Upper Yosemite Falls Moonbow – Getting The Shot

Upper Yosemite Falls Moonbow - May 9 2017

A large moonbow arcs across the mist from Upper Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park

There are quite a few photos in my portfolio that I look back upon and question my sanity due to the absurd conditions I’ve endured to capture them. This particular photo is up there on the insanity scale.  This past winter has seen extraordinary snowfall levels in the Sierras and now that Spring has rolled around the water levels are quite high in Yosemite Valley due to the snow melt.  That translates to huge waterfalls and under the right conditions moonbows (rainbows at night via moonlight).

I’ve taken moonbow photos from the Upper Yosemite Falls trail several times, but this year was like none other. I took up position in a new spot this year with a good friend Brian Hawkins. Our hike started off innocently enough with a hike that started at 4:30PM and later ended at 5:30AM. The reason for the long duration of the shoot was a combination of bringing a lot of gear (3 Canon DSLRS, 2 tripods, and 4 lenses plus extra layers of clothes) and the interest in shooting multiple time lapses + stills. Time lapse sequences run a couple hours and the moonbow wasn’t going to appear until 11:30PM.

Now that I type it all out It really is rather nuts. I, of course, don’t think this before the hike because I have selective memory issues or quite simply my elevator doesn’t go to the top floor when it should.

Hiking with a full photo backpack means slow going on a hike that is 1.5 miles with a 1250 foot elevation gain. Leaving “early” affords me the time to properly stake out the right location, set up all 3 cameras, eat and start shooting. On the way up the focus is squarely on the task at hand and making it to the setup spot early.

Waiting in heavy mist and gusty winds.

Are we having fun yet? Waiting in heavy mist and gusty winds. Only 4 hours to go.

The most painful part of the excursion is the wait. This year this was particularly true given the setup spot quickly became inundated with heavy mist from the falls when the wind kicked up (10mph gusts). Without exaggeration, we were waiting in a windy rainstorm. A sane person might consider moving to avoid the heavy mist, but once you’ve invested the time to set up multiple cameras and climb down steep side trails it quickly becomes a less attractive option. This, of course, was constantly second-guessed throughout the night as conditions remained miserable. Eventually, we called uncle and left the cameras running but took shelter a 1/8th of a mile away on the main trial to stay dry.

So what does one think during the hours of waiting for the moonbow to appear and during the moonbow sequence run? Let me tell you in order of thought.

  1. I am so freaking wet and cold.
  2. I should have brought more layers to stay warm and dry.
  3. It’s so wet I’m not sure any of this footage will come out.
  4. I don’t think I could have carried anything more.
  5. What the f*ck are you thinking that this would be a good idea!
  6. I’ve never seen conditions so good for moonbows, but it’s too good. There’s too much water.
  7. What was that noise!? F*ck it better not be a mountain lion. Crap it was just my jacket hood rubbing against my head.
  8. I can’t feel my fingers. I should use those hand warmer things. Cr*p they’re in my camera bag back in the heavy mist. Forget it I’d rather have cold hands than get wet again.
  9. I wonder if my batteries died. I better go check.
  10. Upon returning repeat all the above thoughts
  11. I am so freaking cold. I am never going to do this again. I don’t know what I was thinking.
  12. Now that it’s so wet and windy how am I going to retrieve all my gear
  13. Holy sh*t! I can’t believe I’m here at 3AM

 

Then after all of this, I get to my camera to see the most amazing sight, Yosemite Falls roaring full of water with the biggest moonbow I’ve ever seen. All those earlier thoughts are lost as I get more stills taken. The results, like the photo above, are like a narcotic that wipes my mind clear. With my “photo-high” in place packing up is less cringeworthy albeit still miserable. Trying to remember, pack and not leave behind gear and accessories for 3 cameras is tough enough, but particularly mentally challenging when cold and tired. Fortunately, years of experience and more importantly being a little too anal for my own good make this a little easier.

Unlike years past the extra effort of trying to dry off gear took some extra time. It also required another round of gear packing. By the time this was all complete the hike down could begin at 3:50AM.

The hike down was cold, but dry and thus in my mind “warm”. On the way down thoughts of mountain lions hiding in the shadows quickly subside, instead focusing on not twisting an ankle due to fatigue or carelessness. Also important is to not step on the many millipedes that crawl across the trail. In between dodging millipedes, I’m left wondering how well my footage and stills came out. Cold and tired I’m thinking it’s doubtful anything could have come out and back to questioning why I thought this was a good idea.

Millipede on the trail

Millipede on the trail

Fast forward 7 hours as I write this and it’s become apparent several shots came out, but I won’t know how much until I’m back home. Between three cameras it’s likely it worked out. I really shouldn’t do this again, but come next year I’m sure all this will be mentally blocked and I’ll be making a similar hike/moonbow shoot just like I did in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016 and this year. Apparently, I’m a slow learner.

Authors Note: Excuse the typos if any as I typed this on my phone and I’m still very sleep deprived.

Gear Used On This Shoot

Camera 1
Canon 5D Mark IV, Zeiss Distagon T* 15mm f/2.8 ZE, Gitzo Carbon Fiber tripod (small) with canon timer remote controller TC-80N3

Camera 2
Canon Mark IV, Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens, Gitzo Carbon Fiber tripod (large) with canon timer remote controller TC-80N3

Camera 3
Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, JOBY GorillaPod for SLRs with canon timer remote controller TC-80N3

 



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Jim Goldstein is a professional photographer and author, based out of San Francisco, California who specializes in outdoor and nature photography. Passionate about nature and the environment Jim infuses elements of the natural world into his commercial, editorial and fine art work. For more follow Jim on Google+ | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | Subscribe