In the Moment:
Michael Frye's Landscape Photography Blog

Moon and Half Dome Encore

Saturday evening I joined dozens of photographers in the Ahwahnee Meadow to see the celestial encore of Ansel Adams’ famous Moon and Half Dome image. Don Olson of Texas State University had predicted that the moon would be in almost the same spot as when Ansel made his photograph in 1960. In the meadow Saturday were two of Ansel Adams’ former assistants, Alan Ross and Ted Orland, seen in this photo (Ted is the one pointing). A large group of park rangers took a group portrait, and Delaware North, the park concessioner, even set up a little stand at the edge of the meadow serving free hot chocolate.

There was just one small problem: no moon! The sky was mostly clear, but a persistent band of clouds behind Half Dome hid the moon. Nevertheless, we all had a great time—the lunar no-show didn’t really seem to matter. I’ve posted more photos on The Ansel Adams Gallery’s Flickr group.

Afterward the Gallery hosted a reception for Alan Ross and his beautiful new exhibit, Visions of Yosemite and the West. I talked with Alan about the contact sheet of images Ansel made that evening in 1960; it’s an unusual glimpse into the thought process of a master photographer. Although this JPEG is small, you can see that Ansel actually bracketed exposures! By four stops! Yes, Mr. Zone System hedged his bets. Wouldn’t you in this situation? Also, he apparently didn’t wrap the roll of film tightly (he made this image with a Hasselblad and 120 film), and there was a light leak. Luckily only the edges were damaged, otherwise the world would never have seen this fantastic photograph.

I was also struck by the different compositions he framed. We tend to think that a master like Ansel would have such a clear concept in his mind that he would only need one composition. And in fact the first frame here is, I believe, the one that became famous (I could easily be wrong about that). But he also pointed the camera at Mt. Starr King, then put on a shorter lens and photographed the top of the Royal Arches cliff and the moon above Half Dome again. If you look closely you’ll also notice that Ansel shifted the camera slightly to the left and right for the first four frames, where he bracketed exposures. Was he unsure about the precise framing? This seems odd since he wrote in Examples that he visualized the cropping from the start. The contact sheet shows that after bracketing those first four exposures Ansel composed an image of Mt. Starr King, then came back to the moon rising above Half Dome, but this time with slightly different framing, pointing the camera more to the left than previously, then more to the right. It seems that he was bracketing compositions as well as exposures.

This is something I do frequently. You can’t always tell what really works by looking through the viewfinder or at the camera’s LCD screen. If I’m not sure whether composition A or B is better, I do both. It’s nice to know that Ansel wasn’t immune from this uncertainty!

What all this points out is that even the best photographers sometimes make mistakes, and aren’t always sure about the best composition or exposure. We’re all striving to get better; some are just farther along the path than others. Ansel certainly traveled farther than most of us ever will.

Giving Thanks

I have a lot to be thankful for. My son started college this year at Humboldt State. He’s adjusted well, is getting good grades, and seems to be having a great time. It’s good to have him home this week. My wife Claudia and I have been happily married for 23 years. We have great friends, live in a wonderful place, and I make my living doing what I love—photography. And I’m very thankful for all of you, my blog readers, workshop students, and fellow photographers. You make my job fun!

Happy Thanksgiving! Our dogs Bear and Rider wish you were here.

First Snow of the Season?

The National Weather Service has issued a Winter Storm Warning for Yosemite from 4 p.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Saturday. The snow level is projected to begin at around 5000 feet Friday afternoon, but drop to 4000 feet—the elevation of Yosemite Valley—Friday night. Exact snow levels are difficult to forecast, so a slight fluctuation could mean rain instead of snow, but it seems likely that the Valley will get at least a dusting. Forecasters are predicting two to four inches of snow at 4000 feet, four to eight inches above 5000 feet.

For photographers, the big question is when the storm will clear. It looks like it might clear sometime during Friday night, meaning Saturday morning could be beautiful. Or not. It’s always unpredictable! But whenever it clears there will probably be great conditions for photography.

Yes, There's Still Fall Color in Yosemite

It rained yesterday, so I drove up to Yosemite Valley early this morning hoping to find some mist. And mist there was—not that much, but enough. I spent a couple of hours in the Ahwahnee Meadow, where I made this photograph. As I mentioned in my last post, I like the edges of seasons, and this image shows the fall-to-winter transition, with just a few leaves hanging on to these backlit cottonwood trees.

While these cottonwoods have dropped most of their leaves, elsewhere in the valley many trees are at peak color. This includes most of the oaks and dogwoods, as well as about half the cottonwoods and a few maples. The oaks in Cook’s Meadow and El Capitan Meadow are beautiful right now.

There’s a chance of rain again late next week, and I suspect there will still be some fall color then too.

My Favorite Time of Year

I’m often asked about my favorite time of year in Yosemite. I think the answer surprises many people: it’s right now, in early November. People expect me to say spring, when the waterfalls are flowing, or fall for the color, or maybe winter for capturing snow. In one sense they’re right about the fall color, as early November is often the autumn peak in Yosemite Valley. But even if the color is fading, I still love this time of year. My friend Jeff Grandy says he likes the transitions between seasons, and I agree. The edges are often more interesting than the middle. November is a transition from fall to winter. I can photograph yellow leaves next to bare trees. Ice forms on creeks and riverbanks. The light has reached beautiful, low, winter angles. Sometimes the first snowstorm arrives in November, and rain or snow can leave lingering fog or mist. Heavy frost often blankets the meadows – a key ingredient for this deer photograph, made on November 10th, 2006.

Of course every month offers beauty, and there’s always something interesting to photograph in Yosemite. But if I have to choose, this is it.

What’s your favorite time of year in Yosemite – or, if you don’t get to Yosemite often, wherever you live?