Photographing the night sky, or astrophotography, is an amazing and rewarding experience in itself as the camera can pick up so much the eye can't see. This kind of magic can be done on the tops of mountain peaks or your own backyard, but on this late June weekend, eleven fabulous photographers chose to learn how to create this magic in the incomparable Yosemite National Park.
My Aperture Academy co-instructor, Matt Granz and I met this eager group of photographers at the Cedar Lodge in El Portal. It's always a pleasure getting to know new people who share our love of photography, but also to see familiar faces knowing how much fun they'll all have learning new tips and tricks. So we start off introducing ourselves and finding out what types of cameras, lenses, and other gear they've brought with them, where they are technically, and if there is anything in particular each would like to concentrate on over the course of the weekend. We also laid out a general plan of the places we would be visiting within the park and all were ready and willing to learn whatever Matt and I could throw at them.
Following the orientation, we all made ourselves comfortable in the Aperture Academy van (the ApCab!) and off we went to begin our workshop up along the Tioga Pass. In spite of a year of little rain or snow, Yosemite was still in full Spring green mode and the weather was perfectly lovely making our first day of photography a warm and pleasurable experience. Our first stop was the Crane Flat meadow area where the corn flower plants competed with lush green grass, pink shooting stars, and white granite boulders dotting the field. This was a great place for our crew to get their trigger fingers warmed up and for Matt and I to get a better idea of our student's skill levels and familiarity with their cameras in order to provide the best assistance possible. From tighter, more intimate detail shots, to wide angle shots with greater or creative depth of field, everyone found something of interest to begin their adventure.
Back on the road, we made our way up to Olmstead Point to get some shots of the iconic solo Juniper tree which grows from the cracked granite. With its steep slopes, cracks, and uneven surfaces, it was also a great place to instruct students on tripod stability and safety. This is something that many seasoned photographers don't think twice about, but new photographers often learn the hard way when their unbalanced set up topples over and hundreds if not thousands of dollars of camera gear become broken or destroyed. We also practiced auto focusing to infinity to help student's learn at what point on their particular lens to find this setting in the dark using only a flashlight. With a little more time creating sun stars through the Juniper branches, we were off again to the beautiful Tuolumne Meadows. There was no shortage of deer sightings on this trip, but while driving down the highway a coyote decided to cross the road a little too close to the van and I had to slam on the breaks to avoid him. I had shouted, "Coyote crossing!" to my passengers so they would know why they were lunging forward and after getting a look at him safely making it to the other side, some commented on my "mom" gesture of throwing my arm out as if I could keep Matt from spilling out of his seat. Did I mention that Matt is a nice guy and storm chaser? ;)
In Tuolumne we found a nice spot along the river where student's learned how effective a polarizer could be in cutting glare off the water and making for richer colors overall. Matt and I also gave instruction for smoothing out the wind rippled water using the lowest possible ISO, smallest aperture, and neutral density filter to achieve a slower shutter speed even in the light of day. Sometimes a student will ask for a starting point on composition and as instructors we will take sample shots to give them ideas. We always love how this can spark personal creativity and this was one creative group as we saw a number of people on their bellies or contorting themselves to get just the right perspective. We then moved on to another area of the meadows for shots along the graceful curves of the Tuolumne River. Reflections of rocks and trees on the surface of the water as well as using a polarizer to cut the glare and show the wonderful rock patterns beneath the surface were enjoyed and captured by all. Our students filled their memory cards with images of the wide, expansive, lush green meadow, the river curtting through, and Lembert Dome in the distance with puffy clouds filling the deep blue sky.
Finally, it was time to revisit Olmstead Point for sunset and the beginning of shooting up the night sky of Yosemite and a chance of catching the super moon…the time of year when the moon is closest to Earth. We hiked down the trail prepared with flashlights and snacks for the long night ahead. Matt and I showed our students various spots for compositions which included Half Dome in the distance. The clouds had faded as the evening progressed, but the warm evening light bathed the face of Half Dome with Tenaya Canyon and Cloud's Rest complimenting our foreground of massive granite, pine-filled slopes. Night began to fall as we waited for the full moon to crest the peaks and when it did, the excitement was palpable. With the large moon so much brighter than the foreground, Matt grabbed his camera and started shooting to find the best overall exposure and then yelled out instructions for the students to follow. His booming voice echoed throughout the canyon as the sound of shutters clicked away in rapid succession. Before leaving our lofty perch, Matt and I did some light painting of a tree and boulder for our students to capture with the moon as an added element to the background. With everyone set up I would start a countdown for a unison of shutter release and our photographers had a great time learning these 30 second exposures and many breaking out on their own to experiment with their own light painting.
Photographers get used to things going wrong at the most inopportune times, but it doesn't make it any less disappointing. Some of our participants experienced camera and shutter chord malfunctions so Matt and I had to figure out the best way to help so everyone could get worthwhile shots through the night. Earlier that afternoon one person had a brand new tripod that fell apart, and on our way back down the trail from Olmstead another student suffered a sprained ankle, but she was a trooper and kept going without complaint through the following day. One way or the other, we all came together to make it work with everyone's generous assistance to their fellow photographers. Undeterred, Tenaya Lake was our next stop to capture the moon in star form as it reflected off the lake. Matt and I helped students with exposures of thirty seconds or less using smaller apertures and higher ISOs to make this possible. Students also discovered the fun of catching streaming car lights along the highway beneath Polly Dome while catching pin point stars or star trails above using multiple minute exposures.
With one more stop to capture the night sky, it was back to Tuolumne Meadows to an area with easy access to the river using flashlights and the bright light of the moon. We came upon a lush curve along the Merced with a lovely mist rising in the moonlight. All of our photographers had the best time getting the most wonderful shots with mist, reflecting moonlight, and even a few light trails from passing cars. Each enjoyed exploring the riverside creating their own unique compositions with their new skills and as excited as they were, it was near midnight before we headed back to the valley and our hotel rooms for some much needed rest.
While two of our group chose to meet us in the park, the rest gathered at the van at 8:30am to begin our second day of photography in beautiful Yosemite. We sought out the reflections of El Capitan, the Cathedral Peaks, and the Three Brothers amidst tall green grass along the riverbank of the Merced. A duck was intent on becoming an added element to the scene and student's readily enjoyed incorporating this small bit of wildlife into their shots. High clouds overcame the skies and although this made for some nice even lighting conditions and reflections, it did little to accent the towering granite cliffs. Matt and I instructed students on the use of a graduated neutral density filter to compensate for the blank brightness above and along with a polarizer proved useful to bring out the texture and shading of the clouds. We then made our way over to Swinging Bridge which is usually popular for getting reflections of Yosemite Falls in the Merced, but as landscape photographers we also learn that Mother Nature can be fickle and we are always at her mercy. The drought made the falls look more like it does at the end of summer rather than the beginning with little flow streaming down the cliffside. The clouds became heavier as a storm front moved in and helped our students to capture the falls with longer exposures and create the appearance of a better water flow. Again our student's used polarizing filters to cut the glare from the water and reveal the cobbled stone layer beneath the surface adding another dimension to their images.
As many of us had to get back to the hotel for checkout, we gathered for lunch and image review in the restaurant. Matt and I were very impressed to see so many great images and it was our pleasure assisting with processing tips and tricks to make them the best possible. The moonrise and moon over Tenaya Lake was of particular interest so our instruction was on how to bring out all the details of the foreground while keeping the details of the moon from blowing out. We were sure to instruct our students from the beginning to always shoot in raw mode and use adobe rgb color space for the greatest range of information to be pulled from the file and utilized with available software, whether Lightroom, Aperture, Bridge, Photoshop, or other software.
With even more information to digest, we gathered once again and returned to the valley for the balance of our workshop. Our next stop was Sentinel Bridge to photograph the iconic Half Dome above the sweeping Merced. The weather seemed to begin to cooperate as some blue peaked through the clouds and the afternoon light added a bit more depth to the scene. Still the use of a graduated neutral density filter helped to balance out the brighter sky with darker values of the foreground. The weather and lack of flow in the waterfalls must have been the reason the park was not at capacity as we enjoyed our ability to move about freely without an abundance of people or traffic. Yes, it is wonderful to visit Yosemite when conditions are optimal for dramatic photography, but our student's learned there are still so many beautiful images to be captured in this glorious park. From the intimate landscape to black and white, Matt and I were determined to help our photographers find areas of interest to them and their individual creativity. The lush green of Cooks Meadow was our next destination with cow parsnip and wildflowers blooming everywhere. Although it wasn't cold, the sky grew darker with the threat of rain, but now our student's were in the groove easily finding compositions and putting into practice all they had learned.
Making one more stop in the valley before our dinner break and final sunset destination we arrived at another area to try and get reflections of Half Dome in the Merced River. A large beach curves along the river with a wide view of Half Dome above, and a few happy campers were enjoying their afternoon here, but did not deter our group from getting the shot. A strong breeze rippled the surface of the water and tree movement needed to be tamed with a shorter exposure, but some reflections were still possible. More ducks with ducklings galore swam about in our foreground and a lot of photos were taken of these little cuties as they came close enough to see if we had any bread to give them. After getting our traditional group shot memento, everyone made their way over to the Yosemite Lodge cafe to enjoy a leisurely dinner and time spent discussing photography as well as Matt and I sharing information on other places to visit in the park.
We were a bit sad that three of our students needed to leave early and would not be joining us for sunset, but we gathered the remainder of our troop and headed up to Tunnel View. Luckily for us, this Sunday evening proved to be the best time at this spot, and with very few people in attendance all of our fantastic photographers found choice locations for their compositions. Dark clouds continued to cover the sky, but at the final hour began to part as shafts of sunlight danced from peak to peak and across the pine forests of this immensely beautiful glacier carved valley. Lovely soft pastels of pinks and orange colored the clouds as they slowly dissipated into blue skies. It was really quite incredible and the students were fairly self sufficient by this time, needing little assistance while getting excellent results. With even more memory cards filled, this silly, talkative, awesome group of budding landscape and astrophotographers expressed excitement over their achievements and the pleasure of getting them in Yosemite National Park.
Until next time,
Jean, Matt and the entire Aperture Academy team!
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.
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