Posted on February 4, 2018
Much of my photography is about juxtaposition of elements with the landscape. Sometimes that’s simply combining static terrestrial features, but when possible I try to add something more dynamic, such as meteorological subjects like lightning or a rainbow, or celestial objects like the Milky Way or the Moon. The challenge with dynamic juxtapositions is timing—while the meteorological juxtapositions are usually a matter of playing the odds, celestial juxtapositions are gloriously precise.
Just as the Earth revolves around the Sun, the Moon revolves around Earth; at any point in this celestial dance, half of Earth is daylight and half is night, while half of the Moon is lit and half is dark. The amount of the Moon we see (its phase) depends on the relative position of the Sun, Moon, and Earth in this dance, and once each month all of the sunlit side of the Moon faces the dark side of Earth, and we Earthlings enjoy a full Moon.
This alignment of three or more orbiting celestial bodies necessary for a full (and new) Moon is called ‘syzygy.’ Due to the Moon’s orbit around Earth, the Sun, Earth, and Moon achieve syzygy twice each lunar month: once when the Moon is between the Sun and Earth (a new Moon), and again when Earth is between the Sun and Moon (a full Moon).
The Moon completes its trip around Earth every 27.3 days, but it takes 29.5 days to cycle through all its phases, from new to full and back to new again. The Moon’s phases need that extra 2+ days because as the Moon circles Earth, Earth also circles the Sun, taking the syzygy point with it—imagine a race with a moving finish line.
Viewed from Earth, the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the sky when the Moon is full, so a full Moon rises in the east at sunset and sets in the west at sunrise. We rarely see a full Moon rising exactly as the Sun sets (or setting as the Sun rises) because: 1) the point of maximum fullness (when the Sun, Earth, and Moon align perfectly) only happens at one instant on the full Moon day—at every other instant of each month’s full Moon day, the Moon is merely almost full (but still full enough to appear full); 2) published Sun/Moon rise/set times assume a flat horizon—if you have mountains between you and the horizon, your view of the true Sun/Moon rise/set is blocked; and 3) The more extreme your latitude (angular distance from the equator), the more skewed the Sun/Moon alignment appears.
Knowing this, it should make sense that the closer the Moon is to full, the longer it’s in the night sky, and a full Moon is in the sky all night long. Less intuitive but very important for lunar photographers to know, each day the Moon rises an average of 50 minutes later (between 30-70 minutes) than it rose the previous day—I usually mentally round to an hour for quick figuring.
If the Moon orbited Earth on the same plane Earth orbits the Sun, we’d have an eclipse with each syzygy: every new Moon, Earth would pass through the Moon’s shadow and somewhere on Earth would experience a solar eclipse; every full Moon the night side of Earth would witness a lunar eclipse as the Moon passes into Earth’s shadow. But the Moon’s orbit is tilted about 5 degrees from Earth’s orbit, making the perfect alignment an eclipse requires relatively rare.
It turns out that the alignment of the Sun, Earth, and Moon necessary for a lunar eclipse happens from two to four times each year. Of these, about one-third are total eclipses, when Earth’s shadow completely covers the Moon. At totality, most of the sunlight illuminating the Moon is blocked by Earth, and the only light to reach the Moon has passed through Earth’s atmosphere, which filters out all but the long, red wavelengths. For the same reason sunsets are red, during a total lunar eclipse we see a red or “blood” Moon.
Putting it all together
As frequent and familiar as the rise and set of the Moon is, the opportunity to witness the beauty of an eclipse is rare. But in the last six months, after being shut out by schedule or weather for many years, I’ve managed to photograph my first total solar and lunar eclipses. I wasn’t able to juxtapose the August solar eclipse with a favorite landscape, but I wasn’t going to let that happen again for last week’s lunar eclipse.
Viewed from Death Valley’s Zabriskie Point in winter, the setting full Moon’s azimuth aligns nicely with Manly Beacon, one of the park’s most recognizable features. Though this year’s alignment was particularly good, the morning of the eclipse was a day earlier than I’d normally photograph the Zabriskie Point moonset—the next day the Moon would be setting about 45 minutes later, providing ample time to photograph the landscape in the warm early light before the Moon descended behind the Panamints. Nevertheless, I decided that a total lunar eclipse trumps everything, and since Zabriskie was the best place for the eclipse, that’s where we were.
We started with telephoto compositions of the beautiful “blood Moon” phase because there wasn’t enough light to include the eclipsed Moon with the landscape without compositing two exposures. Composites are fine, but I prefer capturing scenes with one click. For wider images that included the landscape I waited until totality had passed, shortly before the Moon set, and switched to the Sony/Zeiss 24-70 with my Sony a7RIII, moving my Sony 100-400 GM to my Sony a7RII.
I captured this image about 25 minutes before sunrise, normally too early to capture landscape detail without over exposing the Moon. But this morning, following the total eclipse, the lit portion of the moon was still darkened by Earth’s penumbral shadow, which reduced the dynamic range to something my cameras could handle.
To enlarge the Moon and emphasize its juxtaposition with Manly Beacon, I went with the 100-400. With my composition and focus set, I slowly dialed up the shutter speed until I saw my a7RII’s pre-capture “zebra” highlight alert. After clicking I magnified my image preview and examined the moon to confirm that I did indeed still have detail. The foreground was quite dark on my LCD, but my histogram indicated the shadows were recoverable, something I later confirmed in Lightroom.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on February 1, 2018
Since everyone else seems to be doing it, I thought I’d join the party….
I always schedule my Death Valley workshop to coincide with the January (or early February) full Moon, so it was just a coincidence that North America’s first super (a full Moon that’s within 90 percent of its closest approach to Earth), blue (the second full moon of a given month), blood (a lunar eclipse: a full Moon that passes into the Earth’s shadow and is bathed in light stripped of all but its red wavelengths by Earth’s atmosphere) Moon in 150 years coincided with my workshop. But since we were already there….
I got my group up to Zabriskie Point at around 4:30, well into the eclipse but before totality. Unlike most group photo events I’ve experienced, this morning’s crowd at Zabriskie was a little subdued—I suspect due to the early hour. Compared to the solar eclipse I photographed last August, a lunar eclipse moves with the speed of a glacier. While it was underway, I was able to assist my workshop students, set up my own equipment, switch lenses and camera bodies, experiment with exposure, gawk at the spectacle, and still had plenty of time to chat, laugh, and marvel with the rest of my group.
Starting with my Sony a7RIII, Sony 100-400 f/4 GM, and Sony 2x teleconverter, I cranked my focal length all the way out to 800mm and started clicking. After a while I pulled out my Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f/4, putting it on the a7RIII and switching the telephoto setup to my a7RII. Since time wasn’t a concern, I only used one tripod, switching the two bodies back and forth as my needs dictated.
Throughout the eclipse the Moon was softened by a thin layer of cirrus clouds. This image is among my first of the morning, before the Moon reached a band of denser clouds close to the horizon. I ended up with more creative captures, but those will need to wait for another day.
Posted on January 7, 2018
I used to resist using the supermoon label because it’s more of a media event than an astronomical event, and it creates unrealistic expectations. But since the phenomenon appears to be with us to stay, I’ve changed my approach and decided to take advantage of the opportunity to educate and encourage.
What’s the big deal?
So just what is so “super” about a “supermoon?” Maybe another way of asking the question would be, if I hadn’t told you that the moon in this image is in fact a supermoon, would you be able to tell? Probably not. So what’s the big deal? And why do we see so many huge moon images every time there’s a supermoon? So many questions….
Celestial choreography: Supermoon explained
To understand what a supermoon is, you first have to understand that all orbiting celestial bodies travel in an ellipse, not a circle. That’s because, for two (or more) objects to have the gravitational relationship an orbit requires, each must have mass. And if they have mass, each has a gravitational influence on the other. Without getting too deep into the gravitational weeds, let’s just say that the mutual influence the earth and moon have on each other causes the moon’s orbit to deviate ever so slightly from the circle it seems to be (without precise measurement): an ellipse. And because an ellipse isn’t perfectly round, as it orbits earth, the moon’s distance from us depends its position in its orbit.
An orbiting object’s closest approach to the center of its ellipse (and the object it orbits) is at “perigee”; its greatest distance from the ellipse’s center is “apogee.” And the time it takes an object to complete one revolution of its orbit is its “period.” For example, earth’s period is one year (365.25-ish days), while the moon’s period is a little more than 27 days.
But if the moon reaches perigee every 27 days, why don’t we have a supermoon every month? That’s because we’ve also added “syzygy” to the supermoon definition. In addition to being a great Scrabble word, syzygy is the alignment of celestial bodies—in this case it’s the alignment of the sun, moon, and earth (not necessarily in that order). Not only does a supermoon need to be at perigee, it must also be syzygy.
Syzygy happens twice each month, once when the moon is new (sun-moon-earth), and again when it’s full (sun-earth-moon). (While technically a supermoon can also be a new moon, the full moon that gets all the press because a new moon isn’t visible.) Since the earth revolves around the sun as the moon revolves around earth, the moon has to travel a couple extra days each month to achieve syzygy. That’s why the moon reaches perigee ever 27 days, but syzygy comes every 29.5 days, and the moon’s distance from earth is different each time syzygy is achieved.
The view from earth: Supermoon observed
While perigee, apogee, and period are precise terms that can be measured to the microsecond, a supermoon is a non-scientific, media-fueled phenomenon loosely defined a moon that happens to be at or near perigee when it’s full. To you, the viewer, a full moon at perigee (the largest possible supermoon) will appear about 14% larger and 30% brighter than a full moon at the average distance. The rather arbitrary consensus definition of the distance that qualifies a moon as a supermoon is a full moon that is within 90 percent of its closest approach to earth.
I really doubt that the average viewer could look up at even the largest possible supermoon and be certain that it’s different from an average moon. And all those mega-moon photos that confuse people into expecting a spectacular sight when there’s a supermoon? They’re either composites—a picture of a large moon inserted into a different scene—or long telephoto images. I don’t do composites, but they’re a creative choice that I’m fine with others doing as long as they’re clearly identified as composites.
For an image that’s not a composite, the moon’s size in the frame is almost entirely a function of the focal length used. I have no idea whether most of the moons the full moon gallery below were super, average, or small. The images in this and my previous blog post were indeed super, taken within minutes of each other last Sunday evening, at completely different focal lengths.
Every full moon is super
A rising or setting full moon is one of the most beautiful things in nature. But because a full moon rises around sunset and sets around sunrise, most people are eating dinner or sleeping, and seeing it is usually an accident. So maybe the best thing to come of the recent supermoon hype is that it’s gotten people out, cameras or not, to appreciate the beauty of a full moon. If you like what you saw (or photographed), mark your calendar for every full moon and make it a regular part of your life—you won’t be sorry.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on December 19, 2017
This month’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop group got the rare opportunity to photograph a full (or nearly full) moon rising above Half Dome at sunset on three consecutive nights. One reason it’s rare is that, as viewed from Yosemite Valley, the full moon and Half Dome only align in winter. But the real tricky part is making it happen three times when sunset happens at pretty much the same time each evening, but the moon rises about 45 minutes later.
My goal for photographing a rising full moon is to get the moon on the horizon in the window from 15 minutes before to 15 minutes after the “official” (flat horizon) sunset. Earlier and there’s not enough contrast and the moon looks bland; later and there’s too much dynamic range to capture detail in the dark landscape and daylight-bright moon.
The key to making this work starts with understanding that when you see a sunset or moonrise time published for a location, that time is always based on a flat horizon. So unless you’re atop a mountain or on a ship at sea, you’ll probably see the sun disappear behind the terrain in the west before sunset, and you’ll probably need to wait for the moon to rise above the terrain in the east.
Since the sun is at my back when a full moon rises, I’m not too concerned about the precise timing of the sun’s disappearance. But I need to be pretty dead-on for the moon’s arrival. Knowing the moon will rise an 40-60 minutes (or so) later each day, it’s easy to infer that the more days until the full moon, the higher the moon will be at sunset. Sadly, I have no control over the timing of the absolute sunset/moonrise, but I can control the elevation of the horizon, and therefore the moon’s appearance on a given day, by choosing my position relative to the horizon above which the moon will rise.
To make this workshop’s consecutive moonrises work, each evening I picked a view that was farther from Half Dome than the previous evening. On our first evening I chose a spot on the east side of Yosemite Valley; the next evening we were closer to the middle of the valley; on our the third evening our vantage point was near Tunnel View, at the opposite side of Yosemite Valley from Half Dome. The moon rose later above the flat horizon each evening, but by moving farther away, we reduced the distance the moon had to travel before it appeared.
Big moon, small moon
The other thing this little exercise illustrates is how to make the moon big in your frame. Notice that in each image, Half Dome is more or less the same size, but the moon gets progressively bigger. That’s because on any given day, no matter where I am on Earth, the moon is so far away that its apparent size doesn’t change. But the size of earthbound features, like Half Dome, changes a lot with proximity. When I was on Yosemite Valley’s east side for the first moonrise, filling my frame with Half Dome required just a little more than 100mm; the next night I was far enough back to require about 250mm to fill the frame; and on the final night, from eight miles away I needed more than 500mm. And as my focal length increased, so did the moon’s size in my frame.
Posted on December 5, 2017
Large or small, crescent or full, I love photographing the moon rising above Half Dome. The alignment doesn’t work most months, so those months when the alignment is right, I do my best to be there.
For last week’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop I’d planned three moonrises: Thursday and Friday we got lucky with the never reliable December skies, but Saturday night concerned me. Not only was this moonrise the “main event,” the forecast was less than promising. And while the first two moonrises were absolutely beautiful, the moon was less full and we were on the valley floor, much closer to Half Dome. Our location required a wider focal length that meant a relatively small moon. But on Saturday (it would rise too late to photograph on Sunday) the moon would be 99 percent full and rise shortly after sunset, just left of Half Dome when viewed from Tunnel View. Tunnel View is eight miles west of Half Dome, a distance, when combined with the moon’s proximity to Half Dome, that would allow a long telephoto that would fill the frame with the moon and all of Half Dome.
Saturday started clear, but soon a thin layer of clouds moved in, bathing Yosemite Valley in diffuse light that was wonderful for photographing pretty much anything that didn’t involve the sky. These clouds weren’t dense enough to completely obscure the sun, but with a chance of rain coming overnight, I knew they’d be thickening at some point.
I got my group in position near Tunnel View about a half hour before sunset. I’ve attempted moonrises that were completely obscured by clouds, and some where we could see the moon’s glow through the clouds, but no detail. I tried to stay positive but the fading light made it impossible to tell exactly how thick the clouds were. Fearing the worst, I rationalized that we’d already had two nice moonrises and maybe wishing for a third was just greedy. But still….
Hoping for the best, I pointed out where the moon should appear about ten minutes after sunset, advising everyone to continue shooting normally until then, but to have an idea of their moonrise compositions. Practicing what I preach, I got out my Sony 100-400 GM, added my 2x teleconverter, and framed up the scene. Because I wasn’t going to shoot anything else (as you may have noticed, I already have a couple of Tunnel View images in my portfolio), I focused and waited.
About five minutes after sunset an amber glow in the clouds next to Half Dome signaled the moon’s imminent arrival. That we could even see any sign of the moon gave me hope and I held my breath as the glow intensified, still unsure whether we’d see lunar detail or just a white blob. The glow was actually unique and very beautiful in its own way and I started clicking. The instant the moon’s brilliant leading edge nudged into view, silhouetting the trees, I knew we were in luck. The landscape was already fairly dark by then, but because this was the group’s third moonrise, they’d become old pros at dealing with the scene’s extreme dynamic range—at that point the workshop’s mantra had become: “Push the exposure until the moon’s highlights start blinking, and fix the shadows in Photoshop.”
The experience that evening was even more spectacular than I had dared hope, a perfect storm of conditions I might never see repeated: the moon’s alignment with Half Dome, the telephoto distance, the timing of the moon’s arrival that put it on the horizon with just enough twilight remaining, and (especially) the translucent clouds that enveloped the moon in a golden halo and eased the scene’s dynamic range.
Some thoughts on the Sony a7RIII
A couple of weeks ago, at a Sony sponsored event in Sedona, I got the opportunity to do some night photography with the new Sony a7RIII. But this Yosemite trip was my first time using the new camera on my own. It’s too soon for any final proclamations, but my general sense is that this camera has even more dynamic range than the a7RII (which is pretty incredible). The other significant takeaway from this weekend is that I used the same battery for three-and-half days and came home with more than 25 percent remaining. Anyone who shot with the a7RII, knows how significant this is.
I’m still getting used to the new camera’s interface—while similar to the a7RII, there are definite differences. I do like the new button layout and improved menu interface, but am still getting used to the joystick and touchscreen—pretty sure I’ll learn to love them too. And the dual card slots are a necessary and most welcome improvement.
My biggest complaint with the new camera is that the back-button focus that I loved so much on the a7rII is broken on the a7RIII. Every camera I’ve ever used (Canon and Sony) has allowed me, after tweaking some settings, to switch seamlessly between auto and manual focus without requiring me to change the focus mode. So the first thing I do when I get a new camera is disengage autofocus from the shutter button and assign autofocus to a button on the back of the camera. With back-button focus enabled, my workflow has always been manually focus by default, but always with the ability to autofocus with the simple push of a button—no focus mode change required. Doing this with the a7RII was the easiest of any camera I’ve ever used, but for some reason Sony changed the focus behavior of the a7RIII, so now I have to deal with the added step of switching focus modes on the camera before focusing. This might not sound like a big deal, but I don’t want to have to think about my camera when I’m composing a scene, so this behavior is extremely frustrating. That said, I’ve already communicated my frustration to Sony’s engineers and am hopeful (confident?) this is a firmware fix that will come soon. Sony’s responsiveness to things like this is one of the reasons I’m so happy I made the switch from Canon.
I’m happily retracting those words after Sony found a solution for the a7RIII back-button focus problem. At last month’s Sony media event Sedona, I was surrounded by Sony’s best and brightest engineers; when I brought the BBF problem to their attention, we all scratched our heads over how to make it work, and they finally asked me to send them a detailed write-up. They promised to address it ASAP, but I didn’t think it would happen without a firmware update.
To enable back-button focus on a Sony a7RIII or a9, simply assign any custom button (Tab 2, Screen 8) to the AF/MF Control Hold option (AF1 screen). To use BBF, keep the camera in Manual Focus mode—this allows you to manually focus with the focus ring, or to autofocus by pressing whatever button you assigned AF/MF Control Hold.
I’m pretty sure this is the best camera I’ve ever had my hands on. In fact, the dynamic range improvement was obvious as soon as I started processing this moonrise shoot—we continued shooting about 25 minutes after sunset, and just a little processing reveals useable detail in my highlights and shadows, even in my final image. Ridiculous.
A couple of full moon photography tips
Sun and moon rise/set times always assume a flat horizon, which means the sun usually disappears behind the local terrain before the “official” sunset, while the moon appears after moonrise. When that happens, there’s usually not enough light to capture landscape detail in the moon and landscape, always my goal. To capture the entire scene with a single click (no image blending), I usually try to photograph the rising full moon on the day before it’s full, when the nearly full (99 or so percent illuminated) moon rises before the landscape has darkened significantly.
The moon’s size in an image is determined by my focal length—the longer the lens, the larger the moon appears. Photographing a large moon above a particular subject requires not only the correct alignment, it also requires distance from the subject—the farther back your position, the longer the lens you can use without cutting of some of the subject.
This moonrise image is a perfect example. Tunnel View in Yosemite is one of my favorite locations to photograph a moonrise because it’s about eight miles from Half Dome. At this distance I can use 500+ mm (250mm plus a 2x teleconverter) to fill my frame with Half Dome—with the moon nearby, I get an image that includes all of Half Dome and a very large moon.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on November 22, 2017
We all all have different hot/cold comfort thresholds, a temperature above or below which it’s just too hot or cold to feel human. Of course wind and moisture can move the needle a little bit, but let me just say that regardless of the other factors, after spending a few days in Bryce Canyon NP co-teaching a workshop with Don Smith, I’ve determined that the comfort threshold for my California bones is somewhere north of 20 degrees.
That Bryce is cold in November wasn’t really a revelation because couple of Novembers ago I experienced one of the coldest shoots of my life there, a sunrise at Rainbow Point (9,000 feet) where the temperature was 10F and the wind was a constant 35 MPH. Informed by that experience, I showed up this year with full body armor that included multiple layers of silk, wool, down, fleece, and pretty much every other insulation material known to humankind. This visit wasn’t nearly as cold as I experienced a couple of years ago, but layers or not, cold finds exposed skin like a hungry mosquito and virtually ever minute outdoors tested my comfort threshold.
But despite appearances to the contrary, I’m not complaining. Discomfort is part of being a nature photographer, and miserable conditions definitely keep the crowds at bay. These thoughts bring to mind a phenomenon I’ve been aware of my entire photography life: when the shooting is good, the conditions just don’t matter. I’m not saying that I’m not aware that it’s cold, or hot, or wet, I’m saying that good photography somehow turns off the part of my brain that registers discomfort.
On this year’s Bryce visit we had low temperatures in the teens and low twenties, with a little wind. We also had quite a few clouds, but on our last night, when the skies cleared and the stars appeared, Don and I took the group to Thor’s Hammer for a night shoot. With a 95% moon rising more than 90 minutes after sunset, we knew we’d have about an hour or so of quality dark sky photography. The air that night was wonderfully clear, but without the cloud’s insulation, the temperature plummeted as soon as the sun went down and we found ourselves shooting in the coldest temperatures of the trip—somewhere in the teens, I’m certain.
I was well bundled head-to-toe, but gloves and photography don’t mix, especially night photography when you need to locate and adjust all the camera’s controls by feel. So I spent most of the evening with my delicate digits exposed to the elements, full commando. Of course adjusting camera settings with finger-shaped ice cubes is only marginally better than the gloved alternative, but somehow I managed.
It didn’t hurt that the pristine air and remote, moonless darkness made for a dazzling sky. I positioned myself to align Thor’s Hammer with the faint, outward-facing part of the Milky Way in Cassiopeia, trying both vertical and horizontal compositions. Without moonlight, the faint-to-the-eye Milky Way seemed to leap from the blackness on my LCD. Especially exciting were my vertical frames, which revealed near the top the fuzzy disk of the Andromeda Galaxy, our sister galaxy, a mere two-and-a-half million light-years away.
I was having so much fun that I completely forgot how cold I was, and I think that goes for the rest of the group as well. About the time we thought we’d accomplished all there was to accomplish, the clouds on the eastern horizon came alive with the glow of the approaching moon. Everyone seemed to be having such a good time that Don and I decided we should stick around long enough to catch the first rays of moonlight on the red hoodoos.
Most of my full(-ish) moon photography takes place when there’s enough ambient daylight to capture both landscape and lunar detail in a single frame. But since daylight was long gone well before the moon arrived, my exposures that night had been all about maximizing the amount of light reaching my sensor to bring out the foreground. So when the moon showed up my original exposure became far too much and I needed a different plan. I had a couple of options: either find a composition that didn’t include the moon, or figure out a way include the moon in my frame without ruining the picture.
Since the moon was above the best part of the scene, I decided to try for a “moonstar” and repositioned myself to balance it with Thor’s Hammer. Letting the moonlight do the heavy lifting on the hoodoos, I was able to get all the foreground detail I needed, with enough light left over to enhance my moonstar by stopping down to f/8. When we were finished the walk up from Thor’s Hammer is short but steep, perfect for warming my frigid blood, but despited my frozen digits, I honestly have no memory of discomfort.
This was a truly exceptional experience I’ll never forget, a perfect memory to highlight on the eve of Thanksgiving here in America.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on February 19, 2017
“… the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…. Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light.” — John Muir
Anyone who has spent time in or around the Sierra Nevada has to agree that there’s something special about its interaction with light. Towering one to two miles above the surrounding terrain for nearly all of its 400-mile length, the Sierra Nevada are California’s most prominent natural feature. But it’s not just prominence that sets the Sierra apart. The Sierra are almost entirely granite, an intrusive igneous rock comprised primarily of light-toned feldspar and liberally infused with lustrous quartz and mica. Because igneous intrusive rocks form deep beneath the Earth’s surface, constituent minerals cool and harden slowly enough for large, reflective crystals to form.
In addition to its inherently reflective qualities, granite is quite hard and resistant to erosion. Unlike the overlying sedimentary and metamorphic rock that washed downhill as the Sierra pushed (and continues to push) upward, granite remains intact when subjected to wind and rain. Eventually small cracks form; water percolating into these cracks expands as it freezes, widening the cracks further until the granite fractures and a large block separates. The result is large vertical and domed surfaces whose extreme slope and hardness are particularly inhospitable to plant life, even well below the timberline. Granite’s hardness also means that rather than crumbling beneath the weight of the numerous glaciers to scour the Sierra, much of the Sierra granite has been polished to a glassy sheen.
Granite’s light complexion, reflective inclusions, and abundance of exposed, polished surfaces make the Sierra particularly inclined to reflect the color of whatever light illuminates it. This relationship with light is quite evident in Yosemite Valley, nestled in the range’s more moderately sloped west side. When the sun strikes Yosemite’s Half Dome and El Capitan at day’s end, warm sunset light paints these monoliths in brilliant orange and red hues just before the sun is snuffed by the horizon. While this color can be seen at sunset year round, it takes center stage each February when sunset shadow and light conspire to highlight normally insignificant Horsetail Fall’s tumble down El Capitan’s east face.
As exquisite as the light on Yosemite’s granite is, I’m even more drawn to the Sierra’s east side, which gets its best sun at sunrise. Unlike the Sierra’s gradually sloped, relatively moist, and largely foliated west slopes, the Sierra’s east side is much steeper, drier, and therefore sparsely foliated and more exposed. Enhancing the drama, the Eastern Sierra’s towering granite face also catches the earliest possible sunlight, sunlight that has traveled farther and through purer air (because there fewer airborne pollutants in the morning in general, and the sunlight east of the Sierra traverses much less densely populated terrain).
My favorite place to watch the light play on the Eastern Sierra granite is in and near the Alabama Hills, two vertical miles beneath Mt. Whitney and the Sierra’s most precipitous section. Looming above the Owens Valley, 14,505 foot Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the 48 contiguous United States. Unlike many towering peaks that stand by themselves, Mt. Whitney is bounded by 13,000 foot Lone Pine Peak and 14,000 foot Mt. Williamson, all connected by a serrated ridge of 13,000+ foot sharks tooth prominences.
Before sunrise I like to arrive early enough to see the Sierra crest reflect the pale blue of the pre-dawn sky, then watch it warm gradually as the sky brightened before the approaching sun. The color reaches a crescendo when the sun’s longest wavelengths first kiss the highest peaks with pink alpenglow. As the rest of the sun’s visible wavelengths join the party, the crest warms to amber before finally cooling beneath the daylight-blue sky.
At the end of the day the best color arrives after the sun has long disappeared behind the crest and the entire scene is illuminated by a sky well on its way to night. Though the mountains’ color is more subtle than the sunrise show, the Eastern Sierra’s granite when imbued with the pale mauve of evening twilight is no less beautiful. Eventually night takes over and once again the Sierra granite throbs a soft blue.
Early last October I guided my Eastern Sierra workshop group up to Whitney Portal at the base of Mt. Whitney to photograph cascading Whitney Portal Fall in late afternoon shade. On the drive back down we squeezed into a small turnout not too far down the road for the closest view of Whitney that doesn’t require a serious hike. This year’s group got a bonus when a thin slice of brand new moon appeared shortly after sunset.
Mounting my Sony 70-200 f4 on my a7RII, I framed the scene as tightly as I could while still including both Mt. Whitney and the crescent moon. Though the sky was clear, a steady stream of small clouds materialized as if issued by a cloud making machine just out of sight behind the crest to the right of Whitney. Each new cloud scooted to the left and dissipated quickly in drier air near the summit. After composing, metering, and focusing, I waited for the next cloud to appear and clicked this frame in the purple twilight.