Posted on March 3, 2019
As aggressively as I seek creative ways to express nature with my camera, and as important as I think that is, sometimes a scene is so beautiful that it’s best to just get out of the way and let the scene speak for itself. I had one of those experiences last month at Tunnel View in Yosemite.
There’s a reason Tunnel View is one of the most photographed vistas in the world: El Capitan, Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, Bridalveil Fall—each would be a landscape icon by itself; put them all together in one view and, well…. But the view this evening was truly transcendent, even by Yosemite standards. In Yosemite Valley below, trees and granite still glazed with the snowy vestiges of a departing storm seemed to throb with their own luminance. And above Half Dome a full moon rose through a sky that had been cleansed of all impurities by the departing storm, an otherworldly canvas of indigo, violet, and magenta.
On these crystal-clear, winter-twilight moonrises, the beauty rises with the moon, reaching a crescendo about 20 minutes after sunset, after which the color quickly fades and the landscape darkens. Unfortunately, a some point before the crescendo, the dynamic range becomes so extreme that no camera (not even the dynamic range monster Sony a7RIII) can simultaneously extract usable detail from a daylight-bright moon and dark landscape.
I’d driven to Yosemite solely to photograph this moonrise, an eight hour roundtrip for 40-minutes of photography. Starting with the moon’s arrival about 20 minutes before sunset, I’d juggled three camera bodies and two tripods, first shooting ultra long, then gradually widening to include more of the snowy landscape. Already my captures had more than justified the time and miles the trip would cost me, but watching the moon traverse the deepening hues of Earth’s shadow, I wasn’t ready to stop.
I’ve learned that with a scene this spectacular, conveying the majesty doesn’t require me to pursue the ideal foreground, or do creative things with motion, light, or depth of field. In fact, I’ve come to realize that sometimes a scene can be so beautiful that creative interpretations can dilute or distract from the very beauty that moves me. On this evening in particular, I didn’t want to inject myself into that breathtaking moment, I just wanted to share it.
To simply my images, I opted for a series of frames that used tried-and-true compositions that I’d accumulated after years (decades) of photographing here, the compositions I suggest as “starters” for people who are new to Yosemite, or use myself to jump-start my inspiration: relatively tight horizontal and vertical frames of El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall; El Capitan and Half Dome; or Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall. In the image I share above I concentrated on Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall, capping my frame with the wispy fringes of a large cloud that hovered above Yosemite Valley.
Simplifying my compositions had the added benefit of freeing all of my (limited) brain cells to concentrate on the very difficult exposure. The margin for error when photographing a moon this far after sunset is minuscule—if you don’t get the exposure just right, there’s no fixing it in Photoshop later: too dark and there’s too much noise in the shadows; too bright and lunar detail is permanently erased. The problem starts with the understandable inclination to expose the scene to make the landscape look good on the LCD, pretty much guaranteeing that the moon will be toast. Compounding this problem is the histogram, which most of us have justifiably come to trust as the final arbiter for all exposures. But when a twilight moon (bright moon, dark sky) is involved, even the histogram will fail you because the moon is such a small part of the scene, it barely (if at all) registers on the histogram.
Rather than the histogram, for these dark sky moon images I monitor my LCD’s highlight alert (“blinking highlights”), which is usually the only way to to tell that the moon has been overexposed. If the moon is flashing, I know I’ve given the scene too much light and need to back off until the flashing stops—no matter how dark the foreground looks. This is where it’s essential to know your camera, and how far you can push its exposure beyond where the histogram and highlight alert warn you that you’ve gone too far.
When I’m photographing a full moon rising into a darkening sky, I push the exposure to the point where my highlight alert just starts blinking (only the brightest parts of the moon, not the entire disk, are flashing), then I give it just a little more exposure. I know my Sony a7RIII well enough to know that I can still give it a full stop of light beyond this initial flash point and still recover the highlights later. The shadows? In a scene like this they’ll look nearly black, a reality my histogram will confirm, but I never cease to be amazed by how much detail I can pull out of my a7RIII’s shadows in Lightroom and Photoshop.
I continued shooting for several minutes after this frame, and discovered later that even my final capture contained usable highlights and shadows. I chose this image, captured nearly five minutes before I quit, because it contained the best combination of color, lunar detail, and clean (relatively noise-free) Yosemite Valley.
Posted on February 24, 2019
Roll over, Ansel
Several years ago, while thumbing through an old issue of “Outdoor Photographer” magazine, I came across an article on Lightroom processing. It started with the words:
“Being able to affect one part of the image compared to another, such as balancing the brightness of a photograph so the scene looks more like the way we saw it rather than being restricted by the artificial limitations of the camera and film is the major reason why photographers like Ansel Adams and LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith spent so much time in the darkroom.”
While it’s true that Ansel Adams and W. Eugene Smith were indeed darkroom masters, statements like this only perpetuate the myth that the photographer’s job is to reproduce the scene “the way we saw it.” And because I imagine that using Ansel Adams himself to peddle this notion must send Ansel rolling in his grave, I’ll start by quoting the Master himself:
Do these sound like the thoughts of someone lamenting the camera’s “artificial limitations” and photography’s inability to duplicate the world the “way we saw it”? Take a look at just a few of Ansel Adams’ images and ask yourself how many duplicate the world as we see it: nearly black skies, exaggerated shadows and/or highlights, and skewed perspectives that intentionally emphasize one subject over another, and on and on. And no color! (Not to mention the fact that every image is a two-dimensional rendering of a three-dimensional world.) Ansel Adams wasn’t trying to replicate scenes more like he saw them, he was trying to use his camera’s unique (not “artificial”) vision to show us aspects of the world he wanted us to see, qualities we might otherwise miss or fail to appreciate.
The rest of the OP article contained solid, practical information for anyone wanting to come closer to replicating Ansel Adams’ traditional darkroom techniques in the contemporary digital darkroom. But the assertion that photographers are obligated to photograph the world as they saw it baffles me.
You’ve heard me say this before
The camera’s vision isn’t artificial, it’s different. Dynamic range, focus, motion, and depth are all rendered differently in a camera than they are to the human eye. And while the human experience of any scene is 360 degrees, a still images is constrained by a rectangular box. Forcing images to be more human-like doesn’t just deny the camera’s unique ability to expand viewers’ perception of the world, it’s literally impossible. Which is why I’ve always felt that the best photographers are the ones who embrace their camera’s vision rather than trying to “fix” it.
For example, limiting dynamic range allows us to emphasize color and shapes that get lost in the clutter of human vision; a narrow range of focus can guide the eye and draw attention to particular elements of interest and away from distractions; and the ability to accumulate light over a photographer-controlled interval exposes color and detail hidden by darkness, and conveys motion in an otherwise static medium.
But what about that rectangular box that constrains the world of a still image? I can think of no better way to excise distractions and laser-focus viewers’ attention on the target subject than taking advantage of the camera’s finite world. While many nature photographers default to their wide angle lenses to expand the visual box surrounding their landscape images and save their long lenses for wildlife, a telephoto lens is an essential landscape tool. The world can be a busy place—in even the most spectacular of vistas, so much is happening visually that going wide in a still photo to include as much beauty as possible introduces many extraneous features, and risks shrinking the scene’s most compelling elements to virtual insignificance.
The best way to overcome wide angle scene dilution is to forego the conventional view (the first thing everyone sees), identify the aspects of the scene that make it special, and isolate them with a telephoto lens. Whether it’s a striking mountain or tree, backlit poppy, or rising moon, isolation enlarges the target subject and removes any ambiguity about what the image is about. And an intimate, up-close perspective of a subject more commonly seen from a distance can be truly mesmerizing.
About this image
I stood atop two feet of packed snow at Tunnel View, more than eight miles from Half Dome, and ten miles from the ridge that would be ground zero for the moonrise that had drawn me in the first place. Along with two other photographers who also seemed aware of the moon’s plans, I had the best (least obstructed) Tunnel View vantage point to myself. Rising full moon or not, before me the table was set for a spectacular Yosemite feast: Brand new snow glazed every exposed surface, and in the pristine winter air, Tunnel View’s veritable who’s who of Yosemite landmarks—El Capitan, Cloud’s Rest, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Sentinel Dome, Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Fall—seemed etched into the scene. Above, dark clouds boiled atop El Capitan, while wispy fog radiated from the valley floor.
Occasionally a tourist would wander up and request help identifying Horsetail’s microscopic filament on El Capitan’s vast granite; one or two even pointed at Bridalveil Fall and asked if that was Horsetail Fall. A couple of people, blissfully oblivious to the Horsetail Fall phenomenon, simply wanted their picture taken with this iconic Yosemite backdrop.
About 150 feet down the wall to my right, at least two-dozen photographers on tripods were inexplicably crammed into a significantly less desirable view. While that vantage point gave them an acceptable sightline to Horsetail Fall (as did my own), the rest of the magnificent Tunnel View vista was partially obscured by trees. The only explanation I could muster for their odd choice was that the first to arrive for some reason set up there, and each subsequent photographer assumed that since others have set up here, this must be the spot.
While Horsetail Fall was irrelevant to my objective this evening, the overnight snow still clinging to the trees was undeniable bonus. Getting to Tunnel View had been an adventure, worse even than I’d expected, and I was glad that I’d allowed ample time. The difficulty started with a 30-minute (Horsetail Fall gawker infused) queue at the Arch Rock entrance station. My suspicion that these were mostly inexperienced photographers and tourists (who’d just read an article or seen a news segment and decided to check it out) was confirmed when I was forced to navigate a slalom course of slipping, sliding, spinning cars that had ignored the very clearly communicated chain controls. The serious photographers, those who had photographed Horsetail Fall before, or who had the sense to research the phenomenon well in advance, had been in position for the five-minute show for hours.
With the moon’s imminent arrival upon a scene that already bordered on visual overload, my plan to ensure that the main purpose of my visit didn’t get swallowed by Tunnel View’s conventional post-storm majesty was to start, while the moon was still right on the horizon, with extremely tight compositions. As the moon rose, I planned to widen my focal length, gradually including more scene and turning the moon into more of an accent.
To achieve this, I was flanked by two tripods, and had three camera bodies fired up and ready for action: my Sony a7RIII, a7RII, and a6300. Atop my Really Right Stuff TVC-24L tripod was my a6300 loaded with my Sony 100-400 GM and Sony 2X teleconverter. This combination gave me a 600-1200mm full-frame equivalent focal range (because the a6300 is a 1.5-crop APS-C sensor). When including the rising moon required reducing my focal length below 800mm, I’d switch to my higher resolution, full frame Sony a7RII. And because the moon would rise just about 20 minutes before sunset, I also had to be aware of the possibility that Horsetail Fall would fire up. To handle that possibility, and to cover all my general wide composition needs, mounted on my RRS TQC-14 tripod was my Sony a7RIII and Sony 24-105 f/4 lens.
I pointed my a6300/100-400 at the point where I expected the moon to appear about 20 minutes before sunset, zoomed all the way out to 800mm (1200mm full-frame equivalent), metered, focused, and waited. I started clicking almost immediately after seeing the moon’s leading edge nudge through the trees, refining my composition slightly after each click until I had the right balance of moon and Half Dome. It always surprises me how quickly the moon moves, speed that’s magnified tremendously at such an extreme focal length. Spending the next 40 minutes frantically changing focal lengths, switching lenses and camera bodies, re-metering and re-focusing, and bouncing between tripods, I felt like the percussionist in a jazz band.
When the moon climbed far above Yosemite Valley and the dynamic range between the daylight-bright moon and nighttime landscape made photography impossible, I paused before packing up my gear and just marveled at the beauty. Horsetail Fall had caught a few late rays of sunlight but never did completely light up. I thought about the disappointment of frigid photographers who had waited patiently in the valley below for a show that didn’t happen, and counted my blessings.
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Posted on December 23, 2018
With a wide variety of spectacular and diverse east-facing views, I can think of no better place to photograph a moonrise than Yosemite. I especially like the December full moon because it aligns so well with Half Dome, not just on the night it’s full, but on the nights leading up to the full moon.
When I realized that this year’s December full moon was so close to Christmas, I almost didn’t schedule my annual Yosemite Winter Moon workshop, but then I figured that since I’ll be there anyway, I may as well. I’m so glad I did—the workshop filled, and the skies were clear enough (never a sure thing in December) that we photographed the moon on three of the workshop’s four nights, culminating in a very special moonrise to wrap up the workshop (a topic for a future blog post).
The closer it is to full, the closer to sunset the moon rises, arriving several hours before sunset a few days before it’s full, then a little later each evening before rising right around sunset on the full moon day. Since a waxing (increasing in fullness) moon is always higher at sunset than it will be the next day, with a little planning, it’s possible to time several consecutive days’ shoots to coincide with the moon rising right around sunset. For this year’s workshop I’d planned three sunset moonrises for my group, each (more or less) aligning the moon and Half Dome, getting farther from Half Dome each day.
About this image
While the first of my planned moonrise shoots was Wednesday, when the moon rose above the flat horizon about two hours before sunset, the horizon in Yosemite is anything but flat. I took my group to a favorite location beside the Merced River on Yosemite Valley’s east side, less than three miles from Half Dome, where the relatively steep view angle to the top of Half Dome means that it takes the moon a couple of hours to climb into view here.
Though not labeled on the map, this spot isn’t a secret to photographers, so I arrived about 45 minutes early, partly to allow everyone time to prepare, but also to ensure that we wouldn’t need to battle anyone else for position. I told everyone that the moon would appear at around 4:30 from directly above the top of Half Dome, and suggested that they be ready with their compositions beforehand.
My own composition had been planned long in advance—having photographed more than my share of moonrises from this wide angle location, I decided on an extreme telephoto approach this time. I added my Sony 2X teleconverter to my Sony 100-400 GM lens, mounted the pair on my tripod, and attached my (full frame) Sony a7RIII. I pointed my 800mm of focal length at Half Dome’s summit and waited. <Continues below>
I never tire of seeing the glow of the moon’s leading edge peak above the horizon, and this evening was no exception. When the moon nudged into view, the sounds of chatter and laughter were instantly replaced by clicking shutters. Watching the moon grow in my viewfinder, I adjusted my composition slightly before each click. When the moon gained separation from the granite to become fully visible, I panned slowly to the right and saw that with the right framing it would appear nestled into a subtle bowl-shaped curve atop Half Dome and locked in a composition that would last for a few minutes as the moon continued its ascent. A thin wisp of cloud scooted through the scene as I clicked this frame, lit by the day’s final rays.
One more thing
Looking at the distant world at 800mm reveals previous invisible detail. So once I’d settled on a composition that I could stick with for a few clicks, I allowed my eye wander the frame and noticed dangling icicles lining Half Dome’s rim. I continue to be blown away by the sharpness of the Sony 100-400; not only is this lens unbelievably sharp, I literally cannot tell a difference when I pair it with the Sony 2X teleconverter.
Posted on January 7, 2018
I used to resist using the supermoon label because it’s more of a media event than an astronomical event, and it creates unrealistic expectations. But since the phenomenon appears to be with us to stay, I’ve changed my approach and decided to take advantage of the opportunity to educate and encourage.
What’s the big deal?
So just what is so “super” about a “supermoon?” Maybe another way of asking the question would be, if I hadn’t told you that the moon in this image is in fact a supermoon, would you be able to tell? Probably not. So what’s the big deal? And why do we see so many huge moon images every time there’s a supermoon? So many questions….
Celestial choreography: Supermoon explained
To understand what a supermoon is, you first have to understand that all orbiting celestial bodies travel in an ellipse, not a circle. That’s because, for two (or more) objects to have the gravitational relationship an orbit requires, each must have mass. And if they have mass, each has a gravitational influence on the other. Without getting too deep into the gravitational weeds, let’s just say that the mutual influence the earth and moon have on each other causes the moon’s orbit to deviate ever so slightly from the circle it seems to be (without precise measurement): an ellipse. And because an ellipse isn’t perfectly round, as it orbits earth, the moon’s distance from us depends its position in its orbit.
An orbiting object’s closest approach to the center of its ellipse (and the object it orbits) is at “perigee”; its greatest distance from the ellipse’s center is “apogee.” And the time it takes an object to complete one revolution of its orbit is its “period.” For example, earth’s period is one year (365.25-ish days), while the moon’s period is a little more than 27 days.
But if the moon reaches perigee every 27 days, why don’t we have a supermoon every month? That’s because we’ve also added “syzygy” to the supermoon definition. In addition to being a great Scrabble word, syzygy is the alignment of celestial bodies—in this case it’s the alignment of the sun, moon, and earth (not necessarily in that order). Not only does a supermoon need to be at perigee, it must also be syzygy.
Syzygy happens twice each month, once when the moon is new (sun-moon-earth), and again when it’s full (sun-earth-moon). (While technically a supermoon can also be a new moon, the full moon that gets all the press because a new moon isn’t visible.) Since the earth revolves around the sun as the moon revolves around earth, the moon has to travel a couple extra days each month to achieve syzygy. That’s why the moon reaches perigee ever 27 days, but syzygy comes every 29.5 days, and the moon’s distance from earth is different each time syzygy is achieved.
The view from earth: Supermoon observed
While perigee, apogee, and period are precise terms that can be measured to the microsecond, a supermoon is a non-scientific, media-fueled phenomenon loosely defined a moon that happens to be at or near perigee when it’s full. To you, the viewer, a full moon at perigee (the largest possible supermoon) will appear about 14% larger and 30% brighter than a full moon at the average distance. The rather arbitrary consensus definition of the distance that qualifies a moon as a supermoon is a full moon that is within 90 percent of its closest approach to earth.
I really doubt that the average viewer could look up at even the largest possible supermoon and be certain that it’s different from an average moon. And all those mega-moon photos that confuse people into expecting a spectacular sight when there’s a supermoon? They’re either composites—a picture of a large moon inserted into a different scene—or long telephoto images. I don’t do composites, but they’re a creative choice that I’m fine with others doing as long as they’re clearly identified as composites.
For an image that’s not a composite, the moon’s size in the frame is almost entirely a function of the focal length used. I have no idea whether most of the moons the full moon gallery below were super, average, or small. The images in this and my previous blog post were indeed super, taken within minutes of each other last Sunday evening, at completely different focal lengths.
Every full moon is super
A rising or setting full moon is one of the most beautiful things in nature. But because a full moon rises around sunset and sets around sunrise, most people are eating dinner or sleeping, and seeing it is usually an accident. So maybe the best thing to come of the recent supermoon hype is that it’s gotten people out, cameras or not, to appreciate the beauty of a full moon. If you like what you saw (or photographed), mark your calendar for every full moon and make it a regular part of your life—you won’t be sorry.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Posted on January 4, 2018
A man with a plan
It was New Year’s Eve and I was perched on a cliff overlooking Yosemite Valley, two feet from certain death and ten minutes from the rise of the largest full moon of 2018. While the death thing would have only been a problem if I’d have lost my mind, the moon’s appearance was entirely subject to the whims of Nature. And at that moment, she wasn’t cooperating.
The vast majority of my images are the result of a plan. But planning in nature requires both flexibility and resolve—an ability to adjust and persevere rather than quit when things don’t unfold as expected.
The master plan for this trip was to photograph 2018’s largest moon twice, on opposite sides of the Sierra. I’d start with super-telephoto shots of the moon’s appearance above Yosemite Valley at sunset on December 31, then drive to Lone Pine (just 100 or so miles as the drone flies, but more than 350 miles as the car drives) to capture its disappearance behind Mt. Whitney at sunrise on January 2. Unfortunately, it seemed that each day leading up to my trip, the weather forecast for both locations trended worse. But moon or not, can you think of a better way to celebrate the New Year than circumnavigating the Sierra? Me neither.
Assembling the parts
A beautiful scene is one part landscape and one part conditions (light, weather, and so on). We generally know where the great landscapes are, but finding them in the right conditions requires research, planning, and execution (plus a little luck). I try to time my trips, workshops and personal, to coincide with these special moments, usually some weather or celestial event. Whether it’s lightning at the Grand Canyon, the Milky Way above Kilauea or the bristlecone pines, or a moon rising or setting behind Half Dome or Mt. Whitney, I want to be there.
The problem is, nothing in nature is guaranteed. We know to the microsecond where the sun, moon, and stars will be at any given time, but have no way of knowing what weather we’ll encounter. I’ve lost many a shoot to inconveniently placed clouds, and I’ll never forget the time I scheduled an entire Yosemite workshop based on the anticipated arrival of Comet ISON, only to have the comet go all Icarus on me just days before the workshop.
But experience has taught me that regardless of the score you don’t leave the game until the last out, and you don’t cancel just because the odds are against you. Sometime the odds are wrong, and sometimes I end up getting an unexpected gift that feels like a reward for my persistence. One of the most memorable shoots of my life happened on a morning with clear skies forecast, but we ignored the forecast and went out for sunrise anyway. And I ended up getting the last laugh on the ISON workshop when Yosemite Valley became the beneficiary of a snowstorm and sudden cold that coated every exposed surface in sparkling ice crystals.
Meanwhile, back on the ledge…
It turns out that my Sierra circumnavigation didn’t yield the big moon images I’d planned, but it definitely delivered in many ways. Ignoring the clouds, I arrived in Yosemite Valley on New Year’s Eve afternoon and ended up at my chosen location at around 4:00 p.m. The sky was mostly clouds, but a few patches of blue in the east gave me reason to hope.
The spot I’d chosen was indeed on a cliff 300 vertical feet above Yosemite Valley, but it was only dangerous if I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing, and given my relationship with heights, there was little chance of that. Flanked by two tripods, I kept one eye on the horizon and the other on void at my feet. On my big tripod (RRS TVC-24LS) was my Sony a7RIII and 100-400 GM with a 2x teleconverter; on my compact tripod (RRS TQC-14) was my Sony a7RII and 70-200 f/4. Each tripod had one leg about two inches from the edge and two legs in the shrubs at my back. Me? I had two legs firmly planted on the narrow granite shelf, with my backside hugging the shrubs.
Sunset was at 4:50. With a cloudless sky the moon would appear from behind Cloud’s Rest at around 4:30, a location similar to last month’s full moon but closer to El Capitan. I’d hoped to start the moonrise with a long telephoto, then transition wider as it rose, but by 4:20 the persistent clouds made it pretty likely that if I saw the moon at all, it would be well above Cloud’s Rest and too high for a telephoto shot. At around 4:30 I waved a white flag at the big moon idea and replaced the 100-400 lens with my Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f/4, hopeful that the moon would make its way into a gap in the clouds before the sky became too dark. At around 4:45 the moon teased with a brief appearance between the clouds, but they scissored shut before the moon had an opportunity to shine.
While waiting I worked on my revised composition, which was complicated by my desire to include with the distant moon and Yosemite Valley, a dead tree in my immediate foreground. With very little margin for depth of field error, I opened my hyperfocal app and plugged in the numbers to determine the f-stop and focus point that would ensure front-to-back sharpness. With that out of the way, I bided my time photographing beautiful warm light on El Capitan and Half Dome.
The moon finally peeked above the clouds for good at 4:48. Ascending the darkening sky, the moon was enhanced by a sheer film of nearly transparent clouds that started out pink that intensified to fuchsia on their way to a vivid magenta that colored all of Yosemite Valley. I kept clicking as the foreground darkened, magnifying my image periodically to be sure I wasn’t losing detail in the moon. The image I share here was captured fifteen minutes after sunset.
You win some and you lose some
The Lone Pine segment of my trip was a photographic flop, but photography really shouldn’t be all about the photography. I arrived in Lone Pine mid-afternoon on New Year’s Day and spent the remaining daylight doing reconnaissance for the next day’s sunrise moonset. This was going to be another super-telephoto opportunity, this time at a location I’d driven past but never photographed from, so I wanted to ensure no surprises. That afternoon I enjoyed nice clouds and light above the Sierra’s east face, but to have photographed it would have compromised my scouting objective so I was just content to enjoy.
I rose before 6:00 a.m. on January 2 and drove out to my planned location with a pretty good idea that the clouds would shut me down. When I parked, the moon penetrated the clouds as an indistinct glowing sphere. As I waited, it descended into more-dense clouds and disappeared for good, but I stayed, quite content to simply watch Mt. Whitney and its towering neighbors emerge beneath the brightening sky.
The drive home took my beneath the serrated Sierra crest, past Mono Lake, through the Hope Valley, over Echo Summit and back down into Sacramento, completing the circuit with at least one successful image and many memories of a great trip. A very Happy New Year indeed.
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Posted on December 19, 2017
This month’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop group got the rare opportunity to photograph a full (or nearly full) moon rising above Half Dome at sunset on three consecutive nights. One reason it’s rare is that, as viewed from Yosemite Valley, the full moon and Half Dome only align in winter. But the real tricky part is making it happen three times when sunset happens at pretty much the same time each evening, but the moon rises about 45 minutes later.
My goal for photographing a rising full moon is to get the moon on the horizon in the window from 15 minutes before to 15 minutes after the “official” (flat horizon) sunset. Earlier and there’s not enough contrast and the moon looks bland; later and there’s too much dynamic range to capture detail in the dark landscape and daylight-bright moon.
The key to making this work starts with understanding that when you see a sunset or moonrise time published for a location, that time is always based on a flat horizon. So unless you’re atop a mountain or on a ship at sea, you’ll probably see the sun disappear behind the terrain in the west before sunset, and you’ll probably need to wait for the moon to rise above the terrain in the east.
Since the sun is at my back when a full moon rises, I’m not too concerned about the precise timing of the sun’s disappearance. But I need to be pretty dead-on for the moon’s arrival. Knowing the moon will rise an 40-60 minutes (or so) later each day, it’s easy to infer that the more days until the full moon, the higher the moon will be at sunset. Sadly, I have no control over the timing of the absolute sunset/moonrise, but I can control the elevation of the horizon, and therefore the moon’s appearance on a given day, by choosing my position relative to the horizon above which the moon will rise.
To make this workshop’s consecutive moonrises work, each evening I picked a view that was farther from Half Dome than the previous evening. On our first evening I chose a spot on the east side of Yosemite Valley; the next evening we were closer to the middle of the valley; on our the third evening our vantage point was near Tunnel View, at the opposite side of Yosemite Valley from Half Dome. The moon rose later above the flat horizon each evening, but by moving farther away, we reduced the distance the moon had to travel before it appeared.
Big moon, small moon
The other thing this little exercise illustrates is how to make the moon big in your frame. Notice that in each image, Half Dome is more or less the same size, but the moon gets progressively bigger. That’s because on any given day, no matter where I am on Earth, the moon is so far away that its apparent size doesn’t change. But the size of earthbound features, like Half Dome, changes a lot with proximity. When I was on Yosemite Valley’s east side for the first moonrise, filling my frame with Half Dome required just a little more than 100mm; the next night I was far enough back to require about 250mm to fill the frame; and on the final night, from eight miles away I needed more than 500mm. And as my focal length increased, so did the moon’s size in my frame.
Posted on January 7, 2017
Are you insane?
Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Hmmm. For some reason this makes me think of the thousands of aspiring landscape photographers with portfolios brimming with beautiful images that they can’t sell.
Despite a great eye for composition, all the latest gear, insider knowledge of the best locations, and virtual guru status with Photoshop, somehow they haven’t managed to separate themselves from the large pack of other really good photographers. Their solution to anonymity is more: more locations, more equipment, more software. (Perhaps you even know such a photographer.) Compounding the problem, many photographers have become so mesmerized by technology that they turn over control of the most important aspects of their craft to their camera, completely discounting the most powerful tool at their disposal, the one on top of their shoulders.
Knowledge vs. understanding
Just as a new camera won’t make you a better photographer, neither will simply upgrading your knowledge of the latest gear, or accumulating . Knowledge is nothing more than information ingested and regurgitated. On the other hand, understanding is fundamental insight into the workings of a process. While knowledge might enable you to impress table-mates at a dinner party, understanding gives you the ability to use information to create new knowledge—solve problems.
Many photographers invest far too much energy accumulating knowledge, and far too little energy understanding what they just learned. For example, I see many photographers relying on a formula for determining the shutter speed that freezes star motion at a given focal length, oblivious to the fact that this formula doesn’t consider other equally important variables such as display size and the direction the camera is pointing (yes, that’s important). Similarly, simply knowing that a longer shutter speed, bigger aperture, or higher ISO means more light is of limited value if that knowledge doesn’t translate into an understanding of how to manage light, motion, and depth with your camera.
Pretty much anyone can pick up a camera, put it in auto exposure mode, and compose a nice image. While the automatic modes in most cameras “properly” (conventionally) expose most scenes, they struggle in the limited light, extreme dynamic range, and harsh conditions that artistic nature photographers seek. Worse than that, relying on the automatic exposure modes eliminates a photographer’s best opportunity for creativity—the ability to control a an image’s depth, motion, and light.
Too many aspiring photographers are stuck creatively because their unwavering faith in technology leaves them with a critical deficiency in two fundamental, related photographic principles:
Books and internet resources are a great place to start acquiring these principles, but the knowledge you gain there won’t turn to understanding until you get out with your camera and apply them. When these principles become second nature, you’ll be amazed at what you’ll be able to accomplish with your photography.
Insanity is in the mind of the beholder
If landscape photography already gives you everything you want, by all means continue doing what you’re doing. But if you’re having a hard time achieving a creative goal, I suggest that the solution is likely not doing more of what you’re already doing. Instead, start by reevaluating your comprehension of fundamental photographic principles that you might not have thought about for years. You’ll know you’re there when you have complete control of the light, motion, and depth for every scene you encounter, know how to get the result you want, or understand why it’s simply not possible.
Do I really think you’re insane for doing otherwise? Of course not. But I do think you’ll feel a little more sane if you learn to take more control of your camera.
About this image
The image at the top of the post is from a visit to Yosemite this past December. I’d guided my workshop group here for the rise of a nearly full moon, crossing my fingers that clouds wouldn’t obscure our view. The clouds exited just in the nick of time for us to enjoy a beautiful moonrise into the indigo twilight. I started with fairly tight compositions when the moon was close to Half Dome, but in the still, chilled air shortly after sunset, a thin radiation fog formed above Leidig Meadow and I started looking for a wider composition that would add the meadow to the moon and Half Dome.
Before thinking about the scene’s light, depth, and motion variables, I spent a lot of time just assembling the elements of my composition. I decided to frame the scene with Half Dome on the left and Sentinel Fall on the right, positioning myself so a group of tall foreground evergreens, mirrored by towering Sentinel Rock in the background, anchored the center of my frame. I knew that would require a wide composition that would render the moon very small, but I moved back as far as I could to allow the longest possible focal length to avoid shrinking the moon to pinhole size.
By far my biggest exposure concern was dynamic range—the moon is daylight bright, while the rest of my scene was deeply shaded. Normally I trust my histogram in these high dynamic range situations, but in this case the moon was so small that I knew it wouldn’t register. Instead I used my Sony a7RII’s pre-capture “zebra” highlight alert that indicates the parts of my scene that are overexposed.
At just a little wider than 24mm, with no significant detail in my immediate foreground, I stopped down to a fairly diffraction safe f/9. I’m always at ISO 100 unless I can’t achieve the amount of light I want at my ideal aperture and shutter speed, and in this case ISO 100 worked just fine. With my f-stop and ISO set, I increased my shutter speed slowly, checking the moon after each 1/3-stop click for the zebras (if you don’t shoot mirrorless, you can set blinking highlights and check the moon for “blinkies” when you review the image on your LCD). Since I know my camera well enough to know that I could push my exposure at least a full stop beyond the point where the zebras appeared, then recover the highlights in the Lightroom raw processor.
This image looked quite dark on my LCD, and the histogram was way to the left, but after loading it onto my computer and pulling the Lightroom Shadows slider to the right, I recovered an unbelievable amount of clean (low noise) detail, even in the darkest shadows. I just continue to be blown away by the dynamic range of this a7R Mark 2 sensor that enables me to capture scenes I’d never imagined possible in my previous (Canon) life. In this case I probably could have brightened the image further in processing, but I wanted a more moody, twilight feel.