Half Dome, North Dome, and the Merced River at night, with illumination by car headlights, Yosemite
It rained here on Friday night and Saturday morning. The storm cleared Saturday afternoon, so once again I drove up to Yosemite Valley. Unfortunately clouds closed in and muted the light at sunset, but I decided to wait. I remembered a dusk photograph I made from Tunnel View a couple of years ago (the top image in this post
), and thought the same light might occur again.
Well lightning didn’t strike twice, and the dusk light wasn’t that interesting. But again I decided to wait. I knew there wouldn’t be any moonlight, but interesting mist was floating around the valley, and I thought starlight might be enough to illuminate some scenes, with perhaps some additional help from car headlights.
I ended up photographing around Yosemite Valley until 9:30, almost five hours after sunset. It was just too much fun. I would think about heading home, then think, “Well maybe I’ll just check out this one spot,” and end up staying there for an hour or two.
Sometimes I looked for locations where car lights might illuminate the fog, like the scene with Half Dome above. A steady stream of traffic on Northside Drive made the mist on the left side of the frame glow. Then during one exposure a car pulled into the parking lot behind me, lighting the riverbank and trees on the right side of the frame. I can’t explain why the light beams seem to radiate upward off the sandbar. Something about the way the light reflected off the water? I don’t know, but it was cool.
The photograph of Three Brothers below also benefits from car lights. It’s subtle, but the mist underneath Three Brothers is faintly illuminated by headlights, which I think adds to this image. The photograph of El Capitan, on the other hand, was lit exclusively by the sky – stars, and perhaps a little light pollution or airglow.
As I said, this was a really fun night. I’ve been to all these spots many times, and occasionally have been fortunate enough to photograph them with great light and weather conditions, but I’d never photographed these scenes during a clearing storm lit only by stars and headlights. It was a reminder of why I love photography so much. What other activity would encourage you to go out and witness a clearing storm by starlight – and also engage your imagination and make you push yourself creatively?
— Michael Frye
P.S. I’m sure some of you would like to know the technical details for these images, so here goes:
With my 24mm lens I usually expose starry skies for 20 seconds at f/2.8, 6400 ISO. These settings are compromises. I’d like to use a longer exposure to add more light and show more stars, but then the stars would move and become streaks. I’d like to use a lower ISO, and could do that if I opened up the aperture to f/1.4 or f/2, but my Rokinon 24mm lens is sharper in the corners at f/2.8. (And this is a great lens; most lenses are even worse at wide-open apertures.)
But with these photographs I knew the water reflections would be too dark at my standard exposure, and lightening the water in software would bring out a lot of noise. So for every scene I made two exposures, each for 20 seconds at 6400 ISO, but one at f/2.8, and one at f/1.4. I then blended the two exposures together in Photoshop, using layer masks. In each of these photographs, most of the final image is from the f/2.8 exposure, so it’s nice and sharp, but I blended in the water from the f/1.4 exposure. Since it’s only water, sharpness is less important, and since I didn’t need to lighten it there’s less noise.
This might all sound really complicated, but I’d done things like this before, and didn’t have to think about it too much. It was actually easy to relax and enjoy the beautiful evening during each 20-second exposure.
Three Brothers and the Merced River at night, Yosemite
El Capitan and the Merced River at night, with Vega (bright star) and the Lyra constellation, Yosemite
Related Posts: Storms at Last! Six Images From Tunnel View; Stars Over Three Brothers
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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 5: 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.