A Clearing Storm by Moonlight

Yosemite Valley illuminated by the rising moon, Yosemite NP, CA, USA
Clearing storm by moonlight, Yosemite

Last week another storm brought rain and snow to Yosemite. We didn't get a lot of precipitation, but after the cold front passed through, snow levels dropped down to near 3,000 feet, and Yosemite Valley got about two inches of snow.

Checking the satellite images online Wednesday afternoon it looked like the skies might clear before sunset, so I headed up to Yosemite Valley. It didn't quite happen; I saw some breaks in the clouds, and faint sunlight hitting Sentinel Rock, but that was all. However, I knew that the nearly-full moon was due to rise about 20 minutes after sunset, so I headed up to Tunnel View to see if the skies might clear in time for the moonrise.

Before the moon came up I photographed the snowy scene by the light of the fading dusk. Then I noticed clouds in the distance lit by the rising moon. Soon some clouds overhead were catching the moonlight. Then the moon lit the mist on the valley floor.

This was just a spectacular sight – something I took time to appreciate during 15- and 30-second exposures. I'd never seen such a beautiful clearing storm storm lit by the rising moon. I'd also never seen that lighting angle. In winter the sun rises way over to the right, behind Cathedral Rocks. But the full moon in winter takes a path similar to the summer sun, rising much further to the left. On Wednesday evening it came up just to the left of Half Dome, pouring light down the length of the valley and hitting that mist on the valley floor – a moment shown in the photograph at the top of this post. Luckily the moon remained hidden behind clouds for awhile, otherwise the contrast between the bright moon and dark foreground would have been too difficult to handle.

Soon after I made that photograph the moon appeared through a gap in the clouds, and the contrast became too extreme, plus I started to get lens flare (yes, the moon can create lens flare!). So I packed up and headed down to a spot along the Merced River, where the clouds and mist lingered for awhile as I photographed Three Brothers and El Capitan (shown below).

Moonlit looks very different to our eyes than sunlight. First, the light is much dimmer. Second, we don't see much color by moonlight, because it's too dark for the color-sensitive cones in our retinas to work, and we see only with our color-blind rods.

But a photograph taken by moonlight can look very much like a daytime photograph. A long exposure can make the image quite bright, and the camera has no problem recording color at night. So in processing these images I tried to make them look more like I saw them. That meant keeping them a bit dark overall. I also used a cooler white balance and less color saturation than I would with daytime images, to give the photographs more of the silvery look that you see with your eyes. And I tried to bring out stars as much as possible, though that was challenging, as the bright moonlight tended to wash out the stars.

The photograph at the top of this post was particularly challenging to photograph and process because of the high contrast. I bracketed three exposures for this scene, and later blended those frames together in Photoshop using layer masks. (The exposures were 8 seconds at f/8, 400 ISO; 30 seconds at f/8, 400 ISO; and 30 seconds at f/5.6, 800 ISO.) The clouds and mist moved considerably during the long exposures, so HDR probably would have created lots of ghosting, but the manual blend in Photoshop worked well.

It was a special, magical night. I was glad to be a photographer; what other pursuit involves deliberately seeking out our planet's most beautiful moments?

— Michael Frye

Three Brothers by moonlight during a clearing snowstorm, Yosemite NP, CA, USA
Three Brothers by moonlight during a clearing snowstorm, Yosemite. 20 seconds at f/4, 1600 ISO.


El Capitan by moonlight, Yosemite NP, CA, USA
El Capitan by moonlight, Yosemite. 15 seconds at f/2.8, 3200 ISO.


Related Posts: Yosemite Falls by Moonlight; Moonbeams Over Yosemite Valley

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California. Visit Michael’s blog for more photography tips and tutorials.

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