Yosemite and Moonbows

Field Trips

LPA Field Trip Apr 15-18, 2011 - Led by Bill Sutton and Sue Craft

Last fall, Bill had an idea… let’s go to Yosemite to capture the Moonbow!  By planning over 6 months in advance, most of the group got a sweet deal at Yosemite Lodge.  Book early, stay in the park, remember that the tent cabins have no power to charge your batteries, and that the shuttle stops running at 10pm so you want to be within walking distance of the waterfalls.  Parking was a bit tight in April and the number of visitors is still very low.

Moonbows, also known as lunar rainbows, are a phenomenon that only occur about three or four times a year, and are only visible for about one to two hours each time they occur.  Moonbows usually only occur during the months of April, May and June and are dependent upon having bright moonlight, the moon must have risen above the south rim of the Yosemite Valley, sufficient mist and spray from the snowmelt runoff, clear skies, and the moon at a direction toward the base of the falls at or near a “rainbow angle” of 42°.  When the conditions are right, what appears as a “white”, “grey” or “silvery” streak to the human eye will reveal a photograph with the full spectrum of the rainbow’s colors.

For moonbow pictures, you need a camera that is capable of taking exposures ranging from approximately 15 seconds to approximately one minute, a wide angle lens (in the range of 15mm to 35mm), so that you can capture the stars in the sky along with the moonbow, a tripod, cable release, some sort of rain cover for your camera.

Twelve of us made the trip, and found out that photographing moonbows is tough!  Friday night was our practice night, as moonbows were not yet predicted.  We found the perfect spot to photograph both Upper and Yosemite Falls, and made sure everyone knew how to set their camera to capture the scene and capture a good exposure of the waterfalls, cliffs, and night sky.  Success!  Everything was well lit, we had the stars in our photo and knew just how we wanted to light the foreground.  We were READY for the moonbow to appear on Saturday night.

Well, Saturday night came, and the cloud cover was heavy, which meant no moon, and no moonbow.  While passing time, and hoping that Mother Nature would cooperate and let the moon shine through, we met up with Steven Bumgardner,  photographer/video producer for Yosemite Nature Notes, for Yosemite National Park.  Check out his videos on Frazil Ice and photographing Horsetail Falls.  http://www.nps.gov/yose/photosmultimedia/ynn.htm Watch for his next video on Moonbows!  Steve gave a demo of his camera gear used for shooting Moonbows in the heavy mist of the waterfalls which included a Canon 5D Mark II with a wide angle lens and a special clear glass device that is placed in front of the lens and spins at 3,000 RPM which in turn slings away any water that hits the lens and keeps the lens clear.  This device costs approximately $1,700 for the clear glass unit, plus another $200 for the battery that will power it for up to five hours, and another $300 for the mount that attaches it to the camera.  If you are into shooting in the rain or the heavy mist of a waterfall, this is the toy to have – Ask any of us who were frantically wiping the mist from our lenses in order to get a Moonbow shot.

One more night to try… Sunday night, the night that the biggest brightest moonbow of the month was to appear.  That sounds exciting, right?  Sue had been watching the water flow levels on the Yosemite website.  The weekend weather was delightfully warm, and the water volume had doubled since Friday!  Yippee!!!  The weather forecast was not as exciting… 60% chance of rain Sunday night.  We were there and still had to try!  We went to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls.  About 40 other photographers were there, all lined up on the bridge, with their tripods, and raingear, and getting soaked.  Wouldn’t ya know it… right before we got there, the group saw the moonbow for a full 20 minutes!  It was early that night, probably due to the large volume of water crashing over the falls and the bright moon.  The moon teased our group, and made short appearances of less than a minute and we saw the moonbow!  I think every in our group got at least one good shot.

Challenges of photographing moonbows, and even rainbows at the waterfalls in Yosemite… you can get wet!  Very wet!!!  Things we learned… be flexible, and willing to work with whatever Mother Nature provides.  Be sure to have a “raincoat” for your camera, and yourself too.  Carry a towel to wipe your lens.  If photographing rainbows in the daylight, and are getting wet, forget the long exposure on the tripod and just hand hold.  Turn your back to the waterfall, wipe your lens, turn quick to shoot, shoot shoot, and turn again to wipe your lens.

While the goal of our trip was to photograph a moonbow, the group met up everyday at designated locations, and shared stories and photo tips at breakfast and dinner.

It was a GREAT trip!!!

View all the photos in our Member Album.

Photos by Sue Craft


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