The secret weapon for overcoming unsung landscapes

Gary Hart Photography: Crescent at Sunset, Sierra Foothills, California

Crescent at Sunset, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a7R
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/6 second
ISO 800

I travel a lot. A lot. Don’t get me wrong—I know I’m incredibly fortunate to see and photograph the things I do, but sometimes it’s nice to be home. Despite the world-class locations I get to visit, I don’t cease being a photographer just because I’m home. I spend a lot of time exploring and photographing the unsung landscapes near home, landscapes that few would cross borders to photograph, but landscapes that I feel a particular connection to by virtue of a lifetime in California.

Look to the sky

The landscape is only half of an image. Since the best photography is usually more than simply a picture of a pretty thing, I always try to juxtapose my terrestrial subjects with an interesting sky. And unlike stationary terrestrial subjects, you can stand in one place and without moving, watch the sky do some pretty spectacular stuff: moon, stars, clouds, rainbows, whatever.

Sadly, as nice as California’s landscapes are, compared to most places, California has relatively boring skies. If I lived somewhere that gets summer thunderstorms (pretty much anywhere in the United States except the West Coast), I’d find a photogenic tree or creek, then make sure I was there the next time the sky did something special. But in California, I end up doing a lot of moon and star photography (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Local favorites

My foreground options near Sacramento are rivers and oaks (and wildflowers in spring), and I particularly love our oaks (the rivers near town are often overrun with people). The criteria I use when searching for oaks to put with my sky images are a striking shape (with an oak, that’s usually a given), a distant vantage point that allows me to use a telephoto (to magnify to moon without losing most of the tree), and elevation that puts the tree against the sky instead of other hills and trees. Over the years I’ve collected a number of these spots, and will never tire of looking for more.

Chasing the moon

Last week I drove to the foothills east of Sacramento to photograph a thin slice of moon on the western horizon just after sunset. This wasn’t an exploration mission, it was specifically planned to take advantage of a spot I’d found earlier this year.

Unfortunately, (as I feared) the developers had found my spot too, and I arrived to find “my” trees surrounded by new homes in varying stages of completion—lucky for a handful of homebuyers, but not so much for all the rest of us who enjoy the foothills’ solitude and pristine views.

Gary Hart Photography: Tequila Sunset, Sierra Foothills, California

Tequila Sunset, Sierra Foothills, California

Gary Hart Photography: New Moon and Oaks, Sierra Foothills, California

New Moon and Oaks, Sierra Foothills, California

Plan B

Just down the hill from this recently found-and-lost spot was the subject of my very first planned moon shoot, an oak-topped hillside that I’d photographed at sunset many years ago, decided that it would look really nice with a crescent moon, then figured out when to return.

But this time I found the moon far north (to the right) of its position all those years ago (the closer to the summer solstice, the farther north a crescent moon sets), and it soon became clear that only spot that would work was on a shoulderless, blind curve of a busy, two-land road. Compounding the difficulty, the moon this night was also closer to new (thinner and nearer the horizon), significantly shrinking my window of shooting opportunity, which limited the distance I could hike to get there in time. I made several passes in both directions before finding a safe(ish) place to park, then crammed my car all the way up against a tilting fence, two tires in a drainage ditch, and put on my hazard blinkers.

Why did the photographer cross the road?

Getting the alignment I wanted required crossing the road, scaling a barbed-wire fence, and traipsing through knee-high weeds. The knowledge that rattlesnakes pretty much rule these foothills made me acutely aware that the weeds were so thick that I couldn’t really see the landing spot for each step.

I photographed the entire scene with my Tamron 150-600 on my Sony a7R. As the moon dropped, sliding left to right, I moved forward along the fence line to control the relationship between the descending moon and the trees, starting with wider focal lengths that included some or all of the eight to ten trees capping the hill. Because my route dropped as I moved forward, the moon quickly fell into the trees from my perspective, allowing me to include the moon and trees increasingly tighter compositions.

For the night’s grand finale I found an alignment that cradled the moon in the silhouetted branches of a single tree, zooming to 600mm to magnify the moon and eliminate all but one tree. Because a 600mm focal length will catch even the slightest vibration, I went to 800 ISO to maximize my shutter speed in the deepening twilight.  Once I shot this I actually rescaled the fence and darted back across the highway attempting to get the moon on the other side of the tree, but by the time I got everything aligned, the trees had been swallowed by the too-dark sky.

Your assignment…

Every location has features that set its landscape apart. Trees, rivers, lakes, mountains, hills, farmland—I could go on, but you get the point. Your local subject doesn’t need to be spectacular, because when the sky is spectacular, all you need is an interesting terrestrial anchor for your image.

The next time you find yourself with time to kill, explore your outskirts and identify unique subjects that you can add to a striking sky. Now, get to work!

Photo workshop schedule

A gallery of unsung landscapes

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Half Dome moonrise

Gary Hart Photography: Spring Moon, Half Dome, Yosemite

Spring Moon, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1.3 seconds
ISO 80

Last week I was in Arizona (Grand Canyon, Page, Sedona); next week it’ll be Oregon (Columbia River Gorge). But this week my focus is little closer to home, as I enjoy the familiar confines of Yosemite Valley.

The big news here is the water, or rather, the lack thereof. In a lifetime of visits to Yosemite, I’ve never seen the water lower in spring than it is this week, not even close. Most years, the water in Yosemite’s falls peaks in May; this year the flow peaked in February. On my visit to the bridge beneath Lower Yosemite Fall, always a guaranteed drenching in spring, I didn’t feel a single drop. The reflective vernal pool in Cooks meadow is a dirt hole, and the Merced River, which normally roars through Yosemite Valley in spring, is drifting near its leisurely autumn pace.

While these dry conditions might force Yosemite photographers to alter some plans, there is a silver lining to this week’s metaphorical cloud. Thursday night my Yosemite Moonbow and Dogwood workshop group was able to photograph sunset from Glacier Point, which opened last week, the earliest opening on record. And Friday morning we photographed dogwood blooms that already starting to pop out everywhere, a month early.

A particular highlight came Wednesday night. I’d taken my group to a favorite location beside the Merced River, a location I visit so frequently that I usually leave my camera in the car here. But this night, with spring-green cottonwoods framing the upstream riverbank and mix of clouds, sky, and sunlight above Half Dome, it was clear that the conditions were primed for something special. My ace in the hole was the nearly full moon, obscured by clouds when we arrived, that emerged right on cue, just as the sunset pink sky reflected in the Merced River, to provide a perfect accent to an already beautiful scene.

The operative word is accent. As I explained to my group, the moon doesn’t need to be large to be effective. Glowing disk or thin crescent, the moon carries so much emotional weight that, over the right scene and properly placed in the frame, it creates a simple accent that turns a conventionally beautiful scene into something special.

Yosemite, with its host of east-facing vistas, is my favorite spot to photograph a moonrise. Whether it’s a full moon at sunset, or a crescent at sunrise, I do my best to find the Yosemite view that best aligns with the rising moon, scheduling as many workshops and personal visits to coincide with this marvel. When possible the view I choose includes Half Dome, Yosemite’s monolithic centerpiece.

When I can position myself at one of Yosemite’s more distant western vistas, on the opposite side of Yosemite Valley from Half Dome (such as Tunnel View), I have the option of using a telephoto lens to isolate Half Dome in the frame with a magnified moon. When the moon rises too early at one of these distant vantage points, I set up on the east side of Yosemite Valley and closer to Half Dome (raising the horizon so the moon appears later), usually near the Merced River, and use a wide lens that includes the entire scene that uses the moon as an accent.

Of course you don’t need to travel to Yosemite to include the moon in your images. With a little bit of homework, you can find a rising moon in any east-facing scene, or a setting moon in any west-facing scene. To read more about photographing the moon, read the Full Moon and Crescent Moon Photo Tips articles.

Photo workshop schedule

 A Half Dome Moonrise Gallery

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Exceeding the sum of the parts

Gary Hart Photography: Heaven and Earth, New Moon and Venus, Sierra Foothills

Heaven and Earth, New Moon and Venus, Sierra Foothills
Sony a7R
Sony 70-200 f4 G
2 seconds
ISO 400

When I decided to make photography my career, I promised myself I’d only photograph what I love. Not because I believed that’s where I’d find my best images (I wasn’t that calculating), but simply because the only good reason I could come up with for leaving an excellent job with a great company was to do something that made me truly happy. And lucky me—today most of my time behind a camera is spent pursuing subjects that touch a special place in my heart, subjects I’m naturally drawn to, camera or not.

For example…

There’s Yosemite, for sure. And pretty much anything celestial. Dramatic weather, dogwood, poppies, oak trees, reflections all thrill me. I could go on…. And as much as I enjoy these subjects individually, I love combining more than one to create (what at least feels to me like) a natural synergy. I mean, photographing Yosemite Valley is always great. And who doesn’t like to see a rainbow? But finding a rainbow arcing above Yosemite Valley? Well, you get the point….

While Yosemite Valley is a bit of a drive, and rainbows are unpredictable, ephemeral phenomena, the oak trees I love so much are deeply rooted less than an hour from home. And the moon is nothing if not predictable. So combining these favorites simply requires mixing a small amount of effort with a little cooperation from the weather.

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a number of candidate views in both directions: east for a full moon at sunset, west for a new moon at sunset; the other way around for sunrise. The east views will work for late afternoon rainbows too, but I’ve yet to capture one of those (it’ll happen).

Marking my calendar

Anxious for something to photograph between my Death Valley and Yosemite winter workshops, I made a point of highlighting the evening of this January’s full moon in my calendar. And rather than return to one of my tried-and-true foothill oak views, I left early enough to explore. After a great afternoon and many discoveries, I finally landed at the end of a new, graded but unbuilt cul-de-sac with a clear view of a distant trio of hilltop oaks.

While waiting for the moon to appear, I fired a few frames, silhouetting the trees against the sun descending through the orange sky, an unplanned and special juxtaposition in its own right. When the moon finally emerged above the darkening horizon, it was flanked by Venus. And when Mercury appeared a few minutes later (center-right, beneath the moon), I had a celestial triangle balanced above the terrestrial oaks. Synergy.

Photo workshop schedule

A gallery of natural synergy

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The twilight edge

Gary Hart Photography: Moonlight on the Water, Garrapata Beach, Big Sur

Moonlight on the Water, Garrapata Beach, Big Sur
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
6 seconds
ISO 100

I sometimes hear comments and questions that make me think people believe pro photographers have “secrets” that enable us to photograph things the amateur public can’t. Let me assure you that this is not true. What is true is that successful landscape photographers have an understanding of the natural world that helps us know where and when to look for our images, and we know that often the best pictures aren’t in the same place as the best view.

For example, it’s hard to deny the beauty of a sunrise or sunset. But it seems that most people are so mesmerized by the scene facing the sun that they miss exquisite beauty in the other direction. The next time you find yourself out photographing (or simply enjoying) a sunrise or sunset, do yourself a favor and check out the world behind you. Beneath clear skies you’ll see the earth’s shadow, often called the “twilight wedge,” overlaid by the pink “Belt of Venus.” I call the sky in this direction the “twilight edge,” not only because it’s found at the day’s leading or trailing edge, but also for the advantage it gives photographers who understand how easy this under-appreciated (and oft missed) perspective is to photograph.

Unlike the view toward the rising or setting sun, where cameras struggle to expose the full range of shaded subjects against a bright sky, the scene opposite the sun is bathed light that has been bent, scattered, colored, and subdued by its long trip through the atmosphere. While not as dramatic to the eye as an electric crimson sky or throbbing orange sun, a camera loves the long shadows and warm tones away from the sun.

But the great light doesn’t begin at sunrise, or end at sunset. When the sun is about ten degrees or closer to the horizon, the sky in the opposite direction is bright enough to fill the landscape with soft, shadowless light that makes photography a breeze. And while the scene may appear quite dark to the eye, a long exposure and/or slightly higher ISO (like 400 or 800) will reveal the world in a way that’s impossible in daylight. Case in point:

Before Sunrise, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California

Before Sunrise, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, California
This is a 30 second exposure at ISO 400, captured about 30 minutes before sunrise on a windy Eastern Sierra winter morning, when the world was still dark enough to require a flashlight to maneuver.

Twilight components

Above the shadowless pre-sunrise/post-sunset landscape, when the sun is around six degrees or closer to the horizon (civil twilight), soft bands of color stacked like pastel pillows materialize. The blue-gray band earth’s shadow directly above the horizon earned its “twilight wedge” designation because you can sometimes see the earth’s curve in the shadow, giving it something of a wedge shape. At sunset, the gradual upward motion of the shadow gives the appearance of a wedge being driven into the darkening sky.

Above the earth’s shadow, but not quite high enough to receive the full complement of solar wavelengths, the atmosphere basks in the slightly brighter pink glow of scattered sunlight. In this region the shorter wavelengths have been dispersed, leaving only the longest, red wavelengths—the Belt of Venus. You’ll first see its pink stripe high in the pre-sunrise sky, descending and brightening as the sun rises, until the pink is finally overcome by the first rays of sunrise; after sunset the pink band starts low, climbing skyward and darkening, eventually blending into the oncoming night.


A particularly striking sunrise/sunset phenomenon is the “alpenglow” that spreads atop mountaintops that rise so far above the surrounding terrain that they jut into the BoV, assuming its pink glow. My favorite place to photograph alpenglow is the Alabama Hills, 10,000 vertical feet below Mt. Whitney and the Sierra crest, but alpenglow paints peaks throughout the world.

Alpenglow, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra

Alpenglow, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, Eastern Sierra
From my vantage point the sun was still well below the horizon, but Mt. Whitney, 10,000 feet above me jutted into the scattered pink rays of the rising sun.

Moonrise, moonset

Quite conveniently, the earth shadow and Belt of Venus also happen to be where you’ll find a setting (at sunrise) and rising (at sunset) full moon. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that the full moon (more or less) rises in the east at sunset, and sets in the west at sunrise. Many of my favorite images use just such a moonrise or moonset to accent an empty but colorful sky.

The image at the top of this post is a recent attempt at a sunrise moonset. I was in Big Sur last week to help my good friend Don Smith with his Big Sur winter workshop. Don and I guided the group down to the beach much too early to photograph the moon, but the extra time allowed everyone to search for a suitable foreground.

With the tide quite high, many of the beach’s most photogenic rocks were partially or completely submerged, but we certainly weren’t lacking for subjects. Don helped half of the group work the rocks along the south part of the beach, while the other half followed me north. Just a couple of hundred yards up the beach we found a pair of boulders amidst the crashing surf. Taking care not to scar the pristine sand with footprints, we spent the rest of the sunrise moving around, framing the setting moon with these and a couple of other nearby boulders.

I clicked the frame here extremely early in the window of usable light, when the foreground was just bright enough that capturing usable detail didn’t require overexposing the moon (remember, if I can’t capture the entire scene with one click, I won’t shoot it). Vanquishing this extreme dynamic range was aided by the amazing sensor of my new Sony a7R (thank you very much), combined with my trusty Singh-Ray 3-stop hard graduated neutral density filter.

Even with those advantages, I still needed to massage the shadows up and highlights (the moon only) down in Lightroom and Photoshop. The advantage of photographing the scene this early was the ability to capture the moonlight reflected on the ocean, something I’d have lost if I’d waited for the foreground to brighten.

A Gallery of the View Opposite the Sun

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 Photo Workshops

Gary Hart Photography Death Valley Photo Workshop Group

Learn more and photograph these scenes yourself in a photo workshop

World in motion

Gary Hart Photography: Moon on the Rocks, Soberanes Point, Big Sur

Moon on the Rocks, Soberanes Point, Big Sur
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
5 seconds
ISO 200

As a full-time landscape photographer, I often joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves—no wildlife, no pets, no portraits, no sports. And don’t even think about asking me to do your wedding. I’ve always been a deliberate shooter who likes to anticipate and prepare my frame with the confidence my shot will still be there when I’m ready—landscape photography suits me just fine (thank-you-very-much).

But as much as I appreciate the comfortable pace of a static landscape, the reality is that nature is in constant motion. Earth’s rotation spins the moon and stars across our night sky, and continuously changes the direction, intensity, and color of the sunlight that rules our day. Rivers cascade toward sea level, clouds scoot and change shape overhead, ocean waves curl and explode against sand and rock, then vanish and repeat. And even a moderate breeze can send the most firmly rooted plants into a dancing frenzy.

Photographing motion is frustrating because a single image can’t duplicate the human experience (not to mention the technical skill required to subdue it without compromising exposure and depth). But motion also presents a creative opportunity for the photographer who knows how to create a motion-implying illusion that conveys power, flow, pattern, and direction.

While a camera can’t do what the human eye/brain do, it can accumulate seconds, minutes, or hours of activity with one “look,” recording a scene’s complete history in a single image. Or, a camera can document an instant, an ephemeral splash of water or bolt of lightning that’s gone so fast it’s merely a memory by the time a viewer’s conscious mind processes it. This is powerful stuff—accumulating motion in a long frame reveals hidden patterns; freezing motion saves an instant for eternal scrutiny.

For example

When I photograph the night sky, I have to decide how to handle the motion of the stars (insert obligatory, “It’s not the stars that are moving” comment here). Freezing celestial motion is a balancing act that combines a high ISO and large aperture with a shutter speed to maximize the amount of light captured, while concluding before discernable streaks form. My goal is to hold the stars in one spot long enough to reveal many too faint for the eye to register. Or, I can emphasize celestial motion by holding my shutter open for many minutes.

Lightning comes and goes faster than human reflexes can respond. At night, a long exposure can be initiated when and where lighting might strike, recording any bolt that occurs during the exposure. But in daylight I need a lightning sensing device like a Lightning Trigger, that detects the lightning and fires the shutter faster than I can.

Moving water is probably the most frequently photographed example of motion in nature, with options that range from suspended water droplets to an ethereal gauze. I’m always amused when I hear someone say they don’t like blurred water images because they’re not “natural.”

Ignoring the fact that it’s usually impossible to achieve a shutter speed fast enough to freeze airborne water in the best (shade or overcast) light, I don’t find blurred water any less natural than a water drop suspended in midair (when was the last time you saw that). Blurred water isn’t unnatural, it’s different.

Which brings me to the image at the top of the frame, of the waves and rocks at Big Sur’s of Soberanes Point, and a (nearly) full moon dropping through the twilight on the distant horizon. I could have increased my aperture and ISO until my shutter speed stopped the motion of the waves, and timing the exposure just right, might have recorded an explosive collision of wave and rock—dramatic, but understating turbulence of the ocean/land interface. Instead, I opted for an exposure long enough to convey the action and extent of the agitated surf, but fast enough to hold the setting moon in place.

A gallery of motion in nature

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Looking back, looking forward

Gary Hart Photography: Moon and Mist, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite

For the final shoot of my final 2014 workshop, I guided my group up the rain-slick granite behind Yosemite’s Tunnel View for a slightly different perspective than they’d seen earlier in the workshop. I warned everyone that slippery rock and the steepness of the slope could make the footing treacherous (and offered a safer alternative), but promised the view would be worth it. Then I crossed my fingers.

While sunset at Tunnel View is often special, the rare sunset event I’d been pointing to for over a year, a nearly full (96%) moon rising into the twilight hues above Half Dome, is a particular highlight, one of my favorite things in the world to witness. But after an autumn dominated by clear skies that would have been perfect for our moonrise, a much needed storm landed just as our workshop started, engulfing Yosemite Valley in dense clouds, recharging the waterfalls, and painting the surrounding peaks white. Rain clouds make great photography, but they’re not so great for viewing the moon.

As you can see from this image, the clouds this evening cooperated, glazing the valley floor, but parting above Half Dome enough to reveal the moon. The moon was already high above Half Dome when it peeked out, and shortly thereafter the retreating storm’s vestiges were fringed with sunset pink. As I often do at these moments, I encouraged everyone to forget their cameras for a minute and just appreciate that they may be viewing the most beautiful thing happening on Earth at this moment. Together we enjoyed what was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for them, and a fitting conclusion to another wonderful year of photography for me.

Like any other photographer who makes an effort to get out in difficult, unpredictable conditions, I had many of these “most beautiful thing on Earth” moments in 2014—they’re what keep me going. The last couple of weeks I’ve been browsing my 2014 captures and re-appreciating my blessings. Among other things, in 2014 I rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, was humbled by the Milky Way’s glow above the Kilauea Caldera, shivered beneath starlit bristlecone pines, and was electrified by the Grand Canyon monsoon’s pyrotechnics.

Most of my trips start with a plan, and while a lot of my 2o14 experiences followed the script, many deviated from my expectations, often in wonderful ways. My original vision of the moonrise on this December evening was clear skies that would allow the moon to shine; an alternate vision was a sky-obscuring storm that provided photogenic clouds. We ended up with the best of both, a hybrid of clouds and sky that I dared not hope for.

While I have a general plan in place for 2015, some places I’ll be returning to, others I’ll photograph for the first time, I know from experience that my plans won’t always go as planned. Clouds will hide the moon and stars, clear skies will cast harsh light, rivers will flood, waterfalls will wither, rivers will flood. But I also know that many of those thwarted plans will lead to unexpected rewards like this.

Here’s to a great 2015!

2014 in Review

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Revisiting photography’s 3 P’s

Moonrise Through the Storm, Yosemite Valley

Parting the Clouds, Yosemite Valley
Sony a7R
72 mm
1/15 second
ISO 100

Let’s review

I often speak and write about “The 3 P’s of nature photography,” sacrifices a nature photographer must make to consistently create successful images.

  1. Preparation is your foundation, the research you do that gets you in the right place at the right time, and the vision and mastery of your camera that allows you to wring the most from the moment.
  2. Persistence is patience with a dash of stubbornness. It’s what keeps you going back when the first, second, or hundredth attempt has been thwarted by unexpected light, weather, or a host of other frustrations, and keeps you out there long after any sane person would have given up.
  3. Pain is the willingness to suffer for your craft. I’m not suggesting that you risk your life for the sake of a coveted capture, but you do need to be able to ignore the tug of a warm fire, full stomach, sound sleep, and dry clothes, because the unfortunate truth is that the best photographs almost always seem to happen when most of the world would rather be inside.

Picking an 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 favorite captures; ask yourself how many didn’t require at least one of the 3 P’s. (I’ll wait.) …….. See what I mean?

So which of my 3 P’s do I credit for this one? Well, there was the Persistence to continue going out in the rain all week, with no guarantee we’d see anything beyond 100 yards (because in Yosemite, if you stay inside until the rain stops, you’re too late). And of course photographing in the rain is nothing if not a Pain. But more than anything else, this one was about…


(If you discount the unavoidable knowledge gained by a lifetime of Yosemite visits and and decades of plain old picture clicking) the preparation for this image started when I plotted the 2014 December moon and determined that it would rise at sunset, nearly full, above Half Dome in the month’s first week. So of course I scheduled a workshop for that week.

But there was more to the preparation than just figuring out where the moon would be. Of course as the workshop approached, I monitored the weather forecast and arrived in Yosemite prepared for rain. (Duh.) And throughout the workshop I monitored the weather obsessively, scouring each National Weather Service forecast update (every six hours), monitoring radar, not to mention the good old fashioned walk-outside-and-look-up technique.

Before going out for our penultimate afternoon shoot, I determined exactly what time the moon would appear above Half Dome, though I had little hope that the clouds would part enough to reveal it. Nevertheless, I wanted to to keep the group within striking distance of Tunnel View, just in case. When the latest weather forecast indicated a possible break in the rain late that afternoon, I started watching the sky closely—a clearing storm plus the moon would be pretty cool for everyone (including this life-long Yosemite photographer). The instant the clouds showed a hint of brightening (a subtle precursor to an imminent break that every photographer should be able to read), I raced everyone back up to Tunnel View.

As we pulled into the Tunnel View lot, not only was the storm starting to clear, a small patch of the first blue sky we’d seen in two days was widening above Half Dome. I held my breath and crossed my fingers for the blue to expand just a little more, because I knew exactly where the moon was and it was oh so close.

We didn’t need to wait long—within five minutes a thin piece of moon poked through, then a little more, and soon there it was, floating in that small blue patch between Half Dome and Sentinel Dome. It hung in there for less than five minutes before the clouds regrouped and swallowed the sky.


With more rain in the forecast, driving down from Tunnel View that night I felt certain that this unexpected, brief convergence of moon and sky was a one-time gift, that the planned moonrise for our final sunset would surely be lost to the clouds. And given what we’d just seen, I was okay with that. But Nature had a different idea….


A gallery of extreme weather rewards

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Moon whisperer

Gary Hart Photography, Moonrise, Yosemite

Twilight Moonrise, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite
Canon EOS SL1
.4 seconds
ISO 100
140 mm

Just when you start getting cocky, nature has a way of putting you back in your place. Case in point: last week’s full moon, which my workshop group photographed to great satisfaction from the side of Turtleback Dome, near the road just above the Wawona Tunnel.

I love photographing the moon, in all of its phases for sure, but especially in its full and crescent phases, when it hangs on the horizon in nature’s best light. I’ve developed a method that allows me to pretty much nail the time and location of the moon’s appearance from any location, and love sharing the moment with my workshop students. (Because my workflow has been in place for about ten years, I don’t use any of the excellent new software tools that automate the moon plotting process.)

Last week’s workshop was no exception, and after much plotting and re-plotting, I decided that rather than my usual Tunnel View vantage point, the view just west of the Wawona Tunnel would work better for this November’s full moon. Arriving about 30 minutes before “showtime,” I gathered everyone around and pointed a spot on Half Dome’s right side, about a third of the way above the tree-lined ridge, and told them the moon would appear right there between 4:45 and 4:50.

Sure enough, right at 4:47 there it was and I exhaled. We photographed the moon’s rise for about 30 minutes, until difference between the darkening valley and daylight-bright moon became too great for our cameras to capture lunar detail. Everyone was thrilled, and I was an instant genius—I believe I even heard “moon whisperer” on a few lips.

The workshop wrapped up the next evening, and I was still basking in my new-found moon whisperer status as I drove home down the Merced River Canyon with my daughter Ashley in the passenger seat. In a car behind us was workshop participant Laurie, who had never been down that road and wanted to follow me to the freeway in Merced.

Hungry, we stopped at one of my favorite spots, Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort in Midpines (check it out), for dinner. About an hour later, our stomachs full, we were walking back to the cars when someone pointed to a glow atop the mountain ridge above the resort. Ashley and I recognized it as the rising moon, but since this wasn’t a full disk, immediately entered into a friendly debate as to whether the moon was just peeking above the ridge, or had already risen and was disappearing behind a cloud.

We actually got quite scientific, escalating the passion with each point/counterpoint to make our cases (lest you think this was an unfair contest, I should add that Ashley’s a lawyer). Laurie remained silent. I’m not really sure how long we’d been debating when Laurie finally nudged us and pointed skyward, where, in full view of the entire Western Hemisphere, glowed the landscape illuminating spotlight of the actual full moon. Moon whisperer indeed.

(We never did figure out what the glow was.)

A full moon gallery

Click an image for a closer look, and to enjoy the slide show

Plan B

Gary Hart Photography, Bristlecone Moon, Schulman Grove, White Mountains, California

Bristlecone Moon, White Mountains, California
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
40 mm
1.3 seconds
ISO 100

I usually approach a scene with a plan, a preconceived idea of what I want to capture and how I want to do it. But some of my favorite images are “Plan B” shots that materialized when my original plan went awry due to weather, unexpected conditions (or my own stupidity).

In my recent Eastern Sierra workshop, the clouds I always hope for never materialized. Whenever this happens I try to use the clear skies for additional night photography, but I’ve always been a little reluctant to keep my groups out late in the bristlecones because: 1) it’s colder than many are prepared for (late September or early October and above 10,000 feet); 2) it’s an hour drive back to the hotel the night before a very early sunrise departure. But this year, after spelling out the negatives, I gave my group the option of staying out to shoot the bristlecones beneath the stars. My plan was to arrange for a car (or two) to take back those who didn’t want to stay, but it turned out everyone was all-in.

In most of my trips I know exactly where the moon will be and when, but for this trip I hadn’t done my usual plotting—I knew it would be a 40 percent crescent dropping toward the western horizon after sunset, but hadn’t really factored the moon into my plans. But as we waited for the stars to come out, I watched moon begin to stand out against the darkening twilight and saw an opportunity I hadn’t counted on.

Moving back as far as I could to maximize my focal length (so the moon would be as large as possible in my frame) required scrambling on a fairly steep slope of extremely loose, sharp rock (while a false step wouldn’t have sent me plummeting to my death, it would certainly have sent me plummeting to my extreme discomfort). Next I moved laterally to align the moon with the tree, and dropped as low as possible to ensure that the tree would stand out entirely against the sky (rather than blending into the distant mountains). Wanting sharpness from the foreground rocks all the way to the moon, I dialed my aperture to f/16 and focused on the tree (the absolute most important thing to be sharp).

With the dynamic range separating the daylight-bright moon and the tree’s deep shadows was almost too much for my camera to handle, I gave the scene enough light to just slightly overexpose the moon, making the shadows as bright possible. Once I got the raw file on my computer at home, in Lightroom/Photoshop I pulled back the highlights enough to restore detail in the moon, and bumped the shadows slightly to pull out a little more detail there.

As you can see, even at 40mm, the moon is a tiny white dot in a much larger scene. But I’ve always felt that the moon’s emotional tug gives it much more visual weight than its size would imply. Without the moon this would be an nice but ordinary bristlecone image—for me, adding the moon sweetens the result significantly.

A Plan B gallery (images that weren’t my original goal)

Click an image for a lager view, and to enjoy the slide show

Small steps and giant leaps


Oak and Crescent, Sierra Foothills, California
Canon EOS-5D Mark III
320 mm
1.6 seconds
ISO 400

July, 1969

I turned 14 that month. I was into baseball, chess, AM radio, astronomy, and girls—not necessarily in that order. Of particular interest to me in 1969 was the impending moon landing, a milestone I’d been anticipating since tales of American aerospace engineering ingenuity and our heroic astronauts started headlining  the Weekly Reader, and my teachers began gathering the class around a portable TV to watch the latest Gemini or Apollo launch or splashdown. If you remember the Sixties, you understand that the unifying buzz surrounding each Apollo mission briefly trumped the divisive tension surrounding headlines detailing Vietnam battles and demonstrations, the Civil Rights movement, and Communist paranoia. Unfortunately, without checking NASA’s schedule or asking for my input, my parents and three couples they knew from college decided mid-July 1969 would be the ideal time for our four families to join forces on a camping trip in the remote, television-free redwoods of Northern California. (“What could we possibly need a television for?”)

Apollo 11 was halfway to the moon when the Locher and Hinshaw families pulled up to our home in Berkeley (the Hardings, coming down from Eastern Washington, would meet us at the campground a couple of days later). The warm greetings exchanged by the adults were balanced by the cool introductions forced on the unfamiliar children. We departed the next morning, caravan style, our cars connected by woefully inadequate walkie-talkies that we’d almost certainly have been better off without (it had seemed like such a good idea at the time). I remember my dad keeping a safe distance behind Hinshaws, as he was convinced that their borrowed trailer, that seemed to veer randomly and completely independently of their car, would surely go careening into the woods on the next curve. But somehow our three-car parade pulled safely into Richardson’s Grove State Park late that afternoon.

In true sixties style, the three dads went immediately to work setting up campsites while the moms donned aprons and combined forces on a community spaghetti dinner. Meanwhile, the younger kids scattered to explore, while the four teens, having only recently met and being far too cool for exploration or anything remotely resembling play, disappeared into the woods, ostensibly on a firewood hunt. Instead, we ended up wandering pretty much aimlessly, kicking pinecones and occasionally stooping for a small branch or twig, just far enough from camp to avoid being drafted into more productive (and closely supervised) labor by the adults.

But just about the time we teens ran out of things not to do, we were relieved to be distracted by my little brother Jim, who had just rushed back into camp breathless, sheet-white, and alone. We couldn’t quite decipher his animated message to the parents, but when we saw our dads drop their tarps and tent poles and rush off in Jim’s tracks toward the nearby Eel River, we were (mildly) curious (to be interested in anything involving parents was also very not cool). So, with feigned indifference, the four of us started wandering in the general direction of the river until we (somehow) found ourselves peering down from the edge of a 50 foot, nearly vertical cliff at the river toward what was clearly the vortex of all the excitement. It was that instant when I think we all ceased being strangers.

The scene before us could have been from a bad slasher movie: Flat on the ground and unconscious (at the very least) was 11 year-old Paul Locher; sitting on a rock, stunned, with a stream of blood cascading from his forehead, was Paul’s 10 year-old brother John. As disturbing as this sight was, nothing could compare to seeing father Don Locher orbiting his injured sons, dazed and covered in blood. The rest of this memory is a blur of hysterics, sirens, rangers, and paramedics.

It wasn’t until the father and sons were whisked away to the small hospital in Garberville, about 10 miles away, that we were able to piece together what had happened. Apparently Paul and John, trying to blaze a shortcut to the river, miscalculated risk and had tumbled down the cliff. My brother at first thought they were messing with him, but when John showed him a rock covered with blood, he sprinted back to fetch the parents. Arriving at the point where the kids had gone over, the fathers made a quick plan. My dad and Larry Hinshaw would rush back to to summon help, and see if they could find a safer path down to the accident scene. Don would stay put and keep an eye on his sons. But shortly after my dad and Larry left, John had looked down at his brother cried, “Daddy, I can see his brains!” Hearing those words, Don panicked and did what any father would do—attempt to reach his boys. Thinking that a small shrub a short distance would make a viable handhold, Don took a small step in its direction, reached for and briefly grasped a branch, lost his grip, and tumbled head-over-heals down to the river.

After what seemed like days but was probably only an hour or two, we were relieved to learn that John needed no more than a few stitches; he was back in camp with us that night. Paul had faired slightly worse, with a concussion and a nasty cut behind his ear—the “brains” his brother had seen was ear cartilage. Paul spent the night in the hospital and was back with us by the time the Harding clan arrived the following afternoon. Don, however, wasn’t quite so fortunate. In addition to a severe concussion, he had opened up his head so completely that over 150 stitches were required to zip things back together. Though Don spent several days in the hospital, needless to say, we were all relieved by the understanding that it could have been much worse.

By Sunday, Don was feeling much better but was still a day or two from release to the dirt and fish guts of our four family campsite. Most of us had visited at one time or another, going in small, brief waves and respecting the hospital’s visiting hours. Nevertheless, there was another priority that had gone unspoken in the first few days following the accident came to prominence with the realization that Don would be fine. I can’t say who first recognized the opportunity, but I’m guessing that Larry Hinshaw had something to do with convincing the nursing staff to look the other way when Don was suddenly host to 20 simultaneous visitors that night. Whatever magic was worked, I’ll never spending that Sunday evening, July 20, 1969, shoehorned into a tiny hospital room, sharing a tiny black-and-white television screen with 20 pairs of eyes, witnessing history.

Besides my parents and two brothers, the rest of the crew that night I’d only met just a few days earlier, but I can still name every single one of them. The relationships formed that week continue to this day. And so do the stories, which, like this story, are filled with some of the greatest joy I’ve ever experienced, and also with some of the greatest tragedy. But it’s this story in particular, the catalyst for all the stories that follow, that explains why the words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” have a very personal significance for me.

Today it’s hard for me to look at the moon without remembering that hospital room and the emotional events that enabled me to witness Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps with those special people. As a child of the Sixties who very closely followed all of the milestones and tragedies leading up to that moment,  I couldn’t help but wonder while assembling the images for the gallery below about that week’s role in shaping who I am and what I do today.

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A lunar gallery

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

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