The Critical Moment: Half Dome at Dusk

posted by tucker




Getting a unique shot of a subject like Half Dome in Yosemite is no easy task. Millions of tourists, many carrying good cameras and armed with a good grasp of photography, visit this location every year. The plethora of photographs taken from all angles at all times of day really does make this a challenge, but Andrew, Giacomo and I set out to do it anyway. In doing some night photography on the previous nights, we noticed that there was a window of about 10-15 minutes where the light “lingered” in the sky; the sun had officially set, but there was still a decent amount of light left, enough to provide depth in the foreground and a gradient of color above. Timing, however, was critical, as it wasn’t always obvious exactly when to start shooting, and we only had one shot as we knew we’d need close to a 30 minute exposure to achieve the star trails we wanted. The second we pressed the shutter, we were committed to that time window for that night. Too early and we’d have too much light in the sky and be unable to see the stars; too late and we’d have a normal star trail image which would lack any detail in the foreground. We knew we were going to be at Mirror Lake the next night, and the view of Half Dome from that spot is perhaps the most awe-inspiring and iconic, so we wanted to have the perfect shot lined up, which would require learning precisely when this window of light would occur. That final shot came out well, but it was thanks to our observation the night before that we were able to get that critical window of light. This shot, from Glacier Point, is another single shot HDR, and as such required a good bit of Photoshop to get it the way I wanted it. Other byproducts of these ultra-long exposures include sensor-level noise, as you can see in the lower left corner of the shot, as well as a distinct loss of detail in moving objects, which can be seen in the “clumpiness” or softness of the tree. Despite all of this, the final shot is just how I like it: surreal but not insane. It makes people stop and say “wait a minute…” and you get to explain to them why it’s not just a photograph. At that point they either write you off as a talentless hack or beg you to teach them how to use Photomatix…

The band of yellow light just above the horizon is what we were going for by waiting for that moment just a few minutes after the sun set directly behind us.

I know I make this point very often (indeed, as often as I can!) but here, yet again, is an example of why I value HDR as much as I do. Take a peek at the original shot… at best it is “eh, kinda cool.” Definitely not blog post material. But with a lot of tweaking, all that data in the 30MB+ RAW file can be turned into, well, my new desktop background anyway 🙂

 

Those streaks in the sky that are clearly not stars are airplanes... unbelievably annoying to remove! Next time I do this I will set up AA guns next to my tripod...

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