Gary Hart Photography: Winter Moonrise, Merced River, Yosemite

Winter Moonrise, Merced River, Yosemite
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/10 second
ISO 800

Last Friday evening, this professional photographer I know spent several hours photographing an assortment of beautiful Yosemite winter scenes at ISO 800. Apparently, he had increased his ISO earlier in the day while photographing a macro scene with three extension tubes—needing a faster shutter speed to freeze his subject in a light breeze, he’d bumped his ISO to 800. Wise decision. But, rushing to escape to the warmth of his car, rather than reset the camera to his default ISO 100 the instant he finished shooting, he packed up his camera with a personal promise to adjust it later, when his fingers were warmer—surely, he rationalized, removing the extension tubes and macro lens would remind him to reset the ISO too. (You’d think.) But, despite shutter speeds nowhere near what they should have been given the light and f-stop, he just kept shooting beautiful scene after beautiful scene, as happy as if he had a brain.

I happen to know for a fact that this very same photographer has done other stupid things. Let’s see…. There was that time, while chasing a sunset at Mono Lake, that he drove his truck into a creek and had to be towed out. And the two (two!) times he left his $8,000 camera beside the road as he motored off to the next spot. And you should see his collection of out-of-focus finger and thumb close-ups (a side effect of hand-holding his graduated neutral density filters). Of course this photographer’s identity isn’t important—what is important is dispelling the myth that professional photographers aren’t immune to amateur mistakes.

And on a completely unrelated note…

Let’s take a look at this image from, coincidentally, last Friday evening. Also completely coincidentally, it too was photographed at ISO 800 (go figure)—not because I made a mistake (after all, I am a trained professional), but, uhhh, but because I think there are just too many low noise Yosemite images. So anyway….

This was night-two of what was originally my Yosemite ISON workshop—but, after the unfortunate demise of Comet ISON and a week of frigid temperatures in Yosemite, became my Yosemite ice-on workshop. That’s because, to the delight of the workshop students (and the immense relief of their leader), much of the one foot of snow that had fallen the Saturday before the workshop’s Thursday start had been frozen into a state of suspended animation by a week of temperatures in the teens and low-twenties.

Each day we rose to find nearly every shaded surface in Yosemite sheathed in a white veneer of snow and ice. (Valley locations that received any sunlight were largely brown and bare.) And the Merced River, particularly low and slow following two years of drought, was covered in ice in an assortment of textures and shapes from frosted glass to blooming flowers. Adding to all this terrestrial beauty was a waxing moon, nearly full, ascending our otherwise boring blue skies and illuminating our nightscapes.

On Friday night I guided my group to this spot just downstream from Leidig Meadow. There we found the moon, still several days from full, glowing high above the valley floor, and Half Dome reflected by a watery window in the ice. I captured many versions of this scene, from tight isolations of the reflections to wide renderings of the entire display. It’s too soon to say which I like best, but I’m starting with this one because it most clearly conveys what we saw that evening.

I chose a vertical composition because including the moon in a horizontal frame would  have shrunk Half Dome and the moon, and introduced elements on the right and left that weren’t as strong as Half Dome, its reflection, and the snowy Merced River. (Sentinel Rock is just out of the frame on the right—as striking as it is, I wanted to make this image all about Half Dome.)

My f16 choice was to ensure sharpness throughout the frame, from the ice flowers blooming in the foreground, to Half Dome and its reflection. As you may or may not know, the focus point for a reflection is the focus point of the reflective subject, not the reflective surface. That means when photographing a reflection surrounded by leaves, ice, rocks, or whatever, you need to ensure adequate DOF or risk having either the reflection or its surrounding elements out of focus. Here I probably could have gotten away with f11, but my iPhone and its DOF app were buried beneath several layers of clothes, and using it would have require removing two pair of gloves.

I’d love to say that I chose ISO 800 to freeze the rapids, but I’m not sure you’d buy it. So I’m sticking with my too many low noise Yosemite images story and moving on. (A few cameras ago, ISO 800 would have meant death to this image, but today, thankfully, it’s mostly just a lesson in humility.)

A Yosemite Winter Gallery

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

Moon chasing: The rest of the story

Gary Hart Photography: Moon!, Half Dome, Yosemite

Moon!, Half Dome, Yosemite
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1/13 second
ISO 200
400 mm (slightly cropped)

Wow, it seems like only yesterday that the moon was just tiny dot hovering above Half Dome.

Moonrise Reflection, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite

Moonrise Reflection, Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite

What happened?

No, the moon didn’t magically expand, nor did I enlarge it digitally and plop it into this image. What happened is that I waited two days and moved back; what happened is the difference between 40mm and 400mm; what happened is a perfect illustration of the photographer’s power to influence viewers’ reaction to a scene through understanding and execution of the camera’s unique view of the world.

The rest of the story

My workshop group captured the “small” moon at sunset on Thursday, when it was 93% full and the “official” (assumes a flat, unobstructed horizon) moonrise was 3:09 p.m (an hour and 40 minutes before sunset). That night the moon didn’t rise to 16 degrees above the horizon, the angle to Half Dome’s summit as viewed from our location beside the Merced River, until almost exactly sunset. Because it’s so much higher than anything to the west, Half Dome gets light pretty much right up until sunset—look closely and you can see the day’s last rays kissing Half Dome’s summit.

Flat horizon moonrise on Saturday, when the moon was 100% full, was at 4:24 p.m., only about twenty minutes before sunset. But Tunnel View is nearly 500 feet above Yosemite Valley; it’s also 5 1/2 miles farther than Half Dome than Thursday’s location—this increased elevation and distance reduces the angle to the top of Half Dome to just 6 degrees. So, despite rising over an hour later, when viewed from Tunnel View, the moon peeked above the ridge behind Half Dome just a couple of minutes after sunset (if we’d stayed at Thursday night’s location, in addition to being hungry and cold, by Saturday we’ have had to wait until after 6:00 for the moon to appear).


My objective for full moon photography is always to get the detail in the moon and the foreground. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, these were workshop shoots, and experience has shown me that the most frequent failure when photographing a rising moon in fading twilight is getting the exposure right—the tendency is to perfectly expose the foreground, which overexposes the daylight-bright moon (leaving a pure white disk). This problem is magnified when the moon catches everyone unprepared.

So, both evenings I had my group on location about 30 minutes before the moon. While we waited I made sure everyone had their blinking highlights (highlight alert) turned on, and understood that their top priority would be capturing detail in the moon. I warned them that an exposure without a blinking (overexposed) moon would slightly underexpose the foreground. And I told them that once they had the moon properly exposed (as bright as possible without significant blinking highlights), they shouldn’t adjust their exposure because the moon’s brightness wouldn’t change and they’d already made it as bright as they could. This meant that as we shot, the foreground would get continually darker until it just became too dark to photograph.

(A graduated neutral density filter would have extended the time we could have photographed the scene, but the vertical component of Yosemite’s horizon made a GND pretty useless. A composite of two frames, one exposed for the moon and one exposed for the landscape would have been a better way to overcome the scene’s increasing dynamic range.)

Compare and contrast

Winter Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

Winter Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite

Thursday night’s scene, which would have been beautiful by itself, was simply accented by the (nearly) full moon. Contrast that with my visit a few years ago, when I photographed a full moon rising slightly to the left of its position last Saturday’s night. But more significant than the moon’s position that evening was the rest of the scene, which was so spectacular that it called for a somewhat wider composition that included the pink sky and fresh snow. And then there’s the above image, from last Saturday night—because the sky was cloudless (boring), and snow was nowhere to be seen, I opted for a maximum telephoto composition that was all about the moon and Half Dome.

The wide angle perspective I chose Thursday night emphasized the foreground by exaggerating the distance separating me, Half Dome, and the moon; the snowy moonrise image found a middle ground that went as tight as possible while still conveying the rest of the scene’s beauty. Saturday night’s telephoto perspective compressed that distance, bringing the moon front and center. Same moon, same primary subject: If Thursday night’s moon was a garnish, Saturday’s was the main course.

Learn more about photographing a full moon

Join me next fall as we do this all over again

A gallery of Yosemite moons

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

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