The definition of breathtaking

Moonlight and Big Dipper, Badwater, Death Valley

Death Valley is notorious for blue skies–great for tourists, but a scourge for photographers. Clouds add interest to a scene, and filtering harsh sunlight through clouds reduces contrast to a range a camera can capture. To mitigate harsh sky problems, I schedule my annual Death Valley workshop for winter to maximize the chance for clouds. And hedging my bets further, I time each workshop to coincide with a full moon–that way, if we don’t get clouds, careful location planning allows me to include a full moon in many of our sunrise and sunset shoots, and allows us to photograph Death Valley’s stark beauty by moonlight.

I returned last night from my 2012 workshop. Not only did we have a creative, enthusiastic group, we also were blessed with a wonderful blend of conditions. On our first two days we were treated to lots of clouds (and even a few snow flurries during a sunset shoot at Aguereberry Point) and beautiful sunrise color on the dunes. But by day three the Death Valley sky was  back to business as usual and it was time to plug in a moonlight shoot.

I usually opt for moonlight on the Mesquite Flat Dunes near Stovepipe Wells, but during a pre-workshop visit to Badwater it occurred to me that the salt flat’s white surface was tailor made for the light of a full moon. Since the sky didn’t clear until our third day (the moon rises later every day), I was concerned that the moonlight wouldn’t reach Badwater, 282 feet below sea level and in the shadow of 5,700 foot Dante’s Peak, early enough. I briefly considered returning to the more exposed dunes, but finally decided that I could make Badwater work by simply leading the group out onto the salt flat until we reached the moonlight.

Sure enough, we arrived at Badwater a little after 8:00 p.m. to find ourselves in deep moonshadow. But across the valley, Telescope Peak and Badwater’s west fringe already basked in the light of the rising moon. So off we went to meet the advancing moonlight, following our headlamps through the darkness for about a half mile before reaching the advancing moonlight. With headlamps doused we paused in silence to take in our surroundings: Venus was just disappearing behind Telescope Peak and Jupiter sparkled high overhead; Orion and Sirius decorated the southern sky, while Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper straddled Polaris to the north. And rising above the mountains to the east, the moon painted the playa’s jigsaw surface with its silvery glow. Overuse has reduced “breathtaking” to cliché status, but I can’t help think it’s these moments the adjective was intended for.

After sharing exposure settings, a quick refresher on focus in moonlight, and some composition suggestions, I let the group get to work. We found compositions in all directions except due east, where the moon was simply too bright to include in the frame. With everyone working within a 100 foot radius, it was easy (and gratifying) to hear exclamations of delight as images popped onto LCD screens.

So amazing was the experience that we stayed far later than I’d planned. If I’d have been there by myself I’d have probably stayed out much longer, but I wanted to make sure no one was too tired for the sunrise moonset I had planned (also at Badwater) the following morning. The above image of the Big Dipper was captured toward the end of our shoot, when the entire playa was illuminated, but the moonlight hadn’t quite reached the Black Mountains. I used ISO 800, f5.6, and 30 seconds.

My 2013 Death Valley Winter Moon photo workshop is January 25-29–it’s already nearly full.

8 Comments on “The definition of breathtaking

  1. Amazing. Especially 30 sec. exposure. In night shots do you chose a lens with a wide aperture to minimize how high your ISO will be? Can I ask what you do in the camera or post processing to decrease noise (is anything). Love the moonlight

    • Thanks, Don. I usually use my Zeiss 28mm f2 prime, but in this case I went with an f4 zoom for the compositional flexibility. While I usually shoot wide open at night to maximize my ISO and minimize my shutter speed, in this case DOF was also a factor, so I stopped down to f5.6. I use Topaz noise reduction software.

  2. I will say so nice and all the detail in a single capture is great beyond measure! I am guess you used your 24mm f2.0 Ziess? At any rate I would like to know. I want a night lens but all I have is an F4 17mm. I am looking for a good used one

    • Thanks, Tom. In this case used my 17-40 for compositional flexibility. And because I was concerned about DOF, I opted for f5.6. Shooting by the light of a full moon is really pretty straightforward. When I shoot with little or no moonlight, I almost always use my 28mm Zeiss f2 prime.

  3. Excellent photo as usual. Your blog page is one of the few that I actually read, instead of just look and admire the photo. It’s always interesting to learn how you came up with your shots. Learn something new every time. Keep them coming!!

    • Thanks, Michael. I’ve been on the road for most of the last two weeks so my blog productivity has slowed a bit, but hope to rectify that this weekend.

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