You had to be there

Moonset, Candlestick Butte, Canyonlands National Park

If you read my blog enough, you know that I do lots of advance planning, particularly when I want to put the moon in my frame. I have my own workflow for determining the moon’s position relative to the landscape, a workflow I established long before tools like “The Photographer’s Ephemeris”  simplified the process immensely. (TPE is a new trick, and I’m an old dog, so I stick with my tried-and-true methods.) But even the best resources and plotting are no substitute for familiarity, not a big problem at nearby locations like Yosemite or the mountains, but not quite so easy at the spots I only get to once a year.

After two years of co-leading Don Smith’s Arches/Canyonlands workshop with mostly boring blue skies, I suggested to Don that we try the approach I use for my Death Valley workshop. Death Valley is notorious for its blue skies (it averages one inch of rain per year), so despite the fact that I schedule that workshop for the middle of winter to maximize the chance for weather, I also synchronize it around the full moon–even if we get shut out in the weather department, we can still add interest to the sky by including the moon in several sunrise and sunset shoots. And moonlight photography beneath clear desert skies is always a highlight.

So this year Don scheduled his Arches/Canyonlands trip for the October full moon, and as feared, a few days before we started the National Weather Service confirmed that Mother Nature would be serving us a week of blue skies. This time, rather than stress, we found solace in our secret weapon: the moon.

As we always do, Don and I arrived a day early to re-familiarize ourselves with the area we hadn’t seen in a year. That night we made the trek up Delicate Arch for sunset, and to get an idea of where the moon would rise relative to the arch. We saw immediately that we’d need to get creative with our position to line the moon up with the arch (that’ll be a post for a different day).

Since I’m the designated “moon guy” on our trips, following the Delicate Arch shoot I immediately started thinking about locations for moonrise and moonset for the rest of the week. The next morning I purchased a topo map (my trusty topo software doesn’t include Utah) and started studying the options. Don and I hate taking groups to spots we haven’t scouted thoroughly in advance, so after an hour or so with the map, I decided to forego the workshop orientation and head up to the Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky district to scout the possibilities.

I returned three hours later feeling giddy. Not had I found the above unmarked vista that would align the setting moon with the Candlestick on our penultimate sunrise, I also found a great sunset spot that would allow us to photograph the full moon rising above the La Sal Mountains the evening before. Those two shoots turned out to be the highlight of the workshop, not just because of the moon, but also because we got a perfect mix of unexpected (and welcome!) clouds to catch the color.

On the drive to this sunrise shoot the group was still buzzing about the sunset shoot the night before, but quickly forgot as we made our way to the canyon’s rim and saw the moon hanging low above the Candlestick. There was room here for everyone to spread out, and while the foreground when we started was too dark to allow lunar detail, the light rose quickly, filling the sky with glorious pink pastels to complement the red canyon below. We found something for every focal length, from ultra-wide compositions with lots of foreground (like this image), to long telephoto frames that isolated the moon above the Candlestick. Don and I spent a great deal of time reminding people to bracket their compositions, but in between we managed to capture a few frames of our own.

One of the great pleasures of these workshops is seeing the variety of compositions possible at a single location. At image review that afternoon it was clear that everyone had not only captured the scene well, but had also found their own unique perspective. Pretty cool.

4 Comments on “You had to be there

  1. I will be there Nov 17-22. Great shot. Great story. I will have to do the same homework but my moon won’t be full and I am on my own.

  2. Stunning image, Gary! Just returned from my first visit to southern Utah and had a blast! Will definitely return, and will add this workshop on my wish-list…! (BTW – could not live without TPE… ;>)

  3. Wow ! That’s awesome ! As photographers, it seems like we all end up at the same places over and over, and the shots tend to all run together into one long string of beautiful, forgettable images. But this shots…wow…moon, clouds, perfect lines, beautiful colors, and an awesome location! I’m headed to Yosemite this week, and I’ve just been inspired. Thanks !!!

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