Moon setting over an alpine lake, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Moon setting over an alpine lake, Yosemite, 1:00 a.m. Friday morning

After our trip to the Alabama Hills Claudia and I drove back up to Yosemite, and on Thursday night we hiked up to an alpine lake to view the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. Knowing that the moon wouldn’t set until nearly 1:00 a.m., we didn’t start hiking until well after dark, and arrived at the lake around 12:30 a.m.

The moon setting over the lake was a beautiful sight. As the moon sank lower it turned orange, just like the setting sun. It also became dimmer, so the stars came out. The extreme contrast made photographing this scene difficult, but when the moon reached a point right above the horizon the contrast dropped just enough, and I was able to capture the image above. In many ways this looks just like a sunset photograph – except for the sky full of stars.

After the moon set I turned my attention to photographing the stars and meteors. I used my widest lens (16mm on a 16-35mm zoom) to include as much sky as possible and have a better chance of capturing meteors in the frame. As in the Alabama Hills, I locked down the shutter button on my cable release in order to take a continuous series of exposures.

After starting my exposure sequence there was nothing to do but wait and look for meteors. At first a slight breeze ruffled the surface of the water, but the wind gradually died down, and we started to see reflections of stars in the lake. It was cold (the elevation was over 10,000 feet), but we brought plenty of warm clothes, so we weren’t uncomfortable. It was incredibly quiet and peaceful.

The meteors came in flurries. Most were too dim to register on the camera’s sensor, but occasionally a bright one would appear, and we could sometimes even see its reflection in the water. The brightest meteor appeared at about 2:40 a.m., streaking right through the Milky Way (shown in the photograph below). We stayed until about 3:15, but finally decided it was time to pack up and hike out.

Meteor and the Milky Way over an alpine lake, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Meteor and the Milky Way over an alpine lake, Yosemite, 1:39 a.m. Friday morning

Photography can be a great motivator. What else would prompt us to hike in the dark, wait in the cold, and lose a night’s sleep except the quest for a photograph? But for Claudia and me, the more we do this, the less of an excuse we need. We both love being out at night. Photography gives us the impetus, but once we’re out under the stars we become enveloped in the serenity of night, and photographic goals fade in significance. We’re just absorbing it all, and grateful to be alive and experiencing that moment.

— Michael Frye

P.S. Since I was using a wider lens this time I could use longer exposures without the stars turning into streaks. In this case my settings were 30 seconds at f/4 (the maximum aperture on this lens), 12,800 ISO. I use the “400 Rule” to determine how long a shutter speed I can use without the stars turning into streaks. This means dividing the focal length into 400 to get the shutter speed. In this case, dividing my focal length of 16mm into 400 equals 25 seconds. But 30 seconds was close enough.

Whether the stars appear to be points or streaks depends on a couple of factors. First, there’s the relative motion of the stars across the frame, which is slower with shorter focal lengths, and faster with longer focal lengths. (It’s also slower with stars close to the North Star, and faster with stars near the ecliptic to the east and west.) The second factor is how big the image is viewed: in a large print it becomes more obvious when the stars are streaks rather than points. And this is all, of course, somewhat subjective. (Note that the 400 Rule only applies to full-frame sensors; with an APS-size sensor you’d need to something like the 267 Rule, and with a Micro Four-Thirds sensor it would be the 200 Rule.)

Related Posts: A Night in the Alabama Hills; Stars Over the Tuolumne River; Focusing in the Dark

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.