Night Photography

Moonset, Death Valley

Clouds lit by the setting moon, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Clouds lit by the setting moon, Death Valley NP, California

The night after the rainstorm cleared during our recent visit to Death Valley, the half-full moon was due to set around midnight, and I thought there might be an opportunity to photograph an interesting moonset if the clouds lingered.

Claudia and I ate dinner at our campsite, slept for about an hour, then I got up and checked the weather. Things looked promising, with clouds, but not too many. So we headed to a spot looking over the badlands toward the lowering moon.


Yellowstone Aurora

Aurora borealis reflected in a thermal pool, Yellowstone NP, WY, USA

Aurora borealis reflected in a thermal pool, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming. 20mm, 10 seconds at f/1.8, ISO 6400. I would typically use a little longer shutter speed for night photos like this, but the aurora was moving and changing quite quickly, so a longer exposure would have caused the pillars to blur and smear together.

Claudia and I are back in Yellowstone. We had such a great time here last year we had to return.

And we’re glad we did. We’ve experienced many memorable moments so far, but the clear highlight was seeing and photographing the aurora borealis (aka Northern Lights) early Sunday morning.

We surely wouldn’t have done this if it weren’t for our friends David Kingham and Jennifer Renwick. Jennifer and David are both wonderful photographers, and know Yellowstone inside out. Before Claudia and I arrived in Yellowstone they saw and photographed an aurora one night. It wasn’t the most intense aurora, but it was something.


Oak and Eclipsed Moon

Blue oak and eclipsed moon, Sierra Nevada foothills, CA, USA

Blue oak and eclipsed moon, Sierra Nevada foothills, California. 122mm, 1 second at f/11, ISO 6400.

On Sunday a total lunar eclipse was visible in many parts of the world, including our corner of California in the Sierra Nevada.

I’ve photographed many lunar eclipses before. I like capturing sequences of the moon above a landscape in various eclipse stages – if possible. But for this eclipse I couldn’t think of any nearby spot that would add a compelling foreground while looking in the right direction (southeast) for a sequence like that, plus it appeared that clouds might interrupt any attempt at capturing a long eclipse sequence.

Instead, I thought of a lone oak tree in the Sierra foothills that might lend itself to a different treatment: a telephoto view of just the tree and eclipsed moon at dusk. I had photographed this tree before, and it looked like the tree and moon would line up well. Using a long lens would make the moon look larger, plus capturing a single frame like this would require only a brief cloud-free interval to work, while a sequence would need several hours of clear skies.


Meteor and Milky Way

Milky Way and meteor reflected in an alpine lake, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Milky Way and meteor reflected in an alpine lake, Yosemite NP, California. The meteor’s reflection is squiggly because the water was slightly rippled. I blended 20 exposures (each 16mm, 30 seconds at f/4, ISO 6400) with Starry Landscape Stacker to reduce noise. That kind of blending wipes out short-lived light sources, like car headlights or jet trails, which is usually a great thing. But in this case it also wiped out the meteor and its reflection, so I took that one meteor frame into Photoshop, and blended it with the TIFF output from Starry Landscape Stacker to create the final image.

On Thursday evening Claudia and I decided to head up to Yosemite to watch the Perseid meteor shower. Although you can see more Perseid meteors during the early-morning hours, we knew from previous experience that those early-morning meteors rain down from directly overhead, so although numerous, their paths are short. But during the evening you’re much more likely to see an “earth-grazer” – a meteor that glances across the atmosphere at an angle, making a long, bright streak through the sky. So although evening meteors are less abundant, the ones you do see are often more spectacular.

We made our way to a high-country lake. I set up my camera, then we laid out our stadium chairs to watch the show. Only it wasn’t much of a show at first. For a long time we saw no meteors whatsoever, earth-grazers or otherwise. Finally we saw some small ones. And then, eventually, I saw a big, bright, beautiful earth-grazer streak across half the sky. But Claudia missed it. Eventually we saw a few more earth-grazers, though none as bright as that first one.


Planning for the Lunar Eclipse With TPE 3D

Oak tree and lunar eclipse sequence, December 10th, 2011, Mariposa County, Sierra foothills, CA, USA

Oak tree and lunar eclipse sequence, December 10th, 2011, Mariposa County, Sierra foothills, California. In this sequence, the moon was setting to the west-northwest just before sunrise. In the upcoming eclipse, the moon will also be setting just before sunrise for viewers in the western U.S. – but to the southwest. (Click here to read the story behind this photo.)

In case you haven’t heard, there’s going to be a total lunar eclipse this week in some parts of the world. That includes western North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and eastern Asia. You can see all the places where the eclipse will be visible on

The total eclipse will last about 14 minutes, from 11:11 to 11:25 UTC (Universal Time) on Wednesday, May 26th. That translates to 4:11 to 4:25 a.m. Wednesday here in California. The partial eclipse begins at 9:44 UTC, and ends at 12:52 UTC (2:44 a.m. and 5:52 a.m. Pacific Time).


Moonlit Clouds

Moonlit clouds, Sierra Nevada, CA, USA

Moonlit clouds, Sierra Nevada, California. 70mm, three bracketed frames, two stops apart, each at f/5.6, ISO 800, blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge.

Every so often I’ll be outside at night and see some interesting clouds passing in front of the moon. This can be quite a beautiful sight, especially with a pattern of small, puffy clouds stretching across the sky. And under these conditions you can often see a rainbow-like corona around the moon.

I’ve tried to photograph moonlit clouds like this a few times, with mixed results. Usually by the time I get out my camera, find a suitable viewpoint, compose, focus, and figure out an exposure, the clouds are gone – or at least less interesting.