Yosemite is known by many as nature’s cathedral. The granite giants of the Sierra rise thousands of feet out of the earth, seemingly watching over the glacially carved valleys below. After the light fades and the moon rises above the rock walls, the landscape lights up with a new life. The stars begin to puncture the dark canopy of the sky and twinkle like diamonds from on high. To experience Yosemite after dark is like experiencing another world, seldom seen, and even more seldom photographed.
Mike Wardynski and I had the chance to give a great group of photographers a first hand look into this wonderful place after the sun went down. We met up with the group on Saturday afternoon, in the quiet canyon town of El Portal.
To get better acquainted, we started with a nice relaxed orientation. After we learned a little more about everyone, Mike and I went over our itinerary for the next few days, and briefly went over some camera settings and techniques for photographing at night. Taking photos at night is very different from shooting normal landscapes, and we wanted to get everyone started on the right foot.
After orientation, we had a short break while we waited for the afternoon heat to die down, and for the park to clear out from the day's happenings. Since President Obama and his family were in the valley for a visit, and because Tioga Pass was open, we opted to spend our first night in the high country. We left El Portal around five o’clock, giving everyone enough time to get a bite to eat before our night’s adventure.
After about an hour drive, we landed in Tuolumne Meadows. Given that it is an El Nino year, the meadow was partially flooded, creating some excellent conditions for sunset reflections. Mike and I helped the students get set up and showed them how using filters can enhance the vibrant colors of the sky, and they were prepared when the clouds above the meadow glowed with intense orange and pink hues as the sun sank low on the horizon.
Once the sun was down and the light began to fade, everyone lined up and put on their wide angle lenses to prepare for the stars to arrive. As soon as it was completely dark, Mike and I went around and showed our folks how to use their intervalometers, and to focus on the stars to make sure their images were sharp. We went over some final key settings and then everyone pushed start, to begin capturing a series of star trail images.
We set the intervalometers to take about 25 shots in a row so that when we grouped them together in Photoshop they would streak across the sky, showing the rotation of the earth. While waiting on our cameras, some of us went back to the van to warm our fingers and toes... it's difficult to stay warm when you are waiting for your camera to do its thing... when it is only 30 degrees out! (When we returned to the meadow to check our cameras, there was frost on the ground!) Our cameras worked hard while we took a break.
After a quick review of everyone's images, we packed up and drove to the south end of Tenaya Lake for a go at more star trails, this time with the north star in view.
Mike and I helped the group set up again and find some interesting compositions to shoot. After just a few minutes, everyone was good to go. The lake was like glass, adding nice reflections of the stars in the water. We stood around and enjoyed the moonlit, granite domes surrounding the lake, while slowly but surely, the cameras began to light up, signaling that they were done working for the time being.
We looked through the images to make sure that they had done a good job, and we were happy to see that they had! At this point, it was almost 2:00 am, so Mike and I decided we had better call it for the night so we could all get some sleep. We returned to the hotel around 3:00 am and zonked out for the night.
After a much needed sleep in, we met up with the group and headed into Yosemite Valley. Now that the President had left the building, things were quieting down and traffic was down to a dull roar. We were all famished, so we started the night out with a quick dinner before another evening of fun.
After dinner, it was time to set up for sunset. We headed out to a nice bend along the Merced River for a reflection of Half Dome. As the alpine glow began to illuminate the mountain, the shutters began to fire. Some light clouds moved in above the tree line, adding to the scene, and glowing with the evening light, making the views incredible.
Our next stop was the Majestic, previously known as, Awahanee Hotel. We took the students around the back side of the building, where they captured some nice images of the blue hour and the lights from the hotel, just before dark. We spent about 45 minutes there, working with different compositions and exposures.
Another great thing about the high water year... there was a good amount of water in Yosemite Falls. We decided that it was a pretty good chance that we could see a moonbow, or lunar rainbow, if the conditions permitted. We parked the van, grabbed the gear and hiked up to the Lower Falls bridge to set up to witness the interesting phenomenon.
There are several things that need to happen for the moonbow to happen. There needs to be 1) close to a full moon, 2) enough water flowing to create mist, and, 3) the moon must be unobscured.
When we first arrived, the moon was mostly obscured by a grouping of clouds, thwarting our efforts to capture this elusive beast. Even with that, Mike and I still helped everyone get dialed in and get their focus set. Then, we began to see a faint bow of light in the mist. The crowd was giddy as the 50 or so other photographers noticed the arrival of this rare phenomenon, too. We spent over an hour making sure that our group got good shots and were happy with their compositions. Toward the end, the clouds began to thicken and the moonbow began to fade in and out, and we knew it was time to move to our next location.
We walked back down the path and into Cook's Meadow for an opportunity to photograph the upper and lower falls near an old apple tree.
When we arrived in the meadow, we noticed that the entire sky was filled with puffy clouds. This was a great opportunity to show our group how to capture pin point stars. We went over some techniques to get the stars without any movement, and some of the group tried some longer exposures to get movement and streaking in the clouds. Although there were too many clouds to do more star trails, the moonlit landscape was enough to make some dynamic images.
After a short walk back to the van, we all piled in and headed down to one final location before calling it for the evening.
Our last stop was at the Gates of the Valley. This spot is great for a sunset location, but is also nice for shooting stars, and capturing El Capitan and the Cathedral Rocks. While we were there, a few stars flirtingly poked out through the clouds, and it became another good spot for some pin points. At about 2:00 am, we decided to call it for this workshop, everyone loaded with great shots and great memories... so we moseyed down to our hotel for a well deserved nap....
Until next time,
Phil, Mike, and the rest of the 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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