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Magical 'moonbows'

Magical ‘moonbows’

The time: While most Yosemite visitors are asleep in their sleeping bags,  photographers roam the valley in search of light – but not just any light. The shear granite walls, the roaring waterfalls, the clear skies and glorious topography can be shot with light from the stars and the moon. With a tripod in hand, a cable release for long exposures and some basic ideas about time exposures, anyone can conquer the night and come back with stellar photos.

The most popular phenomenon happens every year in May and June when the moon is full. Photographers from all over the world come to witness an event that happens when the full moon is in perfect alignment with the mist of the Yosemite Falls. They even have a name for it: “moonbow,” a feat of nature in which each component clicks into place like a Swiss timepiece. The full moon has to rise to a perfect angle, clearing the granite walls of the valley so light rays can diffract the heavy mist off the roaring waterfall. Each time this happens, there’s roughly a one-hour window of time before the angle of the moon changes and the moonbow disappears.

I made the short hike to the Lower Yosemite Fall with resident Yosemite photographer Nancy Robbins, who made a perfect moonbow picture several years ago by aligning it with the Big Dipper. (Now everyone wants a picture just like hers.) When I reached the viewing bridge and caught my first glimpse of the rainbow effect, I stood in absolute awe of the scene before me. The moonbow at first looked very opalescent and a bit silvery, but as my tired, middle-aged eyes gradually adjusted to the scene, the colors became more obvious — and more fantastic.

The shot: I shot with a Canon 7D camera, with a 16mm-35mm zoom with the aperture set at f/4.5, and I left the shutter open for 30 seconds. Standing next to a roaring waterfall means bringing towels and plastic bags for your cameras and a rain poncho or waterproof jacket for yourself.  While taking this shot, you’ll feel the heavy mist (which can feel like a heavy rain); just remember to wipe water drops off the front element or filter of the lens and keep your cameras dry.

The tip: Check the Yosemite National Park website for a chart that shows the time of the moonrise and optimum viewing times to see moonbows.


Into the darkness

Dazzling dogwood

The pinhole challenge

Slow and splashy

Scale it back


1 Comment

  1. October 18, 2010, 3:26 pm

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