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El Capitan and Cassiopeia, Yosemite

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 5 September 2009 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.

Inspired by Friday's full moon, I'm posting a moonlight image of Yosemite's El Capitan. In my previous post I suggested that the best nature photography comes at times when most tourists are warm and cozy. Not only do the rest of us get to witness things others miss, we pretty much get these iconic locations to ourselves.

The reflective nature of Yosemite's granite makes it ideal for moonlight photography. So on this night I did what I normally do in Yosemite on a full moon night: drive (or walk) Yosemite Valley in search of scenes like this. When I exited my car at El Capitan Bridge, even in the brightness of a full moon, Cassiopeia's distinctive "W" suspended above El Capitan jumped out against the background of fainter stars. I moved around with my camera, experimenting with compositions, finally settling on this one that required me to set up in the middle of the road. Despite my precarious position, I ended up taking several 20- and 30-second exposures without vehicular interruption (remember what I said about having locations to myself).

Inexperienced photographers often take advantage of their DSLR's amazing ability to accumulate light and adjust color temperature to create moonlight images that look like daylight with stars. But I want my moonlight images to be perceived as night at first glance. A full moon casts ample light on any subject it strikes directly, but its shadows can be quite dark. Here I used this extreme contrast to my advantage, intentionally rendering El Capitan's shadowed side black to create a genuinely night image. And shooting in raw mode allows me to reduce the color temperature in the raw processor, giving the scene a cooler, night-like cast.

Of course what this image can't convey is the glorious silence accompanying the moonlight. Not absolute silence, but rather a world devoid of the manmade auditory intrusions that we routinely tune out. My ears were left with nothing but the music of nature: the whisper trees tilting in a gentle breeze, the constant hum of water and rock jockeying for position in the Merced River behind me.

While a photograph may be a purely visual experience, photography is not. Photography should inspire a relationship with the subject that transcends the medium. Put simply: Love your subject and it will love you back.

<BTW, I still have a couple of openings in my September 29-October 3 Eastern Sierra Fall Color workshop where we'll do at least one night of moonlight photography>

Next post: September 8 (please view my previous posts by clicking the arrow in the upper left of today's image)

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Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

looking at this and reading your words I almost feel I am standing right there, listening to the night sounds...
This is just wonderful on so many levels.
Today I posted my first attempt at night time photography- Thanks for the inspiration!

5 Sep 2009 5:06am

Barbara Kile from United States

Exquisite! I can feel the mood and stillness. Lovely light and textures.

5 Sep 2009 5:10am

Dulcie from Danville, CA, United States

This is a lovely, dramatic and very interesting shot. Thank you for describing your process and for giving so much how-to information about photography!

5 Sep 2009 6:36am

pernilla from Andonno, Italy

Wonderful moonlight! Love the mood.

5 Sep 2009 7:01am

Vitor Martins from Lisboa, Portugal

Beautiful night photo, and nice words too. This summer I had practice night shots but are not even close to this one.

5 Sep 2009 8:41am

Anina from Auckland, New Zealand

WOW!!! Beautiful night shot!!!

5 Sep 2009 8:54am

john4jack from Corvallis, Oregon, United States

Breathtaking. Stunning moonlight on El Capitan.

5 Sep 2009 3:26pm

Magda from Vancouver, Canada

So much character.... wonderful shot! The light from the mood does magic to this image! WEll done :)

5 Sep 2009 6:55pm

Judy from Brooksville, Florida, United States

MAGNIFICENT ... and Cassiopeia's chair is the icing on the cake!

6 Sep 2009 2:52am

Onlymehdi from Wayne, United States


i think i am kinda back to look at these beautiful photos. thank you for your support. will soon make my own politic blog and leave aminus3 just for pictures as i use to. your kind words mean so much

6 Sep 2009 3:27am

@Onlymehdi: Thanks you, Mehdi. Of course what you're doing is far more important than what I'm doing.

KylePattison from United States

Another beautiful shot - great composition.
I thought I take this opportunity to ask a questions. I was out as well the other night trying to shoot the full moon directly. What I got was either a perfectly sharp image of the moon with nothing else or a huge blur of light knocking out any details. I must of shot 40 pictures with out any luck of a mid ground.

I'm a huge fan of your blog - your work has inspired me more than I'd like to try to post in this small comment. Keep it up, please.

7 Sep 2009 12:10am

@KylePattison: Thanks, Kyle. The problem you're having photographing the moon is that your camera can't capture nearly the range of light your eyes see. In other words, you need to decide between a perfectly exposed moon and a black foreground, or a perfectly exposed foreground and a pure white blob. The best time to photograph a full moon is the day before it's full, when it rises a little before sunset and there's still some light on the foreground.

MARIANA from Waterloo, Canada

Incredible night shot ! Beautiful night colors !

7 Sep 2009 4:28pm

Bill Jennings from (Bay Area Northern Calif), United States

A great use of moonlight, and as you said - excellent placement of the stars with the characteristic "W"

7 Sep 2009 6:52pm

Lee from Fort Frances Ontario, Canada

I wish I had scenes like this to photgraph at night. No truer words spoken Gary. The sounds of night time are quiet and relaxing. At times it can be deafening. A cricket even sounds loud at night. Excellent composition and use of light. Best regards.

8 Sep 2009 1:57am