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Photography In The National Parks: Capturing Moonbows In Yosemite National Park

Photographing moonbows in Yosemite National Park takes patience and optimal camera settings. Deby Dixon, who took this shot of Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, explains how.

When I packed up my life, moved into a small travel trailer, and started down the road to photograph national parks, my plan was to spend extended periods of time in each park so there would be enough time to see the sights that most people never find.

But, it wasn't until three weeks into a Fall stay in the Tetons that I realized that my income would not afford me the camping spaces and gasoline it takes to adequately tour the parks. As a result, it was time for plan B.

My solution was to volunteer in the parks in exchange for a free camping space with full hook-ups, a deal that would give me plenty of time to explore. Well, this was not an original idea by any means. Volunteer positions at some parks are highly competitive, so when I landed a three-month stay in Yosemite National Park, I could not have been happier.

Quite honestly, I had more visions of walking in the footsteps of John Muir and Ansel Adams than I did of camp hosting at a remote campground with no phone or internet service, but the tradeoff was worth it.

Yosemite is a massive park in the Sierra Nevada, filled with rounded granite domes, massive Sequoia trees, hundreds of miles of hiking trails, vast, expansive views, and thunderous explosion of waterfalls during the Spring runoff and the Merced River.

Rock climbing, hiking, cycling, photography and playing in the river are some of the favorite park activities. With so much to see and do, is it surprising that amongst the approximately 4 million visitors who travel to Yosemite every year, the majority arrive on a bus from San Francisco and spend a total of four hours in the park, including lunch time!

I was in the park for three months and burnt up a lot of gas driving to the valley and other parts, and still did not see a fraction of what there is to enjoy. There were many highlights during my stay, some of which I might write about in later columns, such as dancing amongst the giant Sequoias, struggling up the Mist Trail with 25 pounds of photography equipment, hiking from Glacier Point to the valley on the Panorama Trail, standing on Sentinel Dome and looking at Ansel Adam's famous tree that is now all folded over, and others. But nothing ever compared to driving into the valley during a full moon.

Yosemite by Moonlight

While Yosemite is filled with gorgeous daylight views, it is a shame that more people don't stick around to experience the night skies that are uninterrupted by the light pollution found in the cities. And even more of a shame that they do not get to see the granite cliffs, such as El Capitan, and the waterfalls under the light of a full moon.

During the full moons in April, May and June, nighttime visitors to Yosemite, photographers in particular, get an extra special treat when the moonlight refracts and reflects off of the spray of water in Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls - it is called a moonbow, or spray bow, as John Muir liked to call it.

A nighttime rainbow! How is that to capture your childish imagination?

As I drove from Hodgdon Meadow to Yosemite Valley during that April full moon, my head was filled with visions of Upper Yosemite Falls coming into view with a brightly colored rainbow arcing across its base. What I did not expect to see was the way the moon turned El Capitan into a mound of gold. And the way that the moonlight bounced off of the granite cliffs and lit the tops of trees, or the swath of light that dashed along parts of the valley floor.

Yosemite lit by the moon was a startling and unexpected sight, and it was by far the most beautiful way I have ever experienced the park. But, someone had told me about capturing the moonbow at Lower Yosemite Falls and I was intent on not missing out, and so kept driving the one way, thinking that I would return later that evening.

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Moonbows on Lower Yosemite Fall. Deby Dixon photo.

Don't Let Haste Cost You A Photo

I have said it before and will say it again, do not miss a chance to photograph the beautiful scene before you for something that you do not know. For a photographer, just having the memories is never good enough.

When I left the falls and drove back around the valley the moon was hiding behind clouds and Sentinel Dome. Upper Yosemite Fall was also lit bright by the moon but I did not see any sprays of color.

On to Lower Yosemite Fall, where I parked in the lodge lot, next to the road, grabbed my camera, tripod, and a headlamp to light the way. What I didn't expect was that the path would be well lit by the moon or that there would be photography workshops set up along the way whose participants were not appreciative of those with headlamps. Because it is all about the photographer getting their shot! I turned the light off.

(A note about headlamps - I carry one with me all of the time, just in case I stay on a hike for too long, waiting for that sunset shot. For night photography it is impossible to set up without some kind of light but also important to be aware of those around you because one misdirected shine will spoil the photos that others are making.)

The moonlit walk up the pathway to Lower Yosemite Falls was downright mystical and a little spooky. At the falls I asked a couple of people about the moonbow and they told me that because the moon was in and out of the clouds that night, it would most likely not happen. I set the tripod and camera up on the bridge and attempted to focus for some shots of the falls, but between the spray of water that was landing on my lens and the darkness, the shots were difficult to get.

But May was another month and another chance for a long-term visitor like myself to capture the magic of the moonbow. One thing I will say about April is that it is a great month to capture the moon behind Half Dome. Another opportunity that I did not pay close enough attention to, despite getting a few shots.

In May half of the California photographers turned out for the moonbow! The best time to capture this nighttime rainbow over Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls is the two nights before the full moon because it lights the falls earlier and for a longer period of time. I was fortunate enough to be out the night before and the night of, which was good because this moonbow shooting takes some practice.

The first night out I was set up in Cooks Field for the Upper falls with several other photographers who had no idea of what camera settings to use. One man asked me what I was using and the next thing I knew there was a whole crowd gathered behind me and running back and forth to their cameras as they fixed their settings.

Shooting the Moonbow

The moonbow is an event - one of those moments that you may never have the opportunity to capture again, so go prepared. Show up early, while it is still daylight, to find your spot and set your focus. Take a chair and some snacks and make sure that you have fully charged batteries and extra memory cards. Once you have your spot, you will not want to leave to run back to the car, which might be parked quite a ways from the meadow.

And speaking of your car, park legally; they were ticketing and towing cars last year.

The moonbow occurs when the sky is clear and the moon has risen high enough for its glow to reflect off of the spray of water at the base of upper falls. Then, the secret is, you will not see the colors of the rainbow with your naked eye, only an arc of white and occasionally a splash of color. But they will show up in your properly exposed photograph.

As for equipment - I use a full-frame camera (Nikon D700 in this case) with either a 17-35mm ƒ 2.8 lens or a 28-70mm ƒ 2.8 lens, on a sturdy tripod, (mine is a Gitzo) and a remote. If you don't have a remote, a timer set on two seconds will work just fine but the beep might annoy those standing next to you.

There are a couple of reasons for my choice of equipment. A full-frame camera creates a higher quality image with less noise than does a crop camera (DX). In either case, I recommend using the NR (noise reduction) feature, despite the fact that it will take twice as long to process your image before you can take another shot. ('Noise' is the digital equivalent to grainy pictures taken with film. When digital photos are underexposed, white dots appear and can compete with with stars in nighttime photos.) I look at it this way - I am out there for this event of the lifetime, do I want to risk getting a great shot that is too noisy to use, do I take every precaution to make sure it comes out of the camera as a usable image? Half of the shots that work is way better than twice as many that don't.

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You won't find a moonbow on El Capitan, but it's beautiful in its own right. Deby Dixon photo.

Either lens that I mentioned is fine, depending on the composition. For me the most important aspect of the lens is that it be at least a 2.8 (1.4 would be even better) because I want to keep the exposure time as short as possible in order to keep the stars from trailing.

Optimal camera settings: Turn your camera to manual, your white balance to automatic and make sure your image quality is set on RAW (I use RAW 100% of the time) so that if you have any white balance issues they can be corrected in Camera Raw. Because I am using optimal equipment, I have the luxury of playing with my settings, sometimes to my detriment, with my goal being to keep the stars still.

The stars begin trailing at 30 seconds and so I always try for 25-second exposures, but this is only possible when there is plenty of light, which there should be during the full moon. In addition to the 25-second exposure, I want to keep my ISO as low as possible to avoid noise in my photograph, so generally go for an ISO of 200, but don't be afraid to go higher, up to 640, for the tradeoff of the stars being still.

Generally, an ƒ stop of 2.8 will be needed to assure enough light, but I will sometimes try to push to 3.2 or 4, if possible, for more depth of field and a tighter focus. My settings during the May full moon/moonbow action were, ISO 200, ƒ3.2 with an exposure of 25 seconds, worked perfectly on most shots.

Focus: Don't just set your focus on infinity, especially if you are planning to try some different focal lengths and compositions. Remember that because you are shooting with a narrow depth-of-field, you will not be able to include a close foreground element and have the falls, granite and stars in focus. Yes, you want the stars in sharp focus, as well as the falls, so take the time to figure out where around infinity will give you the best clarity, while it is still daylight because once the sun goes down it will be too dark to figure it out.

Once everything is set and ready to go, take time to get to know your neighbor, exchange business cards, eat a sandwich, and take cellphone shots (unless you brought a second camera body) of the amazing line of photographers out there to capture the moonbow. This is a party!

If you aren't sure that the color has appeared, most likely shooting out from the left at the base of the falls, start pushing the shutter when your neighbors do. If you are in luck, a nighttime rainbow will show up in your preview!

After you have finished photographing Upper Yosemite Fall from Cooks Meadow, I recommend taking a walk over to Lower Yosemite Fall (trying to take the car will take too long in the traffic that will be out there) where you should still have time to capture the moonbow(s) there (I captured three in one image) because the moon has to rise higher to reflect on the sprays at the base of those falls.

Expect a crowd that will be difficult to maneuver through, and make sure you have a lens cloth to clean the water off of the lens. I recommend keeping the lens down and covered as much as possible. The moonbow is more difficult to see and to capture at the lower falls, but well worth the effort.

Depending on which night you go out, it could be quite late by the time you are done, but all of the elements of being a child and dreaming about your pot of gold at the end of the rainbow will be worth it. Have a great time! And remember, your experience will be all that much better because you didn't have to pay for a workshop on how to shoot the moonbow.

Yosemite will post predictions on the best time to capture the moonbows but if you want to plan now, Don Olson has already posted the best times for Lower Yosemite Falls on this website.


Thanks, Deby, for another fine piece. And, OH, those photos!

One comment -- a red lens on a headlamp or flashlight will not destroy night vision. It may irritate other photographers but the one using it will still be able to see in the dark.

Lee, thanks for the input on the red lens - I wanted to mention that most everyone else was using that but didn't since I have never tried one and was not sure how well they work.

Nice post! I too have spent a lot of time shooting moonbows in Yosemite, and over the years I've learned that moonbows can be found on several other waterfalls besides Yosemite Falls. Wapama, Cascades, and Ribbon Falls all create moonbows as well, but none are as convenient as Yosemite Falls. In addition to shooting Yosemite Falls from the trail and Cooks Meadow, hiking up to Oh-My-God point, halfway up the Upper Yosemite Falls trail provides a great perspective on both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls.

Here's a behind the scenes video that we made about my "Moonbows" episode of Yosemite Nature Notes which shows some of the locations and tools that I used:

I'm also a fan of the dual red/white headlight. The red light isn't so great for hiking, but it's nice when your working around your camera and tripod. It doesn't spoil your night vision, and the red light also doesn't spread out and light everything else up. It's a very nice discrete way to work in the dark.

Steve, thank you for adding your terrific expertise to my column and linking your video - good stuff! I so wanted to go up to Oh-My-God point to shoot the moonbow but lacked the experience on that trail, which is a little tricky to get back down in the dark. And, I appreciate your input about the dual headlight as I was curious about how the red lamp is for hiking. Next time I am in Yosemite, I will try one of the other falls.

Great photography and information on moonbows. I hope to return someday to Yosemite National Park, for some night time photography work.

Thanks for an excellent column, Deby. I've been following you since you got to Yellowstone. Read this several times yesterday before going up to the valley to shoot Yosemite Falls last night under a strawberry moon.

The moon got a tad obscured by the clouds, so we never got the moonbow (not really what I was after anyway.) But it sure lit things up! And that's what I wanted - moonlit shots of the falls and the valley. Great time, and your advice saved me a ton of grief. We stopped at Tunnel View on the way out about 12:30 am and got some super shots of El Capitan all lit up. A terrific night made more so by your spot-on info. Thank you!!

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