Milky Way over a high-country lake, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Milky Way over a high-country lake, Yosemite. A five-image stitched panorama made with my Sony a7R II and Rokinon 20mm f/1.8 lens. Each frame was 30 seconds at f/2.5, ISO 6400. Stitched with Lightroom’s Panorama Merge.

Landscape photography doesn’t often lend itself to advance planning, because the weather is just too unpredictable. You’re usually better off being flexible, making last-minute plans based on the weather and conditions, and then being prepared to change plans again on a moment’s notice.

But some things require advance planning, and hoping that the weather cooperates. About 18 months ago I photographed the moon rising over May Lake. That image required quite a bit of planning to find a location where the moon would be in the right position. Later, it occurred to me that this same spot might also be a good location to photograph a Milky-Way panorama. That would, of course, also require the right conditions, including clear skies, and – ideally – calm winds, so that stars would be reflected in the lake. And it would only work during a narrow window of time in late May or early June, after the Tioga Road opened, and before the Milky Way moved out of position. (After about the middle of June the full arc of the Milky would be too high overhead for a panorama by the time the sky got dark.)

Last year the Tioga Road didn’t open until June 29th – one of the latest opening dates on record, and too late for photographing a Milky-Way panorama. This year the Tioga Road opened much earlier, on May 21st. I had a busy stretch after that, first teaching our redwoods workshop, then going to the Bay Area for a Lightroom workshop. But when we got back from the Bay Area I kept my eye on the weather, hoping for a night with calm winds.

I picked an evening last weekend with a decent wind forecast. It was one of the last possible nights this year, as the moon was getting bigger, and would soon become bright enough to wash out the stars in the evenings. I got to the trailhead at about 7:00 p.m. and reached the lake just after sunset. It was breezy and cold, but I hoped the wind would die down. I huddled in the shelter of a small group of trees near the lakeshore, eating my snacks and waiting for it to get dark.

If the breeze died I planned to stay near the lakeshore in order to photograph the stars reflected in the water. If it stayed windy I planned to move up higher and show the whole lake with the Milky Way overhead. The wind never died, so I chose Plan B.

I captured my first panorama sequence from the exact same spot as my moonrise photo from 18 months ago, using my Rokinon 20mm lens oriented vertically. But when I looked at the sequence on the back of my camera I realized that the composition was unbalanced; the foreground trees silhouetted against the water were too centered in the panorama, putting all the most interesting parts of the photo on the right side of the frame.

So I moved further to the right, which pushed those trees over into the left-center of the composition, and captured another sequence. That looked better. By then the Milky Way was already quite high, and further attempts would have required capturing a multi-row sequence, and including more rocks on the left and right side of the scene, so it seemed like a good time to pack up. Working my way around the steep, rocky lakeshore in the dark was challenging, but once I reached the trail it was easy to follow back to the car, even in the dark.

In hindsight, I’m glad the wind never died. That encouraged me to move higher, away from the lakeshore, where I could silhouette those foreground trees against the water, show more of the distant mountains, and include the shape of the entire lake in the photograph. I think the resulting composition captures the feeling of a high-country lake better than a lakeside image would have. It works for me anyway.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Moonrise over the Cathedral Range; Embracing Uncertainty; Planning for Flexibility

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.