Every storm has to end eventually, of course. Even Noah got a reprieve after 40 days and 40 nights. I didn’t have to wait quite that long for this past weekend’s storm to clear, but at first it seemed like the timing was less than ideal.
There was a small chance that the storm might clear before sunset on Sunday, so Claudia and I drove up to Yosemite Valley that afternoon. It was snowing when we got there, and kept snowing, and it soon became apparent that clearing wasn’t imminent. I photographed snow-covered trees until it got dark, then we joined our friend Charlotte Gibb for drinks and dinner at the Yosemite Lodge bar.
We watched snow falling outside the windows and coating the trees, but it seemed possible that the storm might clear soon, so we lingered a bit. The moon wasn’t due to rise until 12:45 a.m., but I had photographed a clearing storm by starlight before, so I knew it was possible.
We finally left the bar about nine o’clock. Light snow was falling, and the radar still showed some lingering showers in the area, but when we got outside we could see stars. That seemed promising. We drove out to Cook’s Meadow, away from lights, and sure enough, it looked like the storm was clearing. We made a couple of stops before ending up at one of my favorite spots along the Merced River. It turned into an incredibly beautiful night, with fresh snow, mist wrapped around the cliffs, and stars above. I spent the next two hours photographing the changing scene. Charlotte joined us, and then, to our surprise, another photographer showed up in the dark – Phil Hawkins. He called it “the meeting of the crazy photographers.” Definitely.
Normally it’s difficult to get any detail in the landscape with only starlight for illumination, because the light is just too dim. But the new snow coating the cliffs and trees helped to reflect some of that feeble light, revealing more detail in the foreground. Looking east, Yosemite Point (just to the right of Three Brothers) was also illuminated by the lights from Yosemite Village and Yosemite Lodge – something I couldn’t see with my eyes, but was readily apparent in the photographs. It looked like sunrise or moonrise light hitting the cliffs and clouds.
I often took two different exposures for each scene, one for the foreground and one for the sky. (The sky exposures were usually 15 seconds at f/2 or f/2.8 at 6400 ISO, while the foreground exposures were 30 seconds at f/2 or f/1.4, also at 6400 ISO.) The idea was to have some longer, lighter exposures for the foreground that I could blend with the exposures for the sky if necessary – if the foreground turned out to be too noisy otherwise. But the two images shown here didn’t need any exposure blending. The Three Brothers photograph is actually a stitched panorama, using three separate frames, because my best nighttime lens (a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4) wasn’t wide enough for the composition I wanted. The exposures for these three frames were 20 seconds each at f/2, 6400 ISO. The El Capitan image was one frame, exposed for 15 seconds at f/2, 6400 ISO. In both cases I was able to lighten the foregrounds enough to show some detail, and reflections of stars, without creating too much noise. I don’t think I could have done that with my A7r, but my A7rII handled this moderate shadow-lightening at high ISOs remarkably well.
Photographs like this, made with only starlight for illumination, really push the limits of sensors and lenses, especially if you want to keep the exposure times short enough to show stars as points rather than streaks. You need need to use wide apertures to gather enough light, and there aren’t many wide-angle lenses that are really sharp at f/1.4, f/2, or even f/2.8, especially in the corners. And you need a sensor that can produce relatively noise-free images at high ISOs.
But the best modern equipment can produce amazing results with meager amounts of light. I used to hope for storms to clear around sunrise or sunset. Then I photographed some clearing storms by moonlight. Now it seems that even starlight is sufficient. The only bad times for a storm to clear (or less-than-ideal times, let’s say) are midday, or at night when the moon is high overhead. Any other hour is great. It’s a wonderful time to be a photographer.
Well it’s wonderful if you don’t mind losing sleep. We got home at 3:00 a.m., but it always seems worth it after spending a beautiful night under the stars.
— Michael Frye
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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: 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.