After photographing Horsetail Fall on Monday evening I was thinking about heading home, but it occurred to me that this might be the perfect night to make a photograph I had been thinking of, with Upper Yosemite Fall backlit by the rising moon. The moon was due to rise about 11:00 p.m. Consulting PhotoPills, it seemed like the angle and phase of the moon were about right. And with the waterfalls so full, plus cloud-free skies, it seemed unlikely that I’d ever find better conditions.
So I decided to go for it. I had dinner at the Food Court at Yosemite Lodge, then connected to the Lodge wi-fi and answered emails for awhile. About 8:30 I headed up the trail.
Hiking the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail in the dark was a strange, surreal experience. I’d been up this trail at night before, but under a full moon. Prior to the moonrise Monday night it was very dark, with the only light coming from the stars. I had to use my headlamp to negotiate the rocky trail, and the bright light ruined my night vision. When I came around the bend where you typically get your first view of the upper fall, I could hear it, and feel the spray, but couldn’t see it at all. I had to turn off my headlamp and let my eyes adjust for a minute, and then I could just make out a tall, skinny triangle of less-than-pure-blackness ahead of me – the waterfall.
I didn’t get as wet as expected going past the base of the fall; I’ve been soaked at this spot before, but the water level apparently wasn’t as high this time. But the waterfall was loud. I arrived at my spot early, and had time to try out different compositions before the moon rose.
When the moonlight finally hit the waterfall, the backlit spray below the stars was an astoundingly beautiful sight. It was windy, which made it very cold, but the wind often grabbed the spray and tossed it around – something I love watching during the day that looked even more mesmerizing by moonlight. As a bonus, some of the photographs revealed something unexpected: tree shadows falling across the spray at the base of the fall, creating a striped pattern like sunbeams in fog.
Since the moon was just outside of the frame on the right side, I had to shade the lens to avoid flare. Yes, the moon can and will create lens flare, and yes, I used the hand technique I described in this post – only I had to hold my hand in place for 20 seconds during each exposure! Concentrating on this at least kept me from thinking about how cold it was.
I photographed for about 40 minutes, until the moon got too high and the light less interesting. The photograph above was one of the earliest; in fact it was the first image where the light hit the bottom of the fall, and revealed those tree shadows.
I’m struck by how different this photograph looks than the scene appeared to my eyes. The photograph is brighter, for one thing. Even though I darkened the image in Lightroom to make it look more like a nighttime photograph, it still reveals more detail than my eyes could pick up. And I couldn’t see the color – the blue in the sky, and the golden hue of the moonrise light. In person the light looked silvery, with maybe a hint of color. (The color-sensitive cones in our retinas don’t work well in low light, but the color is there, and the camera can pick it up. Here’s another example.)
But the biggest difference is the waterfall. The 20-second exposure in the photograph blurred the water almost completely, making it look very soft. But in person I saw the rapid movement of tons of water pouring over the cliff every second, and rockets and arrows of spray shooting out in ever-changing patterns.
But I don’t expect any photograph, daytime or nighttime, to depict reality. That’s not possible, because the experience of being there includes so much more than what a rectangle cut out of a scene at a particular moment looks like. The best I can hope to do is make a photograph that conveys a little bit of what it felt like to be there. And here I think the soft water and tree shadows perhaps convey the feeling of that night better than a frozen image would have.
The hike down was long, and tiring, but the lingering memories of seeing the waterfall lit by the rising moon made the journey a little easier. It was a magical, unforgettable night.
— Michael Frye
P.S. Since I know someone will ask, the settings were: 20 seconds, f/2.8, 6400 ISO. I used the histogram and exposed to the right, just like in the daytime. The image was made with my Sony A7r and Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens.
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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.