Yosemite Night Photography with Kristal Leonard

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Yosemite’s beauty extends far beyond the daylight hours. The clear sierra skies, far from city lights, offer a great opportunity to see the park literally in a new light. Moonbows shimmer in waterfall spray lit by the full moon, and the great expanse of the Milky Way arches above high mountain lakes or Yosemite icons like Half Dome. Kristal Leonard is a well-known local Yosemite photographer whose pictures bring those night-time landscapes to life. We were lucky to catch up with Kristal to find out a little more about her, and get some tips on night time photography.


How did you become interested in night photography?

I was always fascinated with the night sky from a young age, so when I got into landscape photography about 7 years ago, it was just a matter of time before I pointed my camera towards the sky at night. It was in 2010 when I took my first shot of a constellation and was immediately hooked.

What makes a good nighttime photograph, in your opinion?

For landscape astrophotography, it’s important to have an interesting foreground, like a lake, a cool looking tree, or people silhouetted. When you can position things on our planet to objects in the sky, it makes the connection between the two more intimate.

What kinds of equipment, camera or otherwise, do you like to have with you for a night-time shoot in Yosemite?

Since I shoot on many dark nights (meaning no moon light) I use a Canon 6d, which has excellent light sensitivity, so it can handle the dark night better. Another must have is a tripod. Most exposures are 5-30 seconds so you need to keep your camera completely still while shooting.

What are some of the techniques you’ve mastered (or are still developing)?

I don’t think I’ve mastered any yet but I’d like to master focusing in the dark. This is probably the single most question I get about night photography: how do you focus in the dark? The answer for me is some planning and a lot of trial and error.

I’m also still developing taking self-portraits at night, which can be much trickier than daytime self-portraits.

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What are your favorite night sky objects to photograph?

By far, my favorite is our galaxy, the Milky Way. In the summer months, facing south, the core of the Milky Way is visible and is so bright and intense. It always takes my breath away to see it!

Another favorite is an atmospheric phenomena called airglow, which is excited atoms in our atmosphere which emit a typically green glow not easily visible to the naked eye, but a long exposure can capture it! Although it looks like aurora, it is chemically different, but just as beautiful.

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Do you need knowledge about constellations and planets to create good night sky photos?

You should have it so you can plan when to shoot certain things, like which constellations are visible in the summer versus the winter, but I don’t think it’s the most important thing.

Do you have any tips for a night photography beginner?

Learn how to focus in the dark! Seriously, it’s the hardest thing to learn.

And learn some basic exposure settings to get started and just get out there and do it. If you want to get more advanced, take a workshop which will show you in-field techniques as well as photo editing processes.

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Is there any literature or websites you would recommend?

One site I use a lot is Star Circle Academy www.starcircleacademy.com The author has a huge variety of tips, from basic to advanced, on a ton of topics, from landscapes to deep sky objects.

What is your favorite spot to photograph in Yosemite at night?

Definitely Glacier Point! It can be crowded at night (lots of flashlights) during the summer but the views are amazing. You can watch the moon rise over the high country, the Milky Way arch over everything, the fuzzy Andromeda Galaxy near Half Dome, meteor showers, satellites including the International Space Station, etc…

See more of Kristal’s amazing photography on her website at: http://www.isntthatbeautiful.com/


Yosemite’s Natural Firefall – Horsetail Fall

Horsetail Fall Photo by Nancy Robbins

The Firefall is coming up soon. Are you coming to see it?

Although the firefall from Glacier Point, is now just a memory, Yosemite-lovers and photographers from all over the world gather in mid to late February for a show that is, in some ways, even more spectacular because it is all natural. When the angle of the sun is just right, and there is enough water in Horsetail Fall, and the day is clear, the waterfall turns molten in the light of the setting sun against the already shaded shoulder of El Capitan. But the perfect conditions are elusive. Will it all come together this year? And when is the prime viewing time?

Local photographer, Michael Frye, is heading up a conversation with others to calculate the dates when we’ll be most likely to see the firefall, and speculating about when it will be the most spectacular. So far, it sounds like your best bet to see the waterfall light up is between February 16 – 23, but the verdict isn’t fully in yet. Be sure to join in if you have been here to photograph the firefall, and if you haven’t been here yet, this is a great source for detailed information about the event.

You can also benefit from Michael’s expertise at one of the photography workshops in Yosemite, offered through The Ansel Adams Gallery. Michael, along with many other talented photographers in that program, offer many opportunities to hone your photography skills and experience Yosemite with a real Yosemite insider.