Posted on October 16, 2022
Once upon a time, moonlight was the only kind of night photography I did. As lifelong astronomy enthusiast, I’ve always been mesmerized by all the stars that come out when the moon is down, but film and the earliest digital cameras were just not capable of adequately capturing the world after dark without help from multiple exposures or artificial light (dealbreakers for me).
While waiting for digital technology to catch up with my Milky Way aspirations, I watched other photographers achieve beautiful results using night photography techniques that didn’t appeal to me: Light painting (long exposures with foreground subjects illuminated by artificial light), and blue-hour blends (one image captured with the foreground illuminated by twilight “blue hour” sky, blended with a second image of the stars from later total darkness at the same location).
Longing for something different than moonlight, while staying true to my one-click natural light objective, I added star trails to my night sky toolbox. Start trails allowed me to keep my shutter open long enough to reveal the landscape beneath a moonless, star-fill sky—albeit with star streaks that bore no resemblance to the pinpoint stars I was so fond of gazing at. Another perk star trail photography was the opportunity to kick back beneath a star-filled ceiling while waiting for my exposure to complete.
When digital sensors finally improved enough to enable usable starlight (moonless) images, I was all-in. Armed with my newly acquired Sony a7S camera (and subsequent versions) and super-fast and wide prime lenses, I aggressively pursued images of the Milky Way’s brilliant core above my favorite landscapes.
So thrilling was this Milky Way revelation, I all but dropped moonlight photography. In fact, moonlight and Milky Way photography are mutually exclusive because when the moon is full, the Milky Way is lost in the moon’s glow. So by 2015, the only moonlight photography I was doing came during my annual spring moonbow workshops in Yosemite, where bright moonlight is required for the lunar rainbow’s appearance.
As much as possible I time my trips, both personal and workshops, for moonless nights to maximize the Milky Way photography opportunities. One exception is my annual autumn visit to the Eastern Sierra, which is always timed for early October to coincide with the best fall color while letting the moon phase fall where it may.
When the moon cooperates, the dark skies east of the Sierra are ideal for Milky Way photography
This year’s Eastern Sierra visit was joined by a waxing gibbous moon that was well on its way to full (the day after my scheduled return home). Yet despite the nearly full moon, I longed for a night shoot. So on my first night in Lee Vining I decided to revisit (non-moonbow) moonlight photography for the first time in seven years and drove out to Mono Lake’s South Tufa after dinner. (Shout-out to the Whoa Nellie Deli.)
With my very first click, memories of how enjoyable moonlight photography is came rushing back: Composition and (especially) focus are orders of magnitude easier than with Milky Way photography; there’s no worry about getting lost or tripping over something (or someone); and even with the sky washed out by moonlight, the camera captures many times more stars than my eyes see. None of these insights were actually new, but they still felt like revelations because I’d been doing nothing but dark sky photography for so long.
This might be a good time to mention that for anyone interested getting into night photography, I strongly encourage starting with moonlight. Unlike Milky Way photography, you don’t need fancy gear—just a decent tripod, any mirrorless or DSLR body, full frame or cropped, made in the last 20 years (pretty much since the first digital cameras) will work, and an f/4 lens is plenty fast enough. Read my Photo Tips article on moonlight photography for more detailed instruction on moonlight photography.
One thing that made this Mono Lake night especially nice was the disappearance of the light breeze that had chopped up the reflection at sunset a couple of hours earlier. The lake wasn’t quite mirror-like, but the surface had settled to gentle undulations that smoothed completely in my multi-second exposures, revealing a gauzy reflection that stood out beautifully in each image. And the 82% moon, while not quite full, was more than bright enough to illuminate the water and limestone tufa towers better than any light painting could have.
I started with images of just water and Mono Lake’s iconic “shipwreck” tufa feature beneath the stars, but soon went exploring for a more interesting foreground. When I found the scene in this image, I oriented my Sony 𝛂1 vertically to maximize the sky, and widened my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens to 16mm to include more foreground than I usually do in a night image.
In almost all of my night images I simply focus on the stars, but this foreground started about 5 feet away and had so much interesting (important) detail, I stopped down to f/8 and focused about 6 feet from my camera to ensure front-to-back sharpness. Using my 𝛂1’s Bright Monitoring feature (I highly recommend to Sony mirrorless shooters who do night photography that they assign it to a custom button), I was able to manually focus through my viewfinder.
To compensate for the light lost to the smaller aperture and less than completely full moon, I bumped my ISO to 3200 and exposed for 20 seconds—less than ideal, but the 𝛂1 handles ISO 3200 easily, and at 16mm there’s not much visible star movement in a 20 second exposure, so I wasn’t worried.
I was only out here for about an hour, but it was such a joyful experience, and I’m so pleased with my results, that I know there’s a lot more moonlight photography in my future.
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Posted on December 12, 2021
Between a lot of travel last week and preparing for a workshop that starts this week, I somehow managed to process an image yesterday. And today I’m going to attempt to squeeze out a quick blog post around a gathering that’s a 5-hour roundtrip away. Let’s see what happens…
This image makes me think about other memorable shoots that might not have happened had I stuck with the original plan, or succumbed to the easy (more comfortable) exit. These experiences are a testament to the Wayne Gretzky (or was it Michael Scott?) wisdom that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
I’m thinking about the rainbow above Yosemite Valley that I wouldn’t have gotten had I stuck with my plan to meet a private workshop student for dinner—instead, I met him and his girlfriend at the restaurant and insisted that we forego dinner to go sit in the rain, because I thought a rainbow might be possible. Or a very cold morning at Lake Wanaka, New Zealand, when I woke to fog so thick that I could barely see 100 yards. Or setting my alarm for 4:30 a.m. to photograph sunrise, even though I had a 12-hour drive home and the forecast promised a zero-percent chance of rain—only to be gifted a 2-hour electrical storm that ended with a rainbow.
Normally I do the Milky Way shoot in the bristlecones on my Eastern Sierra workshop’s second night, but new permit restrictions thwarted that plan (turns out clouds and wildfire smoke would have stopped us anyway). So I resorted to Plan B, promising that we’d give the Milky Way a try after the Olmsted Point sunset shoot on the workshop’s final night.
But ascending Tioga Pass, we encountered smoke from one of the many wildfires scorching California. The smoke thickened as we headed west, and by the time we arrived at Olmsted Point, we could barely make out the outline of Half Dome in the smoky distance. We stayed long enough to enjoy a red-rubber-ball sunset, then blew off our “wait for the Milky Way” plan and drove back down to Lee Vining for dinner.
Though we were all a little disappointed to be missing the Milky Way shoot, as we queued up at the Whoa Nellie Deli (look it up), I sensed that many in the group looked forward to a warm and restful evening. Still, at one point I snuck out into the cold to check the sky. Seeing that clouds, smoke, or some combination of both had snuffed them, I confirmed to the group that the Milky Way shoot was off.
Walking outside after dinner, I was already mentally back in my room, but nevertheless glanced skyward and was surprised to see stars. Lots and lots of stars. Without the smoke/cloud blanket to hold in what little warmth remained, the temperature felt like it had dropped another 10 degrees. Part of me really, really wanted to pretend I hadn’t seen the stars and just herd everyone to the cars before they noticed them too, but I knew the Milky Way was a priority for many, and this opportunity was too good to pass. When I suggested that we give it a shot, almost the entire group was onboard (I can’t remember whether anyone opted out, but most didn’t). So we drove out to South Tufa, bundled up, and traipsed down to the lake.
I’ve photographed here more times than I can count (it’s possible there aren’t even numbers that go that high anyway), but only once or twice at night, many years ago. I didn’t have a specific spot in mind, but since South Tufa is on the south side of the lake, and the Milky Way is in the southern sky, I figured we’d likely be shooting in a tufa garden, with the lake at our back and the calcium carbonate towers in the foreground.
But walking east along the lake shore in the dark, we came upon a small peninsula jutting into the lake. Despite having walked by this spot countless times, I suddenly realized it might protrude far enough to allow us to shoot southward and back cross the water, toward a few tufa towers, with the Milky Way in the background.
We used flashlights to walk out and set up, but then photographed by the light of nothing but the stars. Working with an entire group out here in the dark, with no more than three very craggy feet of space between the lake at our feet and a wall of tufa behind us, was a real challenge. Each time someone called for help I had to navigate a treacherous route in near total darkness, taking care not to bump anyone, and being very mindful that the slightest misstep could send me sprawling into the frigid, salty lake (not to mention what that would do to the reflection).
Each time I passed my camera, I checked my previous image, made quick adjustments, and clicked a new frame before moving on to the next person who needed help. I only managed a handful of shots, and while they all looked pretty similar to this, that was just fine. We stayed here for 30 minutes or so, then moved on to the tufa garden I’d originally considered. That was nice too, though many of those images were spoiled by someone light painting the tufa nearby.
Looking over the images from that night, I’m reminded not just of the great photography we enjoyed, but also of how much fun we had out there in the dark, doing something we never imagined we’d be able to do. It would have been very easy after dinner to return with our full stomachs to our warm rooms, and turn in early to be rested for our early start the next morning. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the best memories often come from the most challenging conditions. If we’d have followed the strong urge to return to the hotel right after dinner, we almost certainly would have been quite comfortable, content, and completely oblivious to what we’d missed. And what a sad thing that would have been.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Posted on October 21, 2017
Leading 15-20 photo workshops per year means coming to terms with photographing the same locations year in, year out. This is not a complaint—I only guide people to locations I love photographing—but it sometimes makes me long for the opportunity to capture something new. Which is why I’m loving visiting my familiar haunts with my newest lenses, the Sony 12-24 G and Sony 100-400 GM. (I’ve had the Tamron 150-600 for a couple of years, but find it too big to lug routinely.)
Back-to-back Eastern Sierra workshops earlier this month meant multiple visits to Mono Lake. My first group hit the jackpot on our South Tufa sunset shoot, finding a glassy reflection (usually reserved for sunrises here) beneath a striking formation of cirrocumulus clouds. Because I was with my group, and I’d guided them all to the spot where the majority wanted to be (justifiable so for first-time visitors), I couldn’t go out in search of something a little different. Instead I just whipped out my 12-24 lens, dropped my tripod to lake-level with one leg in the water, and started composing.
I’m still getting used to shooting at 12mm, which is not only considerably different from what my eyes see, it’s considerably different from what I’ve become used to seeing in my viewfinder (the difference between 16mm and 12mm is huge). The lesson here is the importance of a strong foreground in a wide composition—the wider the focal length, the more important the foreground becomes. Here the entire lakebed was so alive with color and shape, and the water was so still and clear, finding a foreground wasn’t really a problem. I just needed to make sure I organized all the scene’s visual elements into something coherent.
Anchoring my frame with a nearby quartet of small rocks (just a couple of feet away) and a larger protruding lump of tufa a little behind it (everything else in my foreground was submerged), I peered into my viewfinder and quickly decided to go for symmetry with the larger background elements. The clouds couldn’t have been more perfectly positioned—combined with their reflection, they seemed to point directly my composition’s centerpiece, the “Shipwreck” tufa formation (not really an official name, but widely used) that is probably Mono Lake’s most recognizable feature. At 12mm depth of field wasn’t a huge concern—I focused about three feet into the scene and was able to achieve sharpness throughout my frame.
Anyone who has ever been to Mono Lake’s South Tufa can appreciate, looking at this image, how 12mm on a full frame body shrinks distant subjects—the Shipwreck is a very prominent feature here, but the wide lens shrinks it to almost secondary status. On the other hand, dropping down and getting as close as possible to the shore at 12mm really emphasizes the beautiful submerged patterns.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.