Yosemite Spring

Moonbow, Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite
Sony a7RIII
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
10 seconds
ISO 1600

There are many (many!) beautiful sights in Yosemite, but when most people think about Yosemite, they think about waterfalls and granite. The granite is forever (virtually), but Yosemite’s waterfalls come and go with the season: exploding from the granite walls in spring, most of Yosemite’s waterfalls are bone dry by summer’s end. And some years are better than others—three springs ago, Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls were barely a trickle, too dry to photograph (unprecedented in my lifetime). The next spring the deafening roar of waterfalls was back, echoing throughout Yosemite Valley.

Moonbow, April 18, 2019

I just returned from my annual Yosemite Moonbow and Dogwood photo workshop on Friday night (technically, it was early Saturday morning). The dogwood are just starting to pop, but the waterfalls are going strong, with enough snow in the high Sierra bank to keep them roaring through summer.

My group photographed more waterfall rainbows than I could count, on both Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls, but the highlight was Thursday night’s lunar rainbow (moonbow) shoot on the bridge beneath Lower Yosemite Fall. Nothing compares to the first time seeing a moonbow. A shimmering silver arc, a moonbow is clearly visible to the naked eye—proper exposure in a camera reveals the moonbow’s vivid color.

A “practice” moonlight shoot the previous night helped prepare everyone for the difficulties of photographing in the dark. And while my group came prepared for moonlight photography, the crowds and mist make things difficult even for the seasoned veteran. The crowds weren’t too bad this year, but while lots of water in the fall means a better moonbow, it also means a wetter photographer.

I feared that the thin cloud cover that had delivered a spectacular sunset just as the full moon rose just an hour or so earlier, would douse the moonlight necessary for a moonbow, but that turned out to be a non-factor. One problem was contrails, more than I’ve ever seen. Some chose to leave the sky (or most of the sky) out of their frame; I opted to include the sky, then carefully execute a contrailecotmy in Photoshop.

Because most of my time on the bridge is spent assisting the group, I only got to click a handful of frames. I started on the (drier) paved open area before the bridge, but after working with a workshop participant on the bridge, I decided the view there was worth getting wet.

I went wider with this year’s images than previous years, using my Sony 12-24 G lens on my Sony a7RIII camera. I focused on the moon, then turned around and set up my composition. Concerned about too much water on my front lens element, I bumped my ISO to 1600 to keep my shutter speed at 10 seconds or faster.  When I was ready to click, I wiped down the front of my lens with a towel that I lifted just as my shutter clicked.

Yosemite April 2019 Images

(processed so far)

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Shameless plug

I just scheduled my 2020 Yosemite Spring photo workshops, April 5-8 and May 4-7. Both are timed for the full moon to maximize our moonbow chances. And of course it’s not all about waterfalls and rainbows—this year’s spring workshops included some spectacular clearing storms, beautiful moonrises, and brilliant poppies. In addition to great photography, you’ll improve your photo skills with daily training and image reviews. You’ll also have lots of fun.

Yosemite Spring

Click an image for a closer look and to view slide show.

Yosemite Moonbow

Gary Hart Photography: Moonbow and Big Dipper, Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite

Moonbow and Big Dipper, Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite
Canon EOS 1DS Mark III
Canon 17-40 f/4L
30 seconds
ISO 800

Even though your spellcheck says it doesn’t exist, I promise you that a moonbow is a very real thing indeed (and I have the pictures to prove it). Some argue that “lunar rainbow” is more the technically correct designation, but since that moniker just doesn’t convey the visual magic, I’m sticking with moonbow.

This won’t be on the test

Because a moonbow is a rainbow, all the natural laws governing a rainbow apply. But all the moonbow’s physics can be summarized to:

1) Your shadow always points toward the center of the moonbow (put your back to the moon and note the direction your shadow points)

2) The higher the moon, the lower the moonbow and the less of it you’ll see

3) When the moon is above 42 degrees (assuming flat terrain), the moonbow disappears below the horizon

Yosemite’s moonbow

Each spring, Sierra snowmelt surges into Yosemite Creek, racing downhill and plunging 2,500 feet in three mist-churning steps as Yosemite Falls. Shortly after sunset on spring full moon nights, light from the rising moon catches the mist, which separates and bends it into a shimmering arc. John Muir called this phenomenon a “mist bow,” but it’s more commonly known today as a moonbow.

While a bright moonbow is visible to the naked eye as a shimmering silver band, it isn’t bright enough for the human eye to register color. But thanks to camera’s ability to accumulate light, the moonbow’s vivid color shines in a photograph.

I just returned from the first of two moonbow workshops scheduled for this spring, but haven’t had time to process this year’s moonbow images. The above image was captured a few years ago near the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall. Not only was it crowded (the moonbow is no longer much of a secret), wind and mist made the necessary 20- to 30-second exposures an exercise in persistence. Not only was I able to capture the moonbow, as you can see, I now have photographic proof that the Big Dipper is the true source of Yosemite Falls.

My 2019 Moonbow workshops are now open

A Moonlight Gallery

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

Moonbow: Nature’s little secret


Moonbow and Big Dipper, Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite

Moonbow and Big Dipper, Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
22 mm
30 seconds
ISO 800

Rainbows demystified

A rainbow forms when sunlight strikes airborne water droplets and is separated into its component spectral colors by characteristics of the water. The separated light is reflected back to our eyes when it strikes the backside of the droplets: Voila!—a rainbow.

Despite their seemingly random advent and location in the sky, rainbows follow very specific rules of nature—there’s nothing random about a rainbow. Draw an imaginary line from the sun, through the back of your head, and exiting between your eyes; the rainbow will form a full circle at 42 degrees surrounding that line (this won’t be on the test). Normally, because the horizon almost always gets in the way, we usually see no more than half of the rainbow’s circle (otherwise it would be called a “raincircle”). The lower the sun is, the higher the rainbow and the more of it we see; once the sun is higher than 42 degrees (assuming a flat horizon), we don’t see the rainbow at all unless we’re at a vantage point that allows us to look down (for example, at the rim of the Grand Canyon).

Read more about rainbows on my Photo Tips Rainbows Demystified page.


Moonlight is nothing more than reflected sunlight—like all reflections, moonlight retains a dimmer version of most of the qualities of its source (the sun).  So it stands to reason that moonlight would cause a less bright rainbow under the same conditions that sunlight causes a rainbow. And guess what—it does! So why have so few people heard of moonbows? I thought you’d never ask.

Color vision isn’t nearly as important to survival in the wild as the ability to see shapes, so human vision evolved to bias shape over color in low-light conditions. In other words, colorful moonbows have been there all along, we just haven’t be able to see them. But cameras, with their ability to dial up sensitivity to light (high ISO) and accumulate light (long exposures), “see” much better in low light than you and I do.

While it’s entirely possible for a moonbow to form when moonlight strikes rain, the vast majority of moonbow photographs are waterfall-based. I suspect that’s because waterfall moonbows are so predictable—unlike a sunlight rainbow, which doesn’t require any special photo gear (a smartphone snap will do it), capturing a lunar rainbow requires at the very least enough foresight to carry a tripod, and enough knowledge to know where to look.

Nevertheless, even though we can’t see a moonbow’s color with the unaided eye, it’s not completely invisible. In fact, even without color, there’s nothing at all subtle about a bright moonbow—it may not jump out at you the way a sunlight rainbow does, but if you know where to look, you can’t miss a moonbow’s shimmering silver band arcing across the water source.

Yosemite Falls moonbow

Despite frequent claims to the contrary, moonbows can be seen on many, many waterfalls. Among the more heralded moonbow waterfalls are Victoria Falls in Africa, Cumberland Fall in Kentucky, and (of course) Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite Falls is separated into three connected components: Upper Yosemite Fall plummets about 1400 feet from the north rim of Yosemite Valley; the middle section is a series of cascades dropping more than 600 feet to connect the upper and lower falls; Lower Yosemite Fall drops over 300 feet to the valley floor. While there are many locations from which to photograph the moonbow on Upper Yosemite Fall, the most popular spot to photograph it is from the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall.

The Lower Yosemite Fall moonbow is not a secret. Arrive at the bridge shortly after sunset on a full moon night in April, May, and (usually) June, and you’ll find yourself in an atmosphere of tailgate-party-like reverie. By all means come with your camera and tripod, but leave your photography expectations at home or risk appreciating the majesty of this natural wonder. In springs following a typical winter the mist and wind (the fall generates its own wind) on and near the bridge will drench revelers and cameras alike. After a particularly wet winter, the airborne water and long exposures can completely obscure your lens’s view during the necessarily long exposures. And if the wet conditions aren’t enough, if you can find a suitable vantage point, expect to find yourself constantly jostled by a densely packed contingent of photographers and gawkers stumbling about in limited light. Oh yeah, and then there are the frequent flashes and flashlights that will inevitably intrude upon your long exposures.

But, if you still have visions of a moonbow image, it’s best to come prepared:

  • A tripod and digital SLR camera are must (a film camera will work too, but it adds complications I won’t get into here)
  • Wear head-to-toe rain gear so you can concentrate on keeping your camera dry
  • Bring a chamois or bath towel—you’ll be using it frequently
  • An umbrella can help keep water off your lens during a long exposure
  • Practice moonlight photography (you’ll find my how-to of moonlight photography, including exposure settings and focus techniques, in the link) before you get there—trust me when I say that you don’t want to be learning how to photograph by moonlight while you’re trying to capture a moonbow.
  • Don’t have time to practice before your visit? Stop at the top of the Lower Yosemite Falls trail, where you can see the entire fall from top-to-bottom, and practice there—the conditions are much easier, and moonbow or not, these could turn out to be your favorite images of the night.

 About this image

I’d taken my May workshop group to Glacier Point on this night, so we didn’t arrive at Yosemite Falls until nearly an hour after the moonbow started. This late arrival was intentional on my part because California’s severe drought has severely curtailed the mist at the base of the lower fall. In a normal year the mist rises so high that the moonbow starts when the moon is quite low (remember, the lower the sun or moon, the higher the bow); this year, I knew that the best moonbow wouldn’t appear until the moon rose and the bow dropped into the heaviest mist.

I’d given the group a talk on moonlight photography that afternoon, but we stopped at the top of the trail to practice for about 20 minutes, using the exquisite, tree-framed view of the entire fall. When everyone had had a success, we took the short walk up to the bridge and got to work.

We found conditions that night were remarkably manageable—by the time we arrived at the bridge, at around 9:45, some of the crowd had thinned, and our dry winter meant virtually no mist on the bridge to contend with. I started with couple of frames to get more precise exposure values to share with the group (moonlight exposures can vary by a stop or so, based on the fullness of the moon, its size that month, and atmospheric conditions), then spent most of my time was spent assisting everyone and negotiating locations for them to shoot (basically, wedging my tripod into an opening then inviting someone in the group to take my spot).

This image is one of my early test exposures—I went just wide enough to include the Big Dipper (just because it’s a test doesn’t mean I’ll ignore my composition). In wetter years I’ve captured move vivid double moonbows and complete arcs that stretch all the way across the frame, but I kind of like the simplicity of this year’s image. I’ve been including the Big Dipper in my moonbow images for many years because I just can’t resist it. I’ve found that May is the best month to capture it in a position that makes it appear to be pouring in the fall.

Join me as we do it all over again in next year’s Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop or Yosemite Moonbow and Dogwood photo workshop


All I want for Christmas….

Lunar Rainbow, Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite

Lunar Rainbow, Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
15 seconds
ISO 800
26 mm

I returned late last night (well, early this morning) from my 2013 Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop will lots of great new images and two fewer teeth. True story. The images I can verify; the teeth you’ll need to take my word for. Read on.

Chapter One: In the big inning

Twenty years ago I lost my two front teeth in a freak umpiring accident. Snapped off at the gum line, if you must know. (Nobody ever fouls a pitch straight back in slow pitch softball. Or so I believed.)

The visiting team was rallying in the last inning, with the tying run on second and their portly first baseman waving his bat in the box. The pitcher arced the ball homeward and with an awkward swing that somehow defied reality as defined by Newton, the batter sent the ball spinning toward my face like a yo-yo returning on a string—the picture of that stitched globe obscuring my view the instant before impacting my mouth is permanently etched in my memory. And with impact, Newton returned, imposing his second law with painful suddenness: Force equals mass times acceleration. I never did find out how the game ended.

Two emergency root canals the next morning were followed by a summer filled with trips to the dentist (I should have demanded my own parking space). By September I sported two gleaming crowns, affixed to the surviving tooth stubs (a process that involved embedded metal posts and “permanent” glue), a near perfect match that returned my smile to its original splendor.

Chapter Two: Be true to your teeth (or they’ll be false to you)

Apparently “permanent” means something different in the world of dental adhesives, because over the years (and despite my obsessive commitment to not testing them) my crowns have spontaneously detached several times: Once in the middle of a ten mile run, another time on Christmas day while snowed-in at my brother-in-law’s house in Colorado and fifteen hundred miles from my dentist. Each time I managed to avoid swallowing them, then had to endure much abuse (at the hands of the people who are supposed to love me most) until I could get back to the dentist for an application of the latest space-age cement guaranteed not to fail. Sigh.

Given the history, my biggest fear has always been that my crowns would lose purchase during a workshop (try saying ISO and shutter speed without your two front teeth), but since it only seems to happen once every three-to-five years, I felt fairly safe. I mean, what are the odds?

Chapter Three: Murphy is alive and well and living in Yosemite

After three-and-a-half days photographing waterfall rainbows, a rising full moon, a moonbow (lunar rainbow), and lots of dogwood with a group really nice (and fun!) photographers, my Yosemite spring workshop wrapped up Thursday night with a sunset shoot at one of my favorite Merced River spots. Half Dome, glowing with the warmth of the setting sun, reflected in the river as photographers contentedly crafted their own Yosemite masterpieces. What could go wrong?

I was helping one of the photographers add motion blur to his Half Dome reflection when my two front teeth (they’re connected) dropped without warning from the ceiling of my mouth. To avoid all the complications from the teeth slipping out the backdoor and down my throat, I reflexively dipped my head forward and opened my mouth, snatching them from the air before they could fall into the river. My workshop student was more than a little confused by my sudden theatrics until I flashed my toothless smile and explained that I’d just “Lotht my crownth.” I tried to deflect the inevitable (good natured) derision by telling the rest of the group that their workshop-mate slugged me for not answering his questions quickly enough, but they knew better.

Fortunately the teeth’s failure coincided with the end of the workshop, and I comforted myself with the knowledge that in the bottom of my suitcase was a tube of Polident I’d been carrying for years to mitigate (the very unlikely event of) just this calamity. After saying toothless goodbyes to the group I decided that, with nothing more than a four hour drive, requiring no more human interaction than one or two drive-thru passes, I’d wait until I was home with a mirror and clean, fully lit bathroom to temporarily reinsert my teeth. Then first thing in the morning I’d  call the dentist to schedule the few minutes it would take him to “permanently” reattach my crowns. With that plan, I tenderly folded the teeth into a clean napkin from my glovebox, where they’d stay until I made it to the dentist the next morning. And that’s exactly how it would have happened….

Chapter Four: It gets worse

I pulled into the garage a little after midnight, grateful that the teeth hadn’t failed until the end of the workshop and pleased with myself for somehow not frightening the friendly barista who delivered my mocha through her sliding window. I grabbed my phone and wallet from the center console and reached for the napkin containing my teeth, which should have been right there in the cup holder. Hmmm.

A frantic search ensued, starting with all the logical places (beneath the seat) and becoming progressively more desperate (glove box, ash tray, back seat). Before dismantling the spare tire compartment I mentally reconstructed my trip home and flashed to the gas stop in Livingston (one of many generic, brightly lit exits with an assortment of gas stations and fast food selections dotting Highway 99 in the Central Valley). Slowly memories of a quick housecleaning while waiting for my gas to pump materialized—into the convenient garbage can went my Starbucks cup, fast food wrappers, a few stray napki…. Oh. Oops.

So what should have been a fifteen minute ride in the dentist’s chair turned into a two hour marathon involving Novocain, drills, goopy molds, and six hundred of my dollars while the dentist fashioned temporary crowns that will keep me from looking like I ended up on the wrong end of a pool cue until he can craft the “final solution.” In the meantime I’m instructed not to use my front teeth for anything but smiling—”Not even to tear bread,” he warned as I walked out the door. (Which I’m pretty sure means that while they’re in there, I can charge all ice cream purchases to my HSA card.)

Oh, and my dentist a$$ure$ me that ver$ion-two of my crown$ really will be permanent.

*   *   *   *

About this image

About the only thing this image has to do with my teeth is I still had them when I took it. That and the fact that it was captured during the workshop that terminated in their demise. It’s a “moonbow,” a lunar rainbow caused by the light of a full moon. Witnesses see a shimmering silver band, but moonlight isn’t strong enough to reveal color to the naked eye. A camera, on the other hand, can accumulate light, making the scene in the image much brighter than being there.

While beautiful to photograph, the Yosemite Falls moonbow is no secret. The exposure is a piece of cake compared to the rest of the experience, which includes hundreds of photographers and point-and-shoot gawkers jostling in the dark, blowing mist. But despite the difficulties, the tailgate atmosphere at the bridge beneath lower Yosemite Fall is generally festive. Some photographers get a bit testy when a gawker (ignorantly) fires a flash, but generally a good time is had by all and those who want a picture (and are properly equipped and have some idea of what they’re doing) succeed.

The night before this I took my group out for a moonlight shoot without the moonbow (and the crowds) to get everyone comfortable with moonlight photography before braving the mayhem at the lower fall. Unfortunately, on our moonbow night unexpected clouds obscured the moon for most of window when the moon would be low enough for the moonbow. Nevertheless, the moonbow made several brief appearances (each time eliciting cheers) and most of the group got something, many that included a few moonlit clouds to enhance the sky. I spent most of my time working with the group (not the easiest thing to distinguish a dozen specific individuals from a couple of hundred strangers bundled in the dark against the elements) so this was the only moonbow I got that night.

Join me as I try to reprise this shot in my upcoming Yosemite Moonbow and Wildflowers photo workshop.

Yosemite After Dark

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

Photographic reality: Accumulate light

Moonbow and Big Dipper, Yosemite Falls, Yosemite


“Photography’s gift isn’t the ability to reproduce your reality, it’s the ability to expand it.”

(The fourth installment of my series on photographic reality.)

Before getting too frustrated with your camera’s limited dynamic range, remember that it can also do things with light that your eyes can’t. While we humans experience the world by serially processing an infinite number of discrete instants in real time, a camera accumulates each instant, storing and assembling them into a single additive frame. The result, among other things, is a view into human darkness that reveals “invisible,” albeit very real, detail and color.

Nothing illustrates this benefit better than a moonlight image, particularly one that reveals a “moonbow.” Several years ago I photographed Yosemite Falls by the light of a full moon a couple of hours after sunset. While there was enough light to see the fall and my immediate surroundings, the world was dark and colorless. Knowing the possibility of a moonbow existed, but unable to see it, I positioned myself  with my shadow (cast by the moonlight) pointing more or less in the direction of the fall and dialed in an exposure long enough to make the scene nearly daylight bright. An extremely wide, vertical composition included the Big Dipper high overhead, as if it was the Yosemite Falls’ source.

The result (above) is nothing like what my eyes saw, but it really is what my camera saw. The processing to complete this image involved cooling the color temperature in the raw processor to a more night-like blue; noise reduction to clean up the relatively long, relatively high ISO capture; a little (mostly futile) attempt to moderate the vertical distortion caused by the wide focal length; a slight wiggle in Curves to darken the sky and pop the stars; mild dodging and burning to even tones; some desaturation of the sky (I swear); and selective detail sharpening, avoiding the clouds and darkest shadows.

Have you ever seen a moonbow?

Moonbow and Big Dipper, Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite

I’m fortunate to have a ringside seat for many of Mother Nature’s most exquisite phenomena, but few excite me more than the shimmering arc of Yosemite’s moonbow. A “moonbow”? I thought you’d never ask….

As you may have figured, a moonbow is a rainbow caused by moonlight. (Don’t be fooled by the fact that your spellcheck doesn’t recognize “moonbow”–it’s a very real thing indeed, and the more technically correct “lunar rainbow” designation just doesn’t seem to convey the magic.) Because a moonbow is a rainbow, all the natural laws governing a rainbow apply. But all this physics isn’t as important as simply understanding that your shadow always points toward the center of the rainbow/moonbow; the rainbow/moonbow will only appear when the sun/moon is 42 or fewer degrees above the horizon (assuming a flat horizon)–the higher the moon/sun, the lower the rainbow. When the moon or sun is above 42 degrees, the rainbow disappears below the horizon.

Each spring, High Sierra snowmelt surges into Yosemite Creek, racing downhill and plunging into Yosemite Valley below. A Yosemite icon, Yosemite Falls drops 2,500 feet in three magnificent, mist-churning steps. On spring full moon nights, light from the rising moon catches the mist, which bends it into a shimmering arc. John Muir called this phenomenon a “mist bow,” but it’s more commonly known today as a moonbow.

While a bright moonbow is visible to the naked eye as a (breathtaking) silver band, revealing the bow’s color requires the camera’s ability to accumulate light. The above image, from a couple of years ago, was captured near the bridge at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall. Not only was it crowded (the moonbow is no longer much of a secret), wind and mist made the necessary 20- to 30-second exposures an exercise in persistence. To include the Big Dipper in this frame (I love the way it appears to be the source of the fall), I composed vertical and wide (19mm). This was a 30 second exposure at f4 and ISO 400.

Moonbow and Big Dipper, Yosemite Falls, Yosemite

Understanding the basic physics of a rainbow makes it possible to photograph a moonbow from other, less crowded locations in Yosemite Valley. In the image on the left, the moon had climbed so high that the moonbow had almost dropped from view. And it was so small at this point that I couldn’t see it at all with my unaided eyes. But I knew it would be there, so I exposed the scene enough to make it nearly daylight bright, again orienting the composition vertical and wide to include the Big Dipper.

<<  FYI, as of this writing, I still have a couple of openings in my two 2012 Yosemite Moonbow photo workshops, April 2-5 and May 2-5.  >>

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