Posted on October 30, 2022
Consistently finding great photo opportunities isn’t just luck, but neither is it a divine gift. With that in mind, I sometimes refer to “The 3 P’s of nature photography,” describing the effort and sacrifice necessary to consistently create successful landscape images: Preparation, Persistence, and Pain.
Of course every once in a while you might come across an image that simply fell into your lap and all you had to do was whip out your smartphone and click. But those images are few and far between, and I daresay are rarely as rewarding as the images you worked for.
Picking a favorite image and trying to assign one or more of the 3 P’s to it is a fun little exercise I sometimes use to remind myself to keep doing the extra work. Take a few minutes to scan your portfolio; ask yourself how many didn’t require at least one of the 3 P’s. (I’ll wait.) …….. See what I mean?
Ready or not, here it comes
For this image, I will thank preparation. But, if you know how obsessively I plan my moonrises, not the kind of preparation you might think. Since I started photographing the moon long before The Photographer’s Ephemeris and other moon-plotting apps were available (long before smartphones, in fact), my moonrise/set workflow has always been to just plot everything manually using location-specific moon altitude and azimuth data, combined with topo map software (pretty much the same thing TPE does behind the curtain). But I didn’t do that for this moonrise because the moon wasn’t on my radar this evening.
Guiding my Eastern Sierra workshop group to Olmsted point for the workshop’s final sunset, I hadn’t plotted the moon because this workshop didn’t coincide with the full moon (I’d scheduled it for peak fall color, not the moon), and because the moonrise doesn’t align with any feature of particular interest at Olmsted Point.
But even when the moon isn’t part of my plan, it’s never far from my mind. (This is where the preparation part kicks in.) I always make it a point to know what the moon is doing, both its phase and general rise/set time and direction, whenever I’m out with my camera. Once I got my group situated on the granite at Olmsted Point, I mentally checked on the moon. Knowing that a 90% waxing gibbous moon would be rising in the southeast a couple of hours before sunset, I wondered how long it would take it to crest the ridge above us.
On my iPhone is an app called Theodolite that I can point at any feature to learn its altitude and azimuth in degrees of whatever I point it at. I wouldn’t trust this data enough to engineer a bridge, but since it works without connectivity, it’s perfect for exactly what I wanted to do—get a general idea of when and where the moon would appear. I pointed Theodolite at the ridge (using my phone’s camera, it computes and transposes the various angles on the display), and learned that the ridge rose 8 degrees above my location.
Next I switched to my Focalware app (which also doesn’t require connectivity) and learned that the moon should appear (rise to 8 degrees) a little less than 30 minutes before sunset. Focalware also gives me the moon’s azimuth at any given time, an angle I was able to find on the ridge using Theodolite (by pointing it at the ridge and shifting the view until the crosshairs aligned with the desired azimuth), giving me a general idea of the location on the ridge where the moon would rise.
Not only was I able to alert my group to this bonus moonrise, I was able to tell them when and where to look. The light on Half Dome was so good that some decided to pass on the moon, but those who wanted to photograph it had plenty of time to set up with their desired lens and composition.
For the moon’s appearance, especially when there isn’t an iconic landscape feature to pair it with, I like going long, the longer the better. Even though I had no expectation of using it, I’d still carried my Sony 100-400 GM lens on the short hike out to Olmsted—because, well, you never know. That, combined with my Sony 2X Teleconverter (which I also always carry), gave me 800mm.
There was nothing special about the ridge, so I tried to find a tree (or trees) to juxtapose with the rising moon. Though I knew about where the moon would appear, I wouldn’t know exactly where to point until I actually saw it. So I identified a few potential target trees, then pasted my eyes on the ridge.
By the time the moon rose, the warm light from the setting sun was just about to leave the granite. I raced to the spot that aligned with the first tree I’d identified and went to work. As soon as the moon separated from the ridge, I sprinted along the granite until I could frame it with a pair of trees, shifting slightly after every two or three clicks.
The preparation I credit for this image starts with my general sense of the moon’s phase at rise time. I was also there with all the tools I needed, from my long lens and teleconverter, to a couple of apps that allowed me to get the information I needed on the fly. And finally, because the moon ascends surprisingly fast, it helped a lot to have pre-identified my foreground targets.
Posted on May 16, 2022
Dynamic vs. static
Photographic composition is all about managing the tension between dynamic and static: the dynamic component is the way the eye moves through the frame, while the static component is the overall balance of the scene’s elements.
To synergize these two potentially conflicting factors, I think in terms the “visual weight” of my frame’s contained elements. Like gravity for the eye, visual weight is the amount each of the scene’s various elements might pull the viewer’s vision toward it. Unlike the measurable weight caused by actual gravity—a constant determined by an object’s mass (I’m talking the Earth-based, Newtonian physics that govern our daily lives)—visual weight is a more subjective quality that can be a function of many things that include the object’s size, brightness, contrast, shape, and color.
On the dynamic side, I use the way the viewers of an image subconsciously connect visually weighted objects and mentally draw virtual lines along which their eyes move. Composing a scene, I first identify the objects that possess visual weight—a rock, flower, tree, mountain, whatever—and work to position them in my frame in ways that guide my viewer’s eyes. Additionally, I generally avoid putting visually weighted objects near the edges of my frame, where they might pull my viewer out of the scene.
For the scene’s static component, visual balance, an approach that works for me to imagining my frame as a perfectly rigid print, laid flat and balanced atop a centered point (like a pencil). As I compose, I want the position of the scene’s visually weighted objects organized on my imaginary balanced print so it will rest perfectly horizontal (no tilt).
Just a dash of moon
The concept of visual weight helped me reconcile a frequent complaint of photographers (and at least one editor who used it to reject an article on moon photography) that the moon appears too small in a landscape image. At some point I realized that the moon’s visual weight, even accounting for its brightness and contrast, was greater than its size alone might suggest. That led me to an essential component of visual weight that I’d overlooked: emotional connection. There is just something about the emotional pull of the moon hovering over a landscape that draws the human eye far more than might be expected from its more tangible physical qualities.
This realization freed me to stop stressing about the size of the moon in my frame. Though I have no problem photographing the moon large when the opportunity presents itself, I also won’t hesitate to leverage a small moon’s emotional weight to elevate a relatively ordinary scene, or enhance an already beautiful scene.
The short hike along Tenaya Lake to Mirror Lake is one of the most popular in Yosemite Valley. Though technically not a lake, each spring (and often in winter and early summer as well) Tenaya Creek brims with snowmelt. Rushing from the high country, Tenaya Creek pauses directly beneath Half Dome, flattening and spreading enough to deliver spectacular reflections.
Even more than the reflections, for me the best part of the Mirror Lake experience is its the neck-craning close-up of Half Dome’s face. When I started thinking about the best way to convey Half Dome’s imposing presence, it occurred to me that letting its looming face dwarf a small moon might be exactly what I need.
I write a lot about my love for photographing the moon large, the bigger the better. But sometimes the moon needs to be small. While the moon here is far from the primary subject it would be in a telephoto image, this image is all about Half Dome. Adding little dash of moon creates a balancing counterweight, helps spice up an otherwise boring sky, and creates a size contrast that emphasizes Half Dome’s massive presence.
Take a look at the images in the gallery below, paying extra attention to the moon’s relationship to Half Dome. In some images the moon is the focal point of the frame, in others it’s a balancing element, and sometimes it’s simply an accent that adds interest to a boring sky.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on May 1, 2022
It doesn’t take much time with my images to figure out that I love photographing the moon. Large or small, full or crescent, it doesn’t really matter. Almost every one of my moon images is the product of plotting the time of its arrival (or departure), then making sure I’m there to photograph it. Using astronomical tables and topo map software, I’ve been doing this for more than 15 years—long before the availability of the astronomy apps that tremendously simplify the process with pretty decent accuracy. And while I recommend these (new fangled) apps to everyone who wants to photograph anything celestial above a particular terrestrial scene, I still do it the old fashioned way for no other reason than it’s more fun. But, as much as I’d love to tell you that I plotted this moonrise from last Wednesday morning in Yosemite, I have to admit that this one was largely a matter of just happening to be in the right place at the right time (aided by just a dash of advance knowledge).
Yosemite Valley is not a great sunrise location because nearly all of its vistas face east, which means photographing towering monoliths in full shade (the sun’s behind them), against the brightest part of the sky. We always hope for clouds to add color to the sky and subdue some of the sun’s brightness, but too frequently end up with blank skies.
Nevertheless, in most of my Yosemite photo workshops I take my group to Tunnel View for our first sunrise. I choose Tunnel View for that first sunrise because when clouds aren’t present, we can still turn the distinctive outlines of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Cathedral Rocks into silhouettes. Not only does this give my students the opportunity to create something a little different than the standard Yosemite image, it’s also a good way to get them thinking about photographing the way their camera sees rather than the way their eyes see (a real point of emphasis in my workshops).
My Yosemite Waterfalls and Dogwood workshop was scheduled to (fingers crossed) coincide with the park’s peak spring runoff and dogwood bloom, which usually happens around May 1 (+/- a week or two). This year I chose the last week of April because I’d rather be a little early for the dogwood than a little late, and to avoid the weekend crowds. Though I hadn’t considered the crescent moon when I scheduled it, as the workshop approached I checked and saw that on our first morning an 11% crescent would rise nearly 90 minutes before sunrise. Unfortunately, this moon aligned poorly with all of Yosemite’s icons, and to be visible at all would need to climb above the much higher walls southeast of Tunnel View. On the other hand, I saw that the crescent would be trailing a nice planetary alignment that included Mars, Venus, and Jupiter—maybe not great to photograph, but pretty nice to see.
When we arrived the sky was dark enough to enjoy the planets, but there was no sign of the moon. As feared, there were no clouds, so after getting my group going with their silhouettes, I started thinking about the moon again. Knowing that it was almost directly beneath Jupiter, about 1 1/2 times the distance separating Venus and Jupiter, I was able to pretty closely approximate where the moon would rise. And I realized that when it did rise, the sky would still be plenty dark enough.
I let my group know what would be happening and quickly ran to my car to grab my tripod, Sony a7RIV, Sony 200-600 G lens, and Sony 2X Teleconverter. Zooming my lens all the way out to 1200mm (go big or go home), I trained it on the small tree on the far left of this image and waited. The moon actually appeared just slightly left of the target tree, close enough that I didn’t need to recompose. The ridge here was so steep that it took more than 10 minutes for the moon to completely separate, creating the illusion that it was sliding uphill. merge
The most exciting part of this otherwise serene morning came when a commercial jet zipped into the scene, contrail trailing, and someone realized it was on a collision course with the moon. What ensued was a brief scramble to photograph the collision. Thwarted by my 2-second timer (a further reminder why I don’t photograph anything that moves), I got nothing but contrail, but at least two in the group got the moon/jet convergence.
Posted on April 24, 2022
Our lives revolve around relationships: romance, family, friends, work, pets…. Even that clown who cut you off on the freeway, for a few brief (I hope) seconds, might just be the most powerful influence in your life.
Like most words in the English language, “relationship” can mean more than one thing. On the macro scale are the specific personal connections that matter to us—not just people, but also places, things (I actually love my new dishwasher), music, sports teams, and so on. On a micro scale, we have spacial juxtapositions that can be either planned or random, and the realization that it’s possible to draw a straight line relating any two objects on Earth (or in the Universe, for that matter).
I know this isn’t first time I’ve written about relationships (it won’t be the last), but they’re very important to photography because they play a significant role in literally every image we capture. My image choices are very much determined my relationship with my subjects, while my images’ ability to connect with others is a function of the relationships, both conscious and unconscious, they tap in the minds of my viewers.
In addition to finding those personal connections, as I wrote in last week’s post, spacial relationships that connect visual elements and guide the eye have the power to move viewers’ through the frame (good), pull them out of the frame (bad), and to signal viewers what it is they’re supposed to see and do in the image (good).
Laying the foundation
In this image from the final shoot of last week’s Yosemite workshop, it’s easy to see how all those relationship factors combine to create an image. It all starts with a life-long relationship with Yosemite that predates my oldest memories. Campfires, hiking, the Firefall, bear watching, transient friendships with kids in nearby campsites, fishing with my dad, are all among the many vivid contributors to my Yosemite memory mosaic.
My love of the night sky is related (there’s that word again) to this Yosemite connection, and started just a few years later. Its seeds, sown on summer nights falling asleep beneath a sky full of stars on family camping trips, germinated with my first telescope when I was 9 or 10, and flourished under the dark skies of the High Sierra backcountry.
Putting it all together
When I started getting serious about photography, my love for (and proximity to) Yosemite made it the ideal place to start. It’s hard to take a bad picture in Yosemite, so at first I was content with my own version of the more conventional scenes seen in postcards, calendars, and travel brochures.
Soon I grew to appreciate the importance of light, and started timing my Yosemite visits around the best opportunities for sunrise/sunset color, warm light, and waterfall rainbows—my first conscious attempts to create relationships between fixed terrestrial subjects and ephemeral natural conditions. This epiphany led to the realization that instead of being satisfied with great light on Half Dome, a tumbling cascade, or mirror reflection, why not accent the scene with fall color or elegant dogwood? Whether not I was conscious of it at the time, I’d gone all-in on creating my own visual relationships: disparate elements connected in a shared moment.
Incorporating the night sky came later, but at some point I realized that, while a Yosemite sunset is nice, a Yosemite sunset that includes the moon might be especially nice. Suddenly I found myself obsessively calculating and logging the horizontal and vertical angles at every conceivable Yosemite vista, and plotting the moon’s altitude and azimuth to determine when and where it would appear above Yosemite Valley. (This was long before the days of the Photographer’s Ephemeris, Photo Pills, and other tools of that ilk.)
Back to the present
Somehow, that long and continuous thread lead me and my workshop group to the Bridalveil Fall vista on Big Oak Flat Road in Yosemite last Friday evening. More than a year earlier, I’d plotted this moonrise and scheduled a workshop to photograph it—among other things, like the moonbow beneath Lower Yosemite Fall and the poppy bloom in the Merced River Canyon.
But simply planning for a relationship doesn’t make it so. This year’s poppy bloom was a complete swing-and-miss, and clouds dogged our entire workshop, wiping out our moonbow.
But all was not lost. The clouds made for spectacular skies, while the sun came out enough for the group to capture a variety of waterfall rainbows on Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls. And there was enough water in Tenaya Creek to justify the 1 1/2 mile hike up to Mirror Lake for the Half Dome Reflection. We even got to photograph the earliest dogwood that had just started to pop out near Valley View, an unexpected treat.
And I still had one relationship ace up my sleeve: the moonrise on our final night. As often happens in Yosemite, the Friday forecast was frustratingly noncommittal: partly sunny. So it’s no wonder my moonrise optimism waxed and waned all day as the sky wavered between blue (yay!) and gray (boo!).
I’d figured that the moon would appear above Leaning Tower (above and just right of Bridalveil Fall) at around 7:15 p.m., so I got the group in place about 7:00. Even though we had more clouds than sky, a small gap on the western horizon let just enough sun through to spotlight Bridalveil Fall. There was even enough of an opening above the fall to give me hope that we’d see the moonrise right on schedule, and I set up my (brand new!) Sony a1 with the Sony 200-600 lens and 2X Teleconverter in anticipation. But by the time 7:15 arrived, that window had slammed shut.
The next opportunity was another opening in the clouds about 2 degrees higher, and I kept my eyes on it knowing the moon would probably rise into it around 7:25—about 10 minutes before sunset. With the moon higher, I set aside the a1 and 200-600 in favor of (one of) my Sony a7RIVs and my Sony 24-105. As I watched the small patch of blue sky, I realized it was shrinking, further delaying (and threatening to completely wipe out) the moon’s appearance.
We experienced brief euphoria when the moon finally peeked above the clouds at around 7:30, just long enough to capture 2 frames that had it more than 1/2 visible. Then it was gone.
I still faced a 4-hour drive home, but since the clouds were changing so fast and we were already there, I decided not to call the workshop quite yet. About 20 minutes later, right at the tail end of the window when there’s still enough light to capture detail in the moon and foreground (with one click), I was starting to consider pulling the plug for good when a small bright patch got my attention. Suddenly the clouds parted just long enough for me to grab 2 more frames that included most of the moon, before snapping shut for good.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on February 27, 2022
Though last week’s harrowing story of a sneaker wave that drenched members of the Iceland photo workshop group had a (relatively) happy ending (R.I.P., 3 cameras and lenses), it generated more responses than any blog post in recent memory. Exactly one week later, that sobering reminder of Nature’s power and ability to surprise was still on my mind when I was gifted a reminder of Nature’s ability to also soothe and inspire.
This epiphany struck me as I reclined on a granite slab above Tunnel View, waiting for the full moon to grace the most beautiful view on Earth. Just as in Iceland, I was with a workshop group. Unseen in Yosemite Valley below us, I knew thousands of photographers were assembled with eyes glued to a section of granite stained by Horsetail Fall’s trickle, praying to avoid a reminder of Nature’s ability to disappoint. If all went as hoped, the moon would appear at about the same time light from the setting sun colored the waterfall some shade of orange or (fingers crossed) red.
While clouds were a factor for both events, I wasn’t concerned about the moonrise because I could see there was only one cloud that might delay the moon’s appearance, but certainly wouldn’t wipe it out. On the other hand, I knew from experience that the people on the ground beneath Horsetail Fall would have no idea of the clouds poised to block the sun, and ultimate fate that evening’s light, until it actually happened (or didn’t). For me and my group, the light on Horsetail Fall would be tomorrow night’s anxiety; tonight was our opportunity to bask and marvel.
My general moonrise approach is to start with max telephoto until the moon gets some separation from the landscape, then go wider as the moon climbs. This evening my tripod was mounted with my Sony a7RIV and Sony 200-600 composed at full magnification on Cloud’s Rest, the peak between El Capitan and Half Dome, behind which the moon should appear about 25 minutes before sunset. Within arm’s reach was my other a7RIV with my Sony 24-105.
Once everyone was set up with lenses trained, we had time to sit and appreciate the view. From our perch not only could we see the spot behind which the moon would appear, we also could see the part of El Capitan where Horsetail flowed (though there wasn’t enough water to actually see the fall from this distance). As we waited for the moon, we watched the shadow cast by the setting sun move across the face of El Capitan, gradually warming the granite as it advanced.
My eyes were trained more on the cloud taking a breather atop Cloud’s Rest—more specifically, trying to figure out if the cloud was dense enough to completely block the moon. I got my answer when the time for moonrise came and passed, and adjusted my composition by widening my composition somewhat.
The moon came out from behind the cloud about 10 minutes before sunset, still close enough to Horsetail Fall to include both at 400mm. Meanwhile, the light on Horsetail Fall faded as the sun dropped into thin clouds near the horizon—faded just enough to subdue the color and disappoint the massed throngs below.
From our vantage point the light on El Capitan was good, but I could tell that the color wasn’t what people came for. As pretty as our scene was was, my favorite time to photograph a full moon isn’t until after the sun has set and the blue and pink pastels of Earth’s shadow starts to paint the sky. By this time the daylight-bright moon stands out strikingly against the darkening sky. Waiting for this to happen, I switched to my 24-105 and started playing with a variety of compositions that included some combination of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall.
Since I need to capture detail in both the moon and the foreground, and I never blend images (combine exposures to make a single image), the exposure margin for error shrinks significantly as the sky darkens around the moon. I captured this image more than 15 minutes after sunset, when the scene looked much better to my eyes than it did on my LCD. This is where I especially appreciate the dynamic range of my Sony sensors—I just monitor the moon, making it as bright possible without blowing it out, then rely on Lightroom and Photoshop to reveal the unbelievable amount of usable detail hidden in the shadows and highlights.
Large or small, crescent or full, I love photographing the moon rising above Yosemite as much as ever. I’m fully aware that I have far more than my share of these images, but it just makes me so happy, I have no plans to stop.
Posted on December 26, 2021
As COVID started ravaging my workshop schedule way back in March 2020, my private mantra was, “Just hang on until August.” As we approach our third pandemic year with the Omicron variant raging, how misguided that dream feels today. While 2020 was pretty much lost to COVID, 2021 was the year things seemed poised to return to normal. And while not the Disney happy ending I’d envisioned, in many ways that proved true.
Even though I had to postpone my 2021 January workshops—one in Death Valley, as well as the Iceland workshop I do with Don Smith—it seemed things were improving. And improve they did: In quick succession I did two Yosemite workshops in February, followed by three more Yosemite workshops, one each in March, April, and May. Another 2021 spring highlight came in May, when I returned to the Grand Canyon for my beloved raft trip. Amidst all this, Don Smith and I managed to get in our April Oregon Coast and Columbia River Gorge workshops. So far, so good.
Despite missing most of 2020 and a few COVID-related inconveniences, these resurrected workshops felt surprisingly normal—not only was I thrilled to get back to my locations, spending time with the groups reminded me how much I missed having people to share the beauty with. And it seemed the people in my groups were just as happy to return to nature, and to interact with others in the relative safety of the great outdoors, as I was.
Approaching mid-year, Don and I did lose our spectacular New Zealand workshop for the second year in a row, but we’d been resigned to that for many months and had a solid plan in place. I was actually philosophical about the New Zealand loss, rationalizing that I was ready for a breather following my brutal spring schedule, and the similarly ambitious schedule coming in the second half of the year (trying to make up for my 2020 losses).
The second half of the summer was back to pedal-to-the-metal mode, with three Grand Canyon workshops (back-to-back-to-back) in July and August, followed by a return to the Big Island of Hawaii in September. Autumn didn’t get any easier, with back-to-back Eastern Sierra workshops in September and October, and another Yosemite workshop in November.
If all this seems like a lot, let me assure you, it was. But, in the midst of this breakneck pace, October brought a real tap-the-brakes moment: Despite COVID precautions and all 11 participants/leaders fully vaccinated, following my second Eastern Sierra workshop, 7 people (including me) tested positive for COVID. Fortunately, no one became seriously ill (I felt like I had a moderate cold for less than a week—no fever, headache, or fatigue, but 4 days with absolutely no sense of smell). I know it would have been far worse had we not been vaccinated—a blessing for which I’ll be eternally grateful—but it was a reminder to stay vigilant.
The grand finale
Fully recovered, I wrapped up my busy year in December with a spectacular Yosemite workshop. This “Winter Moon” workshop delivered ample portions of both winter and moon—lots of snowfall that gave way to clear sky just in time for the full moon on our final shoot.
Fellow Yosemite (among other places) photographer Michael Frye was doing a workshop at the same time, but we communicated regularly and adjusted our plans to prevent our groups from ending up at the same spots at the same time. After learning that we both planned to be at Tunnel View for Friday’s sunset moonrise (we agreed there’d be enough room to make it work), an event that was no secret to the photography community in general, I knew it would be crowded.
While there’s quite a bit of room at Tunnel View, it’s not infinite, and parking can sometimes be a problem, so I got my group up there about 90 minutes before sunset (and about 75 minutes before the moon would appear). While we waited, I made sure everyone knew when and where the moon would appear, and encouraged them to work on compositions before the moon appeared.
Though I had two tripods with me, I didn’t think it would be fair for one person to take two spots and instead just set up one tripod and readied two bodies and lenses: a Sony a7RIV with my Sony 200-600 G and Sony 2X Teleconverter (1200mm), and a Sony a7RIV with my Sony 24-105 G. My plan was to start with the telephoto body as the moon appeared, then switch to the wider body as the moon climbed and moved away from El Capitan.
As you can see, the workshop grand finale was a spectacular success. The moon appeared near the (barely visible) frozen trickle that will become Horsetail Fall just a few minutes before sunset, just as the day’s last light kissed El Capitan. I shared one of the wider images in last week’s post; this week I’m sharing a 1200mm image from shortly after the moon’s arrival.
Note the size of the moon in these two images that were taken on the same night, from the same location. While it would be spectacular to have the large moon in the scene with both El Capitan and Half Dome, that would be impossible from any earthbound vantage point. From Tunnel View, magnifying the moon with a 1200mm focal length only gives me a small fraction of El Capitan, while widening the scene enough to include both of Yosemite’s granite icons shrinks the moon to small disk. The results are so different, I won’t even try to suggest that one is “better” than the other.
So, in case you weren’t keeping score, in 2021 I had 3 workshops rescheduled, while adding 16 workshops notches to my belt—a personal record. Yet despite this very productive year, 2021 didn’t usher in the Disney happy ending I’d hoped for. It seems very possible that Don and I will lose New Zealand again in 2022, and Omicron has forces to reschedule one of the two Iceland workshops scheduled for January.
My other 2022 workshops are still on schedule, but I’m monitoring Omicron closely and hoping it fades as quickly as it started (monitoring positive signs from South Africa and other countries ahead of us—with fingers crossed).
Posted on December 19, 2021
Camera or not, two of my very favorite things in nature are a rising moon, and the rich pink and blue twilight sky opposite the sun after sunset*. Once a month, in the days around the full moon, these phenomena converge, and I get an opportunity to photograph the moon actually in the best part of the sky. I spend a lot of time trying to identify the scenes above which to photograph these celestial displays, and the best time to be there.
As a one-click photographer, for years the primary obstacle to photographing these scenes has been capturing (in a single frame) detail in the daylight-bright moon and a rapidly darkening landscape. In my early digital years, I found that the window of exposure opportunity—the time from sunset until the foreground became too dark to capture with one click—ended about 5-10 minutes after sunset (this can vary somewhat with several factors, such as longitude and terrain), just as the best color was ramping up. I could extend that window by 5 minutes or so by using a graduated neutral density filter to subdue the moon’s brightness by 2 or 3 stops, but GNDs come with their own set of problems—especially when the scene doesn’t have a homogenous, horizontal space near the horizon to disguise the GND boundary.
Technology to the rescue
One of the main reasons I switched to Sony in 2014 was the dynamic range of the Sony Alpha sensors, and few situations underscore that advantage better than these twilight moonrises. With my new cameras, suddenly my post-sunset threshold jumped by at least 50%—an advantage that continued progressing with each Sony sensor iteration.
Along with improved sensor technology, advances in processing software enabled me to get even more out of each image. Probably biggest processing improvement is in the noise reduction software that reduces blotchy, image softening, detail robbing noise that’s the prime limiting factor when you pull up the shadows of a twilight moonrise. Noise reduction software doesn’t restore lost image data, but it can bring out the best of what you did capture, allowing you to push back the twilight moonrise window just a little more. (I use and recommend Topaz DeNoise AI.)
Time for an Ansel Adams quote
Ansel Adams famously said, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” Put in today’s terms (and far more prosaically), all the technology in the world doesn’t do much good if you don’t know how to use it. For example, me: I know now that I probably packed up too early, mistakenly thinking the twilight moonrise photography window had closed—simply because I didn’t know how to get the most from my camera.
In fact, proper exposure is probably the single biggest struggle most photographers have when photographing a twilight moon. The most frequent mistake is trying to make the picture look good on their LCD, which invariably results in a preview image with gorgeous foreground beneath a brilliant white lunar disk—a disk that, on closer scrutiny, is hopelessly stripped of detail.
Photographing both a full moon and the landscape, with detail, starts by understanding that, in a high dynamic range scene, an ideal exposure rarely looks good on the LCD. I repeat: In a high dynamic range scene, an ideal exposure rarely looks good on the LCD. The key is making the image as bright as possible without blowing the highlights, providing the best opportunity to restore the highlights and shadows in post-processing.
While it’s usually best to trust the image’s histogram in extreme dynamic range situations, since the moon is such a small part of most images, it rarely registers on the histogram. This small but important detail makes it possible to capture a histogram that looks great, while ending up with a moon that’s hopelessly blown (detail-less white).
So if you can’t trust the image or the histogram, what can you trust? I thought you’d never ask. While the histogram is helpful for the landscape part of the scene, when I photograph a full moon, I monitor the moon’s exposure with my camera’s highlight alert feature—on my Sony Alpha mirrorless bodies that the “zebras” (pre-capture highlight warning stripes on all mirrorless and some DSLR cameras), but DSLR shooters can use the post-capture blinking highlights.
My twilight moonrise recipe
My process for a post-sunset moon starts with metering in manual mode (because I want complete control of my exposure). I set the ISO to 100 (my Sony a7RIV’s native/best ISO), and the f-stop to whatever I think will give me the sharpest image. The exposure is controlled with the shutter speed.
While the moon’s brightness doesn’t change, with a rising full moon, the landscape will continue to darken, making a foreground exposure that was perfect a minute or two ago not quite so perfect now. As the scene darkens, I add light by deliberately increasing my shutter speed in 1/3 stop increments (that is, one click at a time), with my eye on the moon.
When the zebras appear, I use my knowledge of my a7RIV to squeeze the most possible light from the scene. Raw shooters almost always have more detail than their histogram or highlight alerts indicate (different cameras’ highlight alerts engage at different points). This means you can add still light after the first alerts appear in the moon. When I first detect the zebras on my a7RIV, I know I can push my highlights 2/3 to 1 full stop brighter and still recover detail later.
If you’re shooting with a DSLR that doesn’t offer pre-capture zebras in your viewfinder, you may still be able to get them on the live-view LCD (some DSLRs offer them, some don’t). If not, you’ll need to check the post-capture blinking highlights after you click. Camera familiarity is no less essential when reading the blinking highlights of post-capture DSLR image preview highlight alerts than it is with the pre-capture zebras on a mirrorless camera.
Another thing I’ve started doing to get the most light out of the scene is pushing my highlights beyond the point where I’m certain I haven’t blown them out, then magnifying the moon in the preview image—if I see detail, I know not only am I still good to go, I may even be able to squeeze another 1/ or 2/3 of a stop more light out.
What I’m starting to realize now is how much usable detail I have in the shadows of my a7RIV. This image was captured just Friday night, on the final night of my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop. It was more than 20 minutes after sunset and my foreground looked so black on the LCD that I figured it was unusable. But the scene was so beautiful, I just couldn’t make myself stop shooting. (A friend who happened to be standing next to me for most of the evening had left about 10 minutes earlier, despite my protests that he was leaving too soon.)
So imagine my surprise when I opened it in Lightroom, pulled up the Blacks (to about 30), Shadows (all the way), and Exposure (about two stops) sliders and saw plenty of detail and very fixable noise. A quick treatment from Topaz DeNoise AI confirmed what what I’d just seen—my twilight moon window is now open until at 20 minutes after sunset. Amazing.
(I’ll have more on this fantastic finale to a fantastic workshop in a future post. Spoiler alert: This isn’t the only image from this shoot.)
* When I say sunset, you can infer that I mean sunrise as well, with everything happening in reverse, on the other side of the sky.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on June 20, 2021
With so many natural variables beyond our control, and no matter how creatively we visualize, thoroughly we plan, and precisely we execute, landscape photographers go into every shoot uncertain of success. But making consistently successful images depends not only on our ability to visualize, plan, and execute, but also on our ability to recognize and respond to unexpected opportunities.
The truth is, your creativity’s greatest limitation is probably your own biases. Put in more practical terms, don’t allow yourself to be swayed by preconceived notions of what “the shot” is, what equipment you’ll need, and whether the opportunities are exhausted.
We cover this kind of stuff in my workshops, where one of my most frequently asked questions is, what lens should I bring? I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the underlying essence of this question is, what lens can I leave behind? And since it’s a photography truism that the lens you need is the one you left at home, I’m usually reluctant to give an absolute answer. In fact, I usually encourage people to bring all they can carry.
A couple of weeks ago my brother Jay and I made a quick trip to Olmsted Point in Yosemite to photograph the Milky Way. I’d chosen Olmsted because I think it’s the best easily accessible (with a car) place to photograph Half Dome with the Milky Way; I chose this night because clear skies were forecast, and a brand new moon meant the darkest possible sky. Though I knew a small sliver of one-percent moon would be visible for an hour or so after sunset, as soon as I realized the moon would be nowhere near Half Dome, I didn’t give it another thought—this trip was all about the Milky Way and Half Dome. Period. Nevertheless, I packed all my gear because…. Well, why not?
I’m afraid that for me, “all I can carry” requires at least two camera bags, which of course isn’t usually practical when flying, given the space and weight constraints. But when I drive to a location from home, I forgo the Sophie’s Choice equipment decisions and just pack everything. Everything. Which is why, for a trip on which I’d only planned to use my Sony a7SIII and (brand new!) Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM lens, the back of my Outback contained (among many other things) my Sony a7RIV and Sony 100-400 GM.
The other part of being prepared is to no be so locked onto your objective that you fail to recognize other opportunities. This is a problem I’m frequently reminded of in my workshop image review sessions, when everyone shares one of their images from the workshop for my feedback. We’re all going to the same locations at the same time, but it’s a rare session that at least one person doesn’t share something that causes others, myself included, to exclaim, “Wow, I didn’t see that!” The lesson here is, the instant you think you know “the” shot is the instant your creative door slams shut.
This lesson also applies to the belief that the show is over, or that the show isn’t going to happen. Some of my most unforgettable photography experiences have happened because I stayed just a little longer after it seemed pretty obvious that Mother Nature was done, or decided to go out when there was every indication that nothing was going to happen.
We pulled into Olmsted Point a little after sunset. Job-one was changing out of my Sacramento-summer T-shirt and shorts, and into my High-Sierra-night long-johns, flannel-lined jeans, wool shirt, and down jacket. But while changing, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the wisp of crescent moon setting behind a granite ridge far north of the scene I’d come to photograph. And joining the moon on its journey to the horizon was Venus, a visual bonus I hadn’t anticipated.
Sufficiently fortified against the elements and unable to take my mind off the moon and Venus, I discarded my plan to make the 1/4 mile hike up to Olmsted Point before the darkness was complete (rationalizing that I could probably do this hike blindfolded anyway). Standing at the car I mentally framed a shot, then extracted my tripod, a7RIV, and 100-400. While setting up in the parking lot would have worked, I decided to scramble up the adjacent granite slope for an elevated vantage point that reduced some of the foreground clutter.
It was pretty dark by the time I was in position and had everything assembled, but since I was only interested in creating silhouetted shapes to go with the moon, the darkness wasn’t a big problem. I shot until the moon dropped out of sight. Because I had to move around a bit to adjust the relationships between the trees and the descending moon and Venus, I only managed nine frames before the moon was gone
The Milky Way delivered as expected, but I found extra pleasure thinking about this moon shoot that kicked off the night and delivered something as satisfying as it was unexpected.
Posted on February 28, 2021
So much to do after two workshops in the last two weeks (and all the planning and recovery that goes with them). I had ambitious plans to return home late Friday night and hit the ground running first thing Saturday morning, so imagine my frustration to walk into my chilly house (I’d turned off the heat before I left), equal parts hungry and tired, at about 11 p.m. to find my internet down. When I discovered no dial tone on my landline (yes, I still have a landline), I realized this was a Comcast problem. Uh-oh. Having dealt with Comcast problems in the past (don’t get me started on their automated phone support system), I set aside food, warmth, and sleep to immediately call Comcast tech support. (Cold, hungry, tired, and no internet—suddenly I knew how the Donner Party must have felt.)
After about two hours on the phone (no, I do not want to reset my modem for the eighth time!), the best I could do was arrange for a Sunday house call—not bad for Comcast, but certainly not great for someone with a business to run, especially given all I had to do. I went to bed strategizing my Saturday, figuring I could at least load and process my images, and handle my basic internet needs by turning my phone into a wifi hot spot. But Saturday morning when I tried to connect my computer to my phone and load a page, my computer just stared back dumbly. I checked my reception and saw it bouncing between one and zero bars. I found a corner by the window that at least seemed to stay at one bar and called T-Mobile. Turns out a tower was down, but at least they were sorry. (I actually think T-Mobile’s tech support is very good, especially after dealing with Comcast.) And for some reason my Adobe Creative Suite wouldn’t load either (usually it works fine without connectivity, but I didn’t have the bandwidth to debug the problem without internet).
The additional technical frustration between then and now included multiple support calls with Comcast and T-Mobile and a trip to the Comcast store to swap out my modem, all culminating with a visit from a very nice Comcast technician who fixed the problem and told me the support rep I talked to yesterday could have fixed it over the phone. Sigh.
So here I am, it’s Sunday night and have a blog to write. I loaded my images, grabbed one from Friday night, processed it, and here you go. Now for something to say….
I’d scheduled my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop around this grand finale, a full moon rising from directly behind Half Dome right at sunset on Friday evening. The rest of the workshop had already been really nice—multiple rainbows on Yosemite Falls (Upper and Lower), a warmup moonrise on Thursday night, and even a bonus Horsetail Fall shoot (I’d made it clear that the moon, not Horsetail Fall, was the priority for this workshop) when it became clear the conditions would be perfect, and I had cracked this year’s NPS Horsetail Fall restrictions code—but this moonrise is what we’d all been looking forward to.
Because of the crowds in the park and the fact that the moonrise was apparently not a secret (how I long for the good old days), we got to our moonrise spot above the Tunnel View vista about two hours early. After not seeing a single cloud for the entire workshop, the first thing we saw as we unpacked and set up our gear was a bank of thin clouds that had set up camp low on the horizon, directly behind Half Dome. At first they appeared to be moving on and I was pretty optimistic about our moonrise, but as the appointed hour approached I grew increasingly pessimistic—not only were clouds thickening, they were expanding.
Sure enough, zero hour arrived with no sign of the moon, but we did get some nice color in the clouds and the group, while disappointed, seemed happy enough with what did get. The scene was so nice in fact that we were in no rush to leave despite the darkening landscape. Which is why we were still primed and ready for action when I noticed a faint glow in the clouds above Sentinel Rock. Could it be?
Yes it could. What started as a glow quickly revealed itself to be the lunar disk we’d been waiting for. And though it wasn’t apparent to our eyes, it was clear that the moon had edged into a patch of thinner clouds, because as we frantically clicked, actual lunar detail started to emerge. In fact, the clouds that originally thwarted our moonrise turned out to be a benefit when they moderated the moon’s brightness enough to allow us to photograph long after it have been too bright.
In my prior blog post I wrote about the joy of unexpected gifts from nature, events that seem to come out of nowhere, just when you’ve about given up hope. Now it had happened in consecutive workshops. I realize that moments like this are the exception, but they really do more than make up for all the disappointment nature likes to deal.
Posted on December 6, 2020
One of my favorite things about landscape photography is the opportunity to experience nature in complete solitude. But since COVID has forced us all to socially distance, I’ve realized that another one of my favorite things about landscape photography is the opportunity to experience nature in the company of others.
There’s a lot of waiting in landscape photography: for the light to be right, the lightning to fire, the sky to darken, the clouds to part, or the moon moon to arrive. But it wasn’t until I started leading photo workshops that I fully appreciated how much I miss sharing that waiting with people who appreciate nature’s beauty as much as I do. Whether it’s actively engaging in conversation, or just watching my workshop students enjoy the company of friends new and old. And then there are the many lasting friendships that formed in workshops.
So about a week before the late November full moon (that I’d circled on my calendar over a year ago), I got the bright idea to invite a half-dozen or so of my favorite photography friends to join me for one of my favorite things in nature: a full moon rising above Yosemite Valley. I sent an e-mail invitation detailing what was going to happen, where I was going to photograph it, and when I’d be there.
My brother Jay and I left for Yosemite late that morning, arriving at Tunnel View about four hours later. After about ten minutes circling and waiting for a place to park (I’ve never seen Yosemite more crowded in November), we made it up to the designated spot right around 4 p.m. I was thrilled to see nearly everyone I’d invited, some who had driven as long as six hours to get there. A couple of them had brought their wives, and one brought a friend.
The standard Tunnel View vista was crowded enough to qualify as a super-spreader event, but since I’d chosen a broad, unmarked slab of granite above the parking lot, we were able to socialize while remaining safely socially distant. The moon would arrive at 4:25, so after enthusiastic greetings and a few elbow-bumps, I opened my bag and went to work.
For this event I set up two tripods: one with a Sony a7RIV and Sony 200-600 with a Sony 2X Teleconverter; one with my other a7RIV and Sony 70-200 f/4. (Normally I’d have used my Sony 24-105 f/4 G, but I’ve shot this moonrise wide so many times that I decided before leaving that I was going to go all telephoto.)
Equipment ready and compositions set, I checked my watch and saw that we still had 15 minutes until the moon arrived. Perfect. Because this shoot was as much about reconnecting with friends as it was about photography, before leaving I’d filled two large thermoses with boiling water, and brought enough cocoa mix for each of us to warm our insides with two steaming cups of chocolate goodness. Sipping cocoa, we enjoyed the view and waited for the moon, chatting, laughing, and simply catching up—just like the good old days.
The moon arrived just as the last sunlight bathed Half Dome in warm hues that started amber and transitioned to soft pink before finally fading. As the moon rose through the darkening sky, the conversation was replaced by clicking shutters.
The image below is one of my first clicks; at the top of the post is one of my final images, captured shortly before the foreground became too dark to capture (with one click) without overexposing the moon.
Down in the parking lot we chatted more in the darkness, reluctant to acknowledge that our gathering was over so fast. I’ve always thought that there are few experiences in nature better than watching the moon rise above Yosemite Valley, but as far as I’m concerned, the highlight of this evening was reconnecting with friends.