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.
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.
Michael, was the moon set image a single exposure? Would HDR merge in Lightroom work for this situation?
Brad, yes, the moonset image was a single exposure. I did bracket, and Lightroom’s HDR Merge could work with the bracketed exposures, but the difficulty is that the exposures in the bracketed sequence were rather long (some of them 20 seconds), so the stars and moon would move between frames, potentially creating ghosting. So I was happy to be able to use just one frame and avoid those issues.
Thanks Michael, I can see now ghosting would be a problem.
Magnificent photos once again!
What lake did you hike to? Volgelsang?
It wasn’t Vogelsang, but I prefer not to say which lake it was. I’m willing to disclose anything about how I make my photographs except, sometimes, the locations, because I’ve found that when I do talk about specific locations I then often find a bunch of photographers there the next time I go.
Beautiful images I would love to live in that area so close to yosemite. Thanks for sharing..
Inspiring, as always — thanks, Michael!
It’s interesting how in the 2nd photo, the stars in the reflection are much more oblate than the ones in the sky.
Thank you Monika! And that’s some impressive vocabulary you have there. 🙂 If the water was perfectly still I’m sure the reflections of the stars would be tiny pinpoints like the stars themselves. But of course water in a lake this size is never perfectly still, and the slight rippling over 30 seconds smeared the reflections and made them more oblate. (I need to find a way to work that word into a conversation!)
I had a discussion about this effect with a moon reflection in the comments of this post:
I would have loved to be there with you! Miss your leadership….and that place…thank you for keeping this space so full of wisdom and beauty
Thanks Adair – it would have been nice to have you with us!
Thanks for the lovely images, Michael, and the information on your settings—always helpful! In less than I month I’m headed to the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. It should be nice and dark there, so I plan to put you advise to work in photographing the Milky Way (along with the lovely seascapes).
You’re welcome Bob, and thanks! Hope you have a great trip.
Incredible image deffenly worth the trip. I was up the same night not to far from you at lake Dorthy testing the theta’s 360 camera. The 1st image I shot when the moon was up and used a low ISO and 60 sec exposure.
The 2nd image was after moon set to capture milkyway an meteors.
Edited in Lightroom and exposure blended in Photoshop.
There’s only some much you can do with a lower resalution camera.
But the 360 is kind cool.
Really enjoy you work !
Thanks Larry! You didn’t include a link to your photos, it sounds like you had fun.
Sorry here you go.
Well you’re right Larry, more resolution would help, but that’s still very cool – thanks!
Great work. I was just curious why your ISO is at 12,800 when you talk about ISO 1,600 and 6,400 in your book. My assumption is that you might be wanting two extra stops with your f/4 lens. Also, to get the blue sky do you lower your Color Temperature? If so, is this done in-camera or in processing? Thanks for your willingness to share shots and keep pristine areas sacred and secret.
Thanks John! I don’t ever remember talking specifically about ISO 1600 or 6400 in any of my books. But in any case, my standard settings for Milky Way photos (as I’ve said many times in many different blog posts) are 15 seconds at f/2.8, ISO 6400. Since the maximum aperture of this lens was f/4 I could get the equivalent exposure by either increasing the shutter speed or pushing up the ISO. As I explain in this post, since this was a 16mm lens I could, and did, increase the shutter speed to 30 seconds without the stars turning into streaks. But I also pushed up the ISO to 12,800 to increase the overall exposure more from my standard Milky Way settings. When the photograph includes reflections of stars, as the second image here did, I like to increase that overall exposure, because I know I’m going to have to lighten up the water later in software if I don’t, and I’ll get a little less noise by increasing the exposure in the camera than by lightening later in software. Also, the exposure time for the meteors was a second or less – the time it took for the meteor to flash across the sky. So in terms of capturing meteors, the shutter speed didn’t matter, so increasing the shutter speed in the camera from 15 seconds to 30 seconds didn’t help the camera pick up faint meteors at all. The only thing that could help with picking up faint meteors was a higher ISO or wider aperture, and since a wider aperture wasn’t possible, I increased the ISO.
Thanks for your comment. It makes sense. In your book on page 98 you mention ISO 6400 and your example on page 99 shows 1600 ISO. But your concept makes sense. Do you change your White Balance at all? In camera or with processing for the blue skies. Again, thank you.
That caption on page 99 is a typo. Should have said 6400 ISO. Sorry about that – I didn’t notice that until you pointed it out. I’ll mention it to the editor and maybe they can change it in the next printing.
I change my white balance on nearly every single photo, day or night, in Lightroom. I have rarely encountered a photograph where the white balance set in camera, whether on auto white balance or set manually, was the best possible white balance for the photograph.
I really like these 2 images, Michael, beautiful work! The first one has a very peaceful feel to it, perfectly fits your description of being grateful to be alive and experiencing that moment. Images really can speak volumes. The 2nd image seems a little less peaceful to me, not entirely sure why. Perhaps because of the meteor and the reflections of the stars. But I do like the image, it just has a little more energy than the first.
And thanks much for the great descriptions and the responses to comments. I’m taking a lot from this post (hopefully it sticks with me).
Thanks Todd! Funny, I thought the second image felt more serene than the first. Just goes to show how subjective it all is!
Agreed! I love how we all see and interpret things differently. Similar to the idea of lining a bunch of photographers up along a scenic overlook and then realizing they each created a different image from the same scene. Great stuff.
I completely agree Todd!
Great stuff as always, Michael!
A couple of years ago, I got this comment on one of my posts by a fellow German photographer by the name of Andreas Hesse – this might fit for you too…
“Extremely great shots! For me, the night and the sky stand for peace and somehow simplicity. No hectic lights, no sounds, just a vast space to have your mind travel through. This is why so many nocturne fans are quiet and somehow peaceful people. Have a good trip! Cheers, Andreas”
Those are some great sentiments – thanks for sharing!