Everybody shoots sunsets. I doubt if you could find a photographer, or any traveler with a camera, who hasn’t tried their hand at capturing that last light of the day. And I don’t blame them. I’ve shot more than a few sunsets myself. But unless you’re presented with a wonderful sky full of dramatic clouds, or some exceptional reflected color, your sunset shot isn’t going to turn any heads.
That’s why Rochelle and I try to study other astronomical events to see if we can incorporate them into our photography. And it turns out our favorite celestial body is often not the sun, but the moon. But before I get into the ins and “mostly” outs of shooting the moon, let me tell you a bit about our most recent weekend in Yosemite.
March is usually one of my favorite times of the year in Yosemite. It’s not crowded. There’s snow on the ground. The light is perfect for much of the day. What’s not to like? Well I can tell you what’s not to like – this year’s drought. This past weekend, Yosemite was in the high 60’s, there wasn’t a bit of snow on the ground and the Valley was full of tourists. And to make matters worse, the sky was hazy and unusually bright. You can already guess that the conditions weren’t great for photography.
But here’s where our homework saved us. After spending the day trying to find one of the last remaining camping sites (Yosemite is still on a first-come, first-served basis with reservation-only camping beginning next week.), we headed over to one of our secret sites to shoot the top of Yosemite Falls. I’m not a fan of shooting in the middle of the day, but in the spring the top of Yosemite falls is covered in a wonderful side light around 1:00 in the afternoon – if you know where to go.
I know I said it’s a secret site, but seeing that you’re taking the time to read my story, I’ll tell you anyway. It’s from the Yosemite Courthouse parking lot, just up (North) from Yosemite Village. Parking is for the courthouse only, but it’s deserted on the weekends. If you’re going on a weekday, just park at the Village Store and walk. It isn’t very far. Bring a good-sized telephoto lens (about 200-300mm) so you can capture the details at the top of the falls.
After that, we really didn’t know where to go until the sun got a little bit lower in the sky. So, we did what every photographer should know how to do – we took a nap. And for us, there’s no better place to take a nap than in our little motorhome Charley. We just found a pretty spot, opened up the back doors (screened to keep out the bugs, of course) and snoozed away the rest of the afternoon.
The sun finally got a little bit lower in the sky, and it was time to check out a pretty cool Yosemite meteorological phenomenon — waterfall rainbows! When Yosemite’s waterfalls have a pretty good flow (and with the early spring this year, the Falls are flowing in March like they usually do in April) and you add a little bit of wind you get mist. And if you light up that mist with a sun that’s directly behind you, and fairly low in the sky, you’re going to get rainbow colors with your waterfall – and that’s an amazing combination to photograph.
In the last afternoon, Bridal Veil Falls picks up a gorgeous rainbow that can be seen perfectly from both the famous Tunnel View and from Valley View (sometimes called “The Gates of the Valley”). The colors travel in the opposite direction from the sun, so while the sun is going down, the rainbow colors travel from the base to the top of the falls. Prepare to take lots of photos, because as the colors are travelling up the waterfall, they’re also being spread out by the wind, providing an ever-changing light show. Plan on getting to either location in the mid-afternoon (around 3:00) and spending some time waiting. It’s worth it.
I told you up front that we needed to do some homework before we visited the Valley this time and now I’ll tell you what that entailed. First of all, I always check out the moon rise times and the moon phases for the evenings we’re travelling. If you’re in luck, the moon will begin to rise significantly before sunset. It’s much easier to get a proper exposure of the moon and your landscape when you have some soft evening light to even out the scene. Last year, we caught the moon rising next to Half Dome at sunset in November and the timing couldn’t have been better.
However, this weekend, we had a mix of good news and bad news. The good news was the moon was going to be nearly full and the sky was forecasted to be clear. The bad news was the timing. From what I could tell, the moon wouldn’t clear Half Dome before the sun was already down. Figuring that out in Yosemite isn’t a piece of cake. While anybody can look at their smartphone and know when the moon will rise and when the sun will set, it’s much harder to know where the two will happen. And it’s even harder in Yosemite, where 4000 foot cliffs surround the scene.
So, before we went, I spent a lot of time figuring things out with an application called The Photographer’s Ephemeris. You can download it for free on your home computer, and it’s available for a reasonable price for your smartphone too. Just a note though – it’s hard to get a reliable internet connection in Yosemite, so do most of the work at home before you go.
After a lot of playing around, I finally figured out we needed to be significantly far away from Half Dome to reduce the apparent altitude of the horizon, and we needed to be near the North side of the Valley to have a direct line-of-sight as the moon rose at the crook of Half Dome’s shoulder. It turned out there was one perfect location, and that was in Cook’s meadow behind the famous Elm Tree. If you’re unfamiliar with the Park, Cook’s meadow is located between Yosemite Village and the Yosemite Lodge, and the Elm tree stands by itself on the north side of the meadow, near the road.
I’m sure I sound pretty smart, coming up with all of that. And it turns out I was right. The moon came up almost exactly when I predicted and even very close to where I predicted. But, unfortunately for me, that’s also when I got really, really stupid. You see, even though I had a nice wide angle zoom, I decided I wanted to get a close up shot of the moon as it came over the ridge. I had my aperture set at f/16 so I would get a nice “star” effect too. It should have been perfect, but it sure didn’t turn out that way. The brightness of my tightly-focused moon took over my shot and left everything else a dark, muddy mess. So I ended up with a big overexposed blob in the middle of a black photograph. All of that work for nothing.
Fortunately for me, Rochelle got it right. She had a 24mm prime lens which allowed her to get a smaller, but much better exposed moon. And as an added benefit, she got a wonderful composition to go along with it. So, in this case, I did all the homework, but Rochelle came home with the “A”. And to rub it in, she got both a color and a black and white photograph to add to her portfolio. Dang it.
It would have been a complete bummer, except we got some great added benefits of that full moon. After it cleared some more of the cliffs and got a bit higher in the sky, it lit up Yosemite Falls. If you’ve never stood in a moon-lit Yosemite meadow at night, staring up at a giant, milky-white waterfall, you owe it to yourself to add that particular event to your personal bucket list.
When you’re shooting at night, don’t forget that moving lights can add a lot of interest to your photograph. Light trails from passing cars can turn into incredible laser beams of colored light as they travel across your shot. Here’s an example, with Charley taking center stage.
We could have stayed out there all evening, watching the falls and checking out the lights coming from the climbers on the Upper Yosemite trail, underneath Lost Arrow and even over on the Royal Arches, but we were getting very hungry. So, off to camp and a great pasta dinner cooked up in our little motorhome’s kitchen.
The next morning, we did what we nearly always do when we’re travelling in Charley; we found the most scenic place in the area to have breakfast. It’s funny that a plain old bowl of cereal can taste so perfect when you’re looking out the window at a waterfall.
And what a waterfall it is. Yosemite Falls is the highest measured waterfall in North America and when it’s running strong, it’s simply mesmerizing. But we were in for a treat this weekend because that unique “rainbow” effect was having its way with the giant falls on Sunday morning. We stood in the middle of the Ahwahnee meadows, snapping away like crazy. And I’m so glad I had my new long lens. I could get the whole waterfall in one shot, and then zoom in on the fall’s base, where the colors danced against Yosemite’s cliff walls. Magic.
On the way out, we decided to take a quick walk up to lower Yosemite Falls, because the rainbows can happen over there as well. We missed the rainbows, but Rochelle captured a wonderful shot showing the power of the spring runoff.
And a trip to Yosemite wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Cathedral Beach, one of Rochelle’s favorite photography spots. And this post wouldn’t be complete without one of Rochelle’s abstracts, of the golden Merced River as it travelled by the beach.