After a longer than expected journey to the ever sacred countryside of the California Eastern Sierras due to road closures in the wake of punishing winter rains, we finally reach the valley floor of Yosemite. Arriving, we head straight for the daily campsite and get lucky in securing a site to bed down later tonight – it should get down to the mid 20*F by the time sleepy time rolls around.
Killing a few hours until nighttime, this winter’s snow melt is in full force as the waterfalls are spewing streams of gushing water from the surrounding walls of granite. Settling on a spot beside the shores of the Merced River with tripods setup, all you heard is the water calmly rushing past a fallen branch a few feet from shore. Ommmmm … no humans with just an occasional visit from grazing deer. Peace. As the sun begins to lower itself behind the granite monoliths from behind and all around, the star of the show begins to isolate itself from its competing peaks, reaching for the last bits of sun rays. Temperatures are dropping steadily sitting in the shade and the layers of clothing begin to appear. Not wanting to leave this surrender spot (not to mention missing golden hour), we prepare ourselves a mountain fresh gourmet meal. There’s nothing quite like scraping a 2-sided spoon/spork/knife instrument against the inside of a foil bag of chicken fettuccini alfredo sauce! What a feast I tell ya! It helps to have a portable water boiler to reconstitute your food. Full bellies, we wait for sundown.
Not a glorious sunset against Half Dome, but definitely worth the wait, plus we got to dine down by the river. Making our way over to Lower Yosemite Falls in near darkness from our campsite only about 10 minutes away, we waited for the light show to begin. Light show? What light show? Throughout given times throughout the year, Yosemite plays host to many naturally occurring events each having their own degree of spectacular-ness (I just made that word up). I’ve been to the light show in February in years past (aka Firefall) and catching rainbows at Vernal & Bridal Vail Falls at different times during the year to name a few. But, I’ve always wanted to get to this one event that occurs from about now until mid June or so. Moonbow’s. Moon what you ask? Well, I’m sure you’ve heard of rainbows, right? You know, when the weather changes from rainy to sunny, you increase your chances of seeing one? Rainbows are caused by water particles floating in the air and if you happen to be in the right place at the right time (or, right angle of the sun with relation to the water particles), you get a rainbow during the daytime! Sun+water=rainbow. Now, moonbow’s are similar, but instead of the sun, the moon plays an important part in producing a spectrum of light. Moon+water=moonbow.
Standing on the bridge in front of Lower Yosemite Falls, we wait for the moon to rise above the surrounding peaks as it must shine itself directly on the misty spray from the falls. For those who have ever stood at the base of a raging waterfall, you know what’s in store … a cold shower. Well, as I packed for this 1-day junket, it was sleepy bag, camera kit, warm clothing, food and portable stove (glad my travel partner brought the sleeping pad and tent), beanie cap and gloves … check check and double check. Just before going up to the falls, I discovered that I failed to bring my waterproof jacket. Ugh. Off to the sundries store to buy a poncho. Now I looked like a real tourist with the Yosemite logo stamp in bright white on the chest and back, but I didn’t care – at least I’d be dry. Back at the bridge … setting up the camera to begin shooting, I make sure to use my weather sealed lens to prevent water damage. About 30mins pass and it begins. We are in near complete darkness.
As the show began, the crowds became larger and larger – mostly people with camera’s and tripods. When shooting at night, most photographers use headlamps for hands-free light. Most turn on the red (instead of white) light as to not spoil your light adjustment to the darkness (white is blinding and you see black when you turn it off). What most don’t realize that even though you use red light, you are spraying your light in the scene – often unbeknown to the naked eye. It got so bad that I had to ask a few people to please turn off their lights. After each image made, I needed to wipe the lens (ND filter of course) from water particles. Luckily, I have UV filters that have a special coating to where the water beads up making it easy to wipe off – much like putting Rain X on your windshield. While performing this process, I sensed many eyes behind me trying to get a glimpse of what I was getting. I turn around and ask if they want to see. “YES!” is always the answer. When they see the moonbow on the LCD, they all say, “I don’t see the color” (remember, it’s nearly pit dark out and the only light is from the moon, not to mention those inconsiderate and perhaps clueless people with headlamps on), “It looks like daytime” etc. etc. etc. It’s amazing what the camera’s “eye” can see.
What I learned is keeping shooting. If you think you’ve “nailed it”, shoot again and again. Like Forest Gump says, “… you never know what you’re going to get!” Depending on the spray, your moonbow will be different. Read the caption of the moonbow images to see which one I settled on as “the shot”. I started on at ISO 3200 and gradually worked my way down to 1000, keeping the f-stop at the lowest possible setting (in this case my lens was an f-4). So, from here, all I had to do is dial-in my shutter speed to obtain the desire exposure – full well knowing that I’d have a bit of post to do. Of course, shooting in low light, let alone darkness, a tripod is a must because your shutter speeds will be very slow where the slightest camera movement will ruin the image. That said, even though I was on a tripod, shooting at around 20 seconds/image, vibration is not my friend. Standing on a wooden (albeit very sturdy) bridge, anyone walking across it (and there were many), you just have to gamble and hope for the best. What do you think of the outcome?
Aside from the moonbow event, Yosemite is full of water right now, readying itself for the late spring snow runoff where the waterfalls will be raging even more. Shooting water features is plentiful and given the softness of the day (heavily overcast the 2nd day), it was easier to shoot them without blowing out my highlights – everything was nice and even in contrast. I love slowing the water down to give that ethereal smoothing of rushing water using either at least a 3-stop Neutral Density filter to allow me to use slower shutter speeds during the day. I like abstracts, so I was after abstracts with water as well. Use the camera as your paint/light brush and you will be rewarded with some pretty cool images.