography time chasing the moon. Most of my trips factor in the moon’s phase and location—usually to catch a full or crescent moon rising or setting above a particular landmark, and often to photograph a landscape by moonlight (full moon) or starlight (no moon). But sometimes the moon catches me less than fully prepared, and I need to improvise.
I enjoyed the January full moon with my workshop group in Death Valley and the Alabama Hills; in February my Horsetail Fall workshop group photographed a full moon rising above Yosemite Valley; in March I was in Sedona with Don Smith to photograph the full moon as it rose above Cathedral Rock and Oak Creek; and last week my Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers workshop group photographed the April full moon above Bridalveil Fall and the Merced River Canyon, then headed off to catch a moonbow in the mist at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall. And chasing the moon isn’t all about the full moon—already this year I’ve photographed several thin crescents in the Sierra foothills, and next week I raft Grand Canyon, where my group will (fingers crossed) witness a waning crescent moon just after sunset, and later that night photograph the canyon illuminated by nothing but the Milky Way and thousands of stars only visible in a moonless sky.
All this planning around the moon does indeed get me to many beautiful locations at just the right time, but sometimes the moon catches me in situations where, without the necessary knowledge at hand, I’m forced to think on my feet (and smartphone). Most recently was the unplanned moonrise added to last week’s Yosemite workshop. When the National Park Service opened Glacier Point about a month earlier than expected, I quickly inserted a Glacier Point sunset into the workshop but didn’t have time for anything more than a cursory moonrise check.
Beautiful clouds and light made our Glacier Point sunset a success, but as we were about ready to return to the warmth of the cars, the moon’s imminent arrival crept into the back of my mind. What I knew was that this night, from Glacier point the moon would be rising far to the right of Half Dome (out of the primary view), and probably just slightly too late to photograph effectively (not enough light to capture both landscape and lunar detail). Nevertheless, before packing up my gear I pulled out my iPhone to be certain we weren’t making the classic photographer’s mistake of leaving too early.
This won’t be on the test
Without a strong cell signal, I had to resort to apps that function offline. I started with Focalware, my go-to app for the sun’s and moon’s altitude and azimuth from any location on Earth. Next, now armed with the moon’s azimuth, I opened MotionX-GPS (with the map pre-downloaded) to plot its location relative to the current landscape, determining that it would emerge from behind Mt. Clark.
The final (and most difficult) piece of the puzzle was determining when the moon would appear. This is tricky because published moonrise times always assume a flat horizon—great if you’re on a ship at sea, but not so much anywhere else, and especially not in the mountains.
Using the topo info in the MotionX app, I determined that Mt. Clark’s elevation was around 11,500 feet. Knowing the Glacier Point is at 7,200 feet, I subtracted 7,200 from 11,500 and got 4,300 feet, the vertical distance between my location and the point where the moon would appear. Because the MotionX app also gave me the horizontal (as the crow flies) distance between me and Mt. Clark (about 8.2 miles, or around 43,300 feet), I had everything I needed to plug into my HP-11C (scientific calculator) app and compute the altitude, in degrees, that the moon would need to achieve before cresting the peak (thank God I stayed awake in trigonometry). With that information, it was a simple matter of returning to Focalware to see what time the moon would ascend to that altitude (appear above Mt. Clark).
There are apps that will do all this for me (PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris are the ones I recommend), but they require connectivity, and the foresight to do the work when my signal is strong enough to download the maps. (Plus, I just like doing it my way.)
I never tire of this stuff
So, after less than five minutes of figuring, I was confident enough to tell everyone the moon would appear from behind Mt. Clark at 7:57 p.m., plus or minus two minutes. That gave us a couple of minutes to prepare a composition, and sure enough, right around 7:55, the clouds behind Mt. Clark started to glow; at 7:58, there it was and we were in business. In this case the thin clouds on the horizon subdued the moon’s brilliance just enough that I could give the foreground enough light without turning the moon to a white disk.
As often as I do this (sometimes I plot the moon just for fun, even though I know I can’t be there to enjoy it), few things thrill me more than my eyes on the exact point on the horizon at the moment the moon first nudges into view.
Understanding vs. knowledge
I know my process sounds complicated, but it really isn’t—in fact, plotting the moon this way doesn’t require any special insight beyond what most of us learned in high school. But it does illustrate something I constantly stress: the advantage of understanding over knowledge. When we know something, we can respond to a finite set of circumstances; when we understand something, we can reason our way to knowledge beyond our training.
One more quick example: A couple of days ago, I was scouting a potential sunrise location in the Columbia River Gorge. Because I’m reluctant to trust compass apps that point an arrow (or whatever) in a general direction, I pulled out Focalware and saw that tomorrow’s sunrise azimuth would be 70 degrees. Focalware also told me that the sun’s current azimuth was 253 degrees. Since I know that a (solar) shadow always points exactly 180 degrees from the sun’s current azimuth, I knew that my shadow was pointing directly at the 73 degree azimuth (253 minus 180), more than close enough to figure out where the sun would appear (in this case, farther north than ideal).
Whether it’s lunar geometry, exposure settings, depth of field, or whatever, understanding (and visualizing) a system’s underlying principles is always superior to memorizing its facts. And amazingly, it’s almost always simpler than we imagine. Since the position of the sun, moon, and stars are important to me, I try to visualize the celestial choreography.
Likewise, the more you can understand what’s happening when you adjust your shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO, the better prepared you’ll be to reason your way through difficult exposure puzzles, such as, I really need a lot of depth of field to get this tree and that mountain sharp, but the breeze is really blowing the leaves?, or, The exposure is perfect for this 20-second pinpoint stars image, but how can I do a 30-minute star trail shot of the same scene without changing the exposure?.
Posted on July 19, 2015
Photography weather and tourist weather are polar opposites: What’s good for photography—clouds, rain, snow—isn’t usually so great for being outside. This is especially true in Yosemite, where stormy weather can add an entirely new dimension to the park’s already renowned scenery (not to mention inclement weather’s crowd-thinning effect).
Sometimes Yosemite’s clouds simply diffuse the light, subduing shadows into a much more camera-friendly range, and extending the quality photography window. Other times, the clouds become subjects themselves, contorting into diaphanous curtains or towering pillars whose beauty rivals Yosemite’s granite icons. But rain or shine, there’s always something to photograph in Yosemite if you know where to look.
Wet weather gear
Regardless of the forecast, I never travel to Yosemite without my rain gear duffel containing everything necessary to keep me head-to-toe dry and focused on photography: hat, gloves, parka, rain pants, and waterproof boots for me, and an umbrella for my camera. I haven’t found a satisfactory rain cover for my camera, but a plastic garbage bag is quite handy for keeping the camera dry while it’s on my tripod but I’m not shooting (searching or waiting for a shot). Another essential wet weather accessory is a towel or chamois to dry any gear (especially the front of my lens) that gets wet despite my best efforts.
The teeth of the storm
Some of my favorite Yosemite photography has been in the teeth of the storm, when rain or snow has forced all but the most hardy indoors, and obliterated the recognizable landmarks, forcing me to look a little closer for subjects. A bonus during these extreme weather shoots are the occasional cameos by Yosemite’s star attractions (so stay alert).
My go-to mid-storm subjects in Yosemite include: the elm in Cook’s Meadow, the Cascade Creek waterfall above the bridge on Big Oak Flat Road (the road descending into Yosemite Valley from the Big Oak Flat entrance), Bridalveil Creek beneath Bridalveil Fall, Fern Spring and the Pohono Bridge, and El Capitan Bridge. But really, you’ll find shots wherever you look.
As much as I enjoy photographing in stormy weather, I don’t put my camera away when skies are clear. My favorite clear sky spots are the frequently shady locations on the south side of the valley, such as Bridalveil Creek and the forest near Fern Spring and the Pohono Bridge. Depending on the season (the closer to the winter solstice, the better), these spots can offer several hours of shade at the beginning and ends of the day.
Clear skies also open the door to night photography—all those popular spots that were packed with gawkers and washed out by the harsh midday light are peaceful and photogenic by moon- or starlight. My favorite moonlight (full moon) subjects are Yosemite Falls and El Capitan, because they’re the first to be illuminated by the rising moon—the face of Half Dome doesn’t get moonlight until the moon has dropped toward the western horizon, well after midnight on a full moon night. On the other hand, Half Dome does make a nice starlight subject because most views are to the east, where the sky is darkest before midnight. An unappreciated key to successful Yosemite night photography is finding a spot unsullied by headlights.
Midday in the summer, when it’s virtually impossible to find shade that’s not stained with sunlight, is a good time to break for lunch, take a hike, or (especially) explore.
Venture out to photograph during Yosemite’s harshest weather is the most reliable way to ensure a clearing storm opportunity. If you wait out the most miserable stuff by the fire, you risk missing the best stuff, which often happens with startling suddenness—for hours visibility might not extend beyond 100 yards, then you blink and there’s a rainbow.
With its bird’s-eye view east, up Yosemite Valley, Tunnel View is the most popular location to photograph a Yosemite clearing storm, but it’s easy to be so mesmerized by the show there that you miss all the great photography elsewhere. Because the west side of Yosemite Valley is where storms usually clear first, I often wait out the storm at Tunnel View, photograph its initial clearing there, then force myself to move on (believe me, it’s not easy to leave) while the shooting is still good.
The best subjects for a Yosemite clearing storm are the icons—El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome—but not necessarily from the standard locations. Pretty much any spot with a view of one or more of these subjects will work, but I often try to include the Merced River and reflections.
Wet and dry seasons
Blue skies rule Yosemite’s summer, with clouds and rain the exception (but still possible). Yosemite’s wet season comes in late fall, winter, and and early spring, with rain and snow always a possibility. In general, in Yosemite Valley rain is far more common than snow, but snow can happen any month from November through April, with December, January, and February being your best bet (but some of my best snow experiences have come in November and April, and in 2015, Yosemite Valley didn’t get any significant snow until April).
With its east/west orientation and primarily east-facing views, Yosemite is particularly well situated for afternoon rainbows. Tunnel View, Glacier Point, Valley View are great rainbow spots, but pretty much any valley location with a view of Half Dome, or a view of El Capitan’s west-facing wall, will work.
When the sun is lower than 42 degrees above the horizon (late afternoon in the long-day months, all day in winter), look for signs of clearing in the west (where the clearing usually starts). Sometimes you’ll see a few patches of blue, other times you’ll notice that the sky is brightening slightly. Find your shadow, which will point to the rainbow’s center (if there’s no shadow, draw an imaginary line from where you guess the sun is, through your position, and toward the scene opposite the sun)—if it’s not pointing toward anything interesting, move to another location—set up your shot, cross your fingers, and wait. And don’t forget to remove your polarizer, or orient it to maximize reflections (the opposite from the standard polarizer orientation) because an improperly oriented polarizer will erase your rainbow.
You know those images with every Yosemite feature draped in white? Those scenes happen just a handful of times each year (if
we’re lucky), and rarely last for more than an hour or two after the snow stops falling. So simply taking a trip to Yosemite in winter is very unlikely to net you fresh snow opportunity. In fact, even if you hear that it just snowed in Yosemite and beeline straight to the park, you’re almost surely too late.
To get that coveted Yosemite winter wonderland shot, you actually need to be there during the storm. And when the snow stops (see clearing storm reference above), move as quickly as you can, because the trees will begin shedding snow almost immediately.
Those of us within a reasonable driving distance of Yosemite have a distinct advantage if we’re good about monitoring the weather forecast. I look for storms with predicted snow levels below 4,000 feet, then try to arrive before the worst weather hits.
About this image
Because I avoid the crowds and blue skies of summer, I don’t make it to Glacier Point as frequently as I do locations in Yosemite Valley. But a few weeks ago my brother and I went to Glacier Point to photograph lightning, then hung around until the storm cleared.
Unlike the California winter storm fronts that originate in the Pacific and sweep eastward across the Central Valley and into the Sierra, summer thunderstorms are usually borne of subtropical moisture encountering High Sierra convection and billowing into towering thunderheads above the Sierra crest. In the right conditions, these thunderstorms can slip far enough west to soak Yosemite Valley and stab the rim with jagged lightning.
At its most intense, the storm that afternoon nearly obscured Half Dome, completely drenching us. With the rain came lightning that soon chased us to the safety of the car. When things calmed we ventured back out to the vista to photograph the storm’s clearing. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to watch the shifting clouds that seem to create an entirely different image with each passing minute. For the this shot I waited for the cloud to part enough to reveal Nevada (above) and Vernal Falls, going wide to frame them with Half Dome on the left, and Mt. Starr King on the right.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on June 10, 2015
A Lightning Trigger in California is usually about as useful as a fishing pole in the Sahara. But every once in a while a little sub-tropical moisture sneaks up the Sierra crest and blossoms into afternoon thunderstorms. I monitor the weather daily (okay, that’s probably understating it a bit) for just these opportunities, rooting for Yosemite thunderstorms the way a Cubs fan roots for a World Series. And until last weekend, with just about as much success.
Last week the moist vestiges of Hurricane Blanca were sucked into an unstable airmass above the Sierra, just the thunderstorm recipe I’d been looking for. While each day’s Yosemite forecast called for at least a slight chance of afternoon thunderstorms, the Saturday forecast looked particularly promising. Nevertheless, several days out, the Saturday thunderstorm probability from the National Weather Service varied widely, fluctuating with each report between 40 and 70 percent. But as Saturday approached, the chances settled in at around 60 percent and I made plans to be there.
Saturday morning my brother Jay and I left Sacramento a little after 8 a.m., and were pulling into Yosemite Valley before noon. Blue sky prevailed upon our arrival, but by the time we finished our sandwiches at Tunnel View, cumulus puffs were sprouting along the crest, a very good sign. Stomachs full, we continued up the road toward Glacier Point. In the forty or so minutes it took to reach Washburn Point, just up the road from Glacier Point, the cumulus puffs had congealed into roiling gray mass that was already delivering coin-size raindrops to my windshield.
The best way to photograph lightning is from a distance (the greater the better), not impossible at the Grand Canyon, where I can stand on one rim and photograph strikes pounding the opposite rim a dozen or more miles away. But my Yosemite lightning target is more specific: Half Dome, which towers above Yosemite Valley like a granite lightning rod, no more than 2 1/2 miles from any vantage point on the Glacier Point road—well within the Margin of Death of even a moderate thunderstorm. (The Margin of Death, or MOD, is my term for the radius surrounding the last lighting strike within which the next bolt could strike.)
In addition to the dramatic profile of Half Dome above Vernal and Nevada Falls, Washburn Point has the advantage of nearby, elevated parking lot that would allow us to set up a Lightning-Trigger-armed camera on a tripod and wait from the safety of the car with a view of the cameras. So, rather than risk trying the more exposed and more remote (much longer sprint to the car) Glacier Point vistas, we started at Washburn Point.
Setting up, we saw lightning firing on the most distant peaks beyond Cloud’s Rest, and safely behind Half Dome. This being my first real attempt with the Lightning Trigger on my Sony bodies (with the exception of one rushed, impromptu, and unexpectedly successful attempt at White Sands last week), I was looking forward to comparing the response of the Sony bodies to my Canon 5D Mark III (shutter lag is a major body-to-body variable that can make or break a lightning shoot). But since Jay didn’t have a Lightning Trigger, and his body is an older Canon 5DII, good brother that I am (plus, he threatened to tell Mom if I didn’t share), I let him use my Lightning Trigger (I have two) and 5DIII.
Soon the rain and wind intensified, the flashes came more frequently, and the thunder grew louder, but rather than retreat to safety, we stayed with our cameras. The activity continued to approach until it seemed to be centered just down the hill in the general direction of Glacier Point, visible to us not as discrete bolts but rather as general flashes in the clouds. Still, we knew the lightning was close because of the relatively short gap separating flash and bang, yet it wasn’t until Jay said he felt the hair standing up on his head and arms that we got smart. Or rather, less stupid.
Back in the car we watched the show at Washburn Point until it abated, then decided to move down the road a bit, to another view closer to Glacier Point. Here we couldn’t see our cameras from the car, but we were able to park within 50 feet or so of their vantage point. Despite the continued dangerously close proximity of the lightning, we again stayed out a little longer than we should have, finally being driven back to shelter not by lightning but by the wet and cold conditions.
This was my first attempt at lightning since my switch to Sony; I was using the a7S because the a7R wasn’t fast enough for lightning (a problem completely cured on the a7RII). The a7S caught all three of the Half Dome hits I saw, with the twin-branched bolt you see here being the most spectacular. My composition was fairly wide for a couple of reasons: first, because the wider I go, the greater my odds of capturing something; second, with Nevada and Vernal Falls on the right, and Tenaya Canyon and Mt. Watkins on the left, the scene justified it.
To say I was lucky this afternoon would be an understatement. Not only did a lightning bolt hit my intended target, my camera captured it (never a sure thing, no matter how fast the camera), and I actually lived to share the shot with you. Here in the comfort of my recliner, I’m kind of at a loss to explain why I thought it was a good idea to stay out with lightning landing well within the MOD. While there are definitely things to tend to while waiting for lightning—shielding the camera from rain, wiping raindrops from the lens, adjusting exposure as the light changes, monitoring that the camera does indeed fire with a visible strike, and simply answering questions from curious onlookers (and preempting their urge to touch the equipment)—none is important enough to risk my life. In my defense, I am much more cautious when I’m guiding a group, which of course will be small consolation to my wife and kids at my funeral.
Here are my tips for photographing daylight lightning:
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on May 16, 2014
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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).
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.
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….
Posted on May 13, 2014
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).
Posted on May 8, 2012
Some of my oldest, fondest Yosemite memories involve Glacier Point: Craning my neck from Camp Curry, waiting for the orange glow perched on Glacier Point’s fringe to grow into a 3,000 foot ribbon of fire; stretching on tiptoes to peer over the railing to see the toy cars and buildings in miniature Yosemite Valley; standing on the deck of the old Glacier Point Hotel my father’s breathless excitement at the sudden shimmering rainbow arcing across Half Dome’s face.
The National Park Service doused the Firefall in 1968 and my father died almost eight years ago. While El Capitan’s Horsetail Fall delivers a no less spectacular (albeit less reliable) February show across the valley, and my father’s rainbow image is a vivid reminder on my mom’s living room wall, those Glacier Point memories are irreplaceable.
Glacier Point closes with the first significant snow each fall, and doesn’t open until the snow melts in late spring–avoiding summer’s crowds and interminable blue skies means I don’t make it to Glacier Point much anymore. So I was thrilled to learn that this year’s dry winter enabled the NPS to open Glacier Point on April 20, early enough for me to share it with last week’s workshop group.
Because I already had plans for Mirror Lake, moonrise, and moonlight photography later in the workshop, I decided that the workshop’s first sunset was the best time time for the Glacier Point trip. Stopping first at Washburn Point just a short distance up the hill, we were treated to a harbinger of what was to come later–a mix of wave clouds and alto-cumulus above the Sierra crest to the east, and wonderfully warm light on Half Dome. Not knowing how long the light would last, I hustled the group to Glacier Point, arriving soon enough to get a front row seat for what turned out to be the best sunset experience I’ve ever had at Glacier Point.
The light held out all the way to sunset, warming from amber to pink and finally red, painting the sky and saturating the granite landscape with shades of magenta. As it turned out we had many other photogenic moments (dogwood, a moonbow, and the rise of the “super” moon above Yosemite Valley) in the workshop’s remaining three days, but this sunset on Glacier Point will be my fondest memory.
That’s Half Dome front and center, Cloud’s Rest behind it to the right, and Nevada (top) and Vernal Falls in the lower right.