One part plan, one part serendipity, one part impulse

Dusk, Crescent Moon and Oaks, Sierra Foothills, California

Dusk, Crescent Moon and Oaks, Sierra Foothills, California
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
1.6 seconds
ISO 400
330 mm

Nature photography is a particularly serendipitous art form. We do our best to get ourselves in the right place at the right time, but it’s ultimately up to Mother Nature to deliver. Fortunately, some things in nature are more certain than others. Among them is the phase, location, and timing of the moon, each of which can be anticipated with near absolute precision. Another certainty I’ve grown to depend on is clear skies in California in July. Armed with those two truths, Wednesday night a friend and I headed to the foothills to photograph a thin crescent moon in the western twilight.

My criteria for photographing any twilight scene include finding a striking shape to silhouette against the sky. And like a portrait photographer who can’t get enough of a particular model, there a number of “go-to” trees scattered about the foothills that I return to whenever I get the urge to photograph a sunset near home. For a long time I’ve known the hilltop perch of one pair would allow me to juxtapose them with a setting moon. I’d already photographed this pair many times with good success (one of these images was on a magazine cover), and one time got them with a crescent moon. But that success only made me greedy for a tight shot with the moon large, among the trees. I check the moon info each month to see if its phases and position align with my schedule (for obvious reasons, I’m often away from home when the moon is at its photographic best), and Wednesday night looked like everything might just fit into place, so out we went.

By about two hours before sunset it became pretty clear that clouds would be part of our sky that evening. While not unprecedented, this unexpected intrusion could be: A) Good, if the clouds added sunset color while parting enough to reveal the moon; or B) Bad, if the clouds thickened to obscure the moon and block the color. Serendipity.

Mark and I pulled up to “my” trees about fifteen minutes before sunset, but with the clouds starting to look like they might deliver a colorful sunset, and since we didn’t need to be in position for the moon until 25 or 30 minutes after sunset, I made the snap decision to continue about five miles down the road to another group of trees that I thought would be particularly nice for a colorful sunset. The sunset was indeed worth the detour, but that’s a story for another day. When it was over, we hightailed it back to the hilltop tree spot to find the moon playing hide and seek with the clouds above and just a little south of the trees. Definitely photo-worthy, but not aligned so perfectly that I could get the tight telephoto shot I’d envisioned.

While photographing from the narrow shoulder here is fairly easy (though a bit unnerving), the angle we needed to align the trees and moon required scaling a small hill. Behind a barbed wire fence. Hmmm. But wait—what’s this? A gate! And it’s unlocked! So, all with about as much restraint as two ten-year olds at the all-you-can-eat dessert bar, up the hill we traipsed, dodging cow patties and listening for rattlesnakes. As expected, the new vantage point provided exactly the angle we needed, but I have to say that in the growing darkness my impulsiveness enthusiasm was soon replaced by visions of tomorrow’s headlines:


Fortunately, none of that stuff happened, and Mark and I made it back to my car, undetected and intact. Impulsive urges notwithstanding, I ended up with several “keeper” images, thanks in no small part to the convergence of my plan with the fortuitous appearance of clouds to color our summer sky. Sometimes things just work out.

Later, I had to admit that going up there like that violated one of my personal rules: Get permission before entering private property (I’ll often offer a print as thanks). But this time I rationalized that since we’d do no harm, and because time was absolutely of the essence, it would be okay to maybe go just a little bit beyond the fence. And while it worked out this time, that’s the kind of decision that inspires hindsight (and I have the stories to prove it).

Read more about photographing a crescent moon

A Crescent Moon Gallery

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

12 Comments on “One part plan, one part serendipity, one part impulse

  1. You bring back good memories of me shooting those magnificent oaks outside of Placerville (Shingle Springs) back in the early 70s. The thing that hurts is that the negatives didn’t hold up as well as they might have. 😦

  2. Been there (risking getting caught), done that and got the shots to prove it worthwhile. But I also agree, get approval if you can. Great shot!

  3. Ha … I enjoyed this story … for its resonance. I often think that there is little harm in going where I should not, and then imagine how I would feel if I were to find a photographer in my lower pasture, especially among my animals. Even having gone through the logic – I will easily walk past ‘posted’ and ‘no trespassing’ signs. Sigh. Anyway, really nice image with a terrific story in the bargain. D

    • Thanks, Dave. Yeah, it’s pretty easy to rationalize invading private property with the, “Well, just one person won’t do any harm” reasoning. But of course everybody else is also only one person, so when I choose to do it, I’m pretty much conferring on myself some kind of special dispensation. Factor in the herd mentality among photographers and it becomes a slippery slope. Here in California we used to have a great wildflower “hot sheet” website where people could post wildflower locations each spring, but the owner had to take the site down because she was getting so many complaints about trespassing photographers trampling wildflowers and meadows and damaging private property. And don’t get me started on what I witness photographers doing each time I visit Yosemite. All in the name of getting the shot.

      I enjoy your site.

      • The very last, short, sentence was that which I appreciated most in your recent reply Gary. As you can probably tell from looking at my site, I am entirely self taught and am just starting out as a photoblogger. I was heavily into photography as a kid (wasn’t everyone?) and just took it up again seriously, or nearly so, about a year ago. I’ve been enjoying it and comments from ‘real’ photographers always provide a much needed ‘shot-in-the-arm.’ You know what they say … ‘Little things mean a lot.’ Your four words made my day. Thanks. D

  4. Great shot and story! It is a good reminder to have a plan of action, but also to be flexible if the plan doesn’t work out. I agree with you on getting permission to enter someone’s property.

  5. Pingback: Watch out for that tree… | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  6. Very funny story… Wish I had been there… I probably would have egged you on a bit… And you know, I’d have your back bro… Oh …. yea… I was there… Told you that you only have to run faster than me… But then that’s what the Taser was for (Mine has laser sights. LOL)… Would have paid good money to see you running from the bulls of Pamplona… err… El Dorado Hills!!! Nice shot pal!!! And great blog embellishing our time together!!! Thanks for thinking of me as it’s always great hanging with you!!!

  7. I’d hate to see Dr. Z running from the cows, er bulls, maybe gophers? I know a good attorney who can help you guys in the event of a future prosecution.

    • Thanks, Eileen. Yes, I find lots of great stuff along Latrobe Road between highways 50 and 16, and along many of the small roads nearby.

  8. Pingback: Size doesn’t matter (unless it does) | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

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