Posted on March 14, 2023
In the Alabama Hills to photograph sunrise in neck-craning proximity to the Sierra Crest, I knew precisely what time, on this date, the sun’s first rays would color the towering granite, and exactly when a 98% moon would would disappear behind the left flank of Mt. Williamson, California’s second highest peak.
Clocks and calendars enable us to time some aspects of our lives, like sunrises and moonsets, to within microseconds. But when I scheduled this sunrise moonset more than a year ago, I had no idea whether the sky would be clear, perhaps feature a few clouds that would catch the sunrise hues, or be completely filled with overcast that would block sunlight and hide the moon. I didn’t know how much snow would drape the peaks, or whether the peaks even would be visible at all.
Clocks and calendars are essential, but as a self-employed landscape photographer, I’m beholden to far more fundamental constructs than the bustling majority is. I work when there’s work to be worked, and play when (fingers crossed) there’s play to be played. The business side of my life sometimes requires a clock and calendar, but the actual photography part is governed by fundamental laws of nature that transcend the rest of the world’s clocks and calendars.
The irrelevance of conventional time measurement is never more clear than immediately following a time change. On the second Sunday of each March, when “normal” people moan about lost sleep and having to rise an hour earlier, the sun thumbs its nose at Daylight Saving Time and rises a mere minute (or so) earlier than it did the day before. So do I. And on the first Sunday of November, as others bask in their extra hour of sleep, I’ll get to sleep an entire minute longer. Yippee.
The immutable natural laws that are the foundation of our clocks and calendars, that keep the world on schedule and enable us to precisely predict events like sunrise/sunset, the moon’s phase and position, as well as countless other celestial phenomena, are also solely responsible for the uncertainty that torments the lives of landscape photographers. While I can’t tell you what thrills me more, the impeccably punctual appearance (or disappearance) of a full moon, or the unpredictable explosion of a lightning bolt, I find it ironic that the precision of a moonset and the (apparent) randomness of a lightning strike are ultimately the product of the same celestial choreography.
Earth’s rotation on its inclined axis and revolution about the Sun, the Moon’s monthly journey around Earth, are are timed to microseconds. But this celestial dance also drives the atmospheric and tidal machinations that generate weather, stir oceans, and make every day unique and unpredictable.
This year the mercurial photography gods smiled on me and my Death Valley workshop group. For our 3 days in Death Valley, instead of the blank blue sky that often greets me here, we had a wonderful mix of clouds and sky—enough clouds to make the sky interesting, but enough sky to allow the sun to color the clouds at sunrise and sunset.
On the workshop’s penultimate day we drove to Lone Pine to wrap up with a sunset and sunrise shoot in the Alabama Hills. The highlight of this trip is always the Alabama Hills sunrise that I try to accent with the moon, just a day past full, setting behind the Sierra Crest. But this is winter, and these are the Sierra Mountains, so success is far from guaranteed.
A few years ago I drove to Yosemite on New Year’s Eve (because what else is there to do on New Year’s Eve?) to photograph a full moon rising between El Capitan and Half Dome. After a successful shoot (nearly thwarted by clouds), I hopped in my car and made the 6 1/2 hour drive to Lone Pine to photograph the moon setting behind Mt. Whitney.
I’d picked out a location along Highway 136 where I could align the moon and Mt. Whitney, and far enough back to allow an extreme telephoto big moon while still including all of Whitney. I went to bed really looking forward to this opportunity to get an image I’d thought about for years, and woke to clouds that completely obscured the moon and Sierra Crest. With nothing better to do, I still drove out to my spot, and even caught a very brief glimpse of the moon about 1/2 hour before zero-hour, but ended up not clicking a single frame. Such are the travails of anyone who pins their hopes on Nature’s fickle whims.
My plan this morning was far less grand. Since I was leading a workshop group, the goal was to get everyone in place for the best possible photography, not to assuage my own failed moonset wounds. And the good fortune that blessed us in Death Valley followed us to Lone Pine. (You can read more about this morning here.) In addition to a clear view of the moon and mountains, I was especially grateful to find the entire Sierra Crest frosted top-to-bottom with snow.
My photography day began in near darkness with my Sony a7R V and Sony 100-400 GM lens, photographing the descending moon throughout the morning’s many stages of advancing light. My starting focal length was 100mm, wide enough to include some of the Alabama Hills, then went progressively tighter as the moon dropped.
My favorite big moon images don’t usually happen until the moon is within a moon-width of the horizon, but I like to give myself a little wiggle room to get the composition balanced and focus just right. So when the moon got about 3 diameters from Mt. Williamson, I turned to my Sony α1, which was standing by with my Sony 200-600 G lens and Sony 2X Teleconverter already attached. And while 3 moon diameters might sound like a reasonable cushion, if you want to appreciate the speed at which the moon transits the sky, try pointing 1200mm at it and keeping it in your frame.
I love my Really Right Stuff Ascend tripod, but because the camera-shake margin of error is microscopic at 1200mm, I had the α1 pre-mounted on my (much more robust) RRS 24L Tripod with the RRS BH-55 ball head (carrying 2 tripods is a luxury I allow myself when I don’t have to fly to my location). I bumped to ISO 800 for a 1/500 second shutter speed, and switched from my standard 2-second timer (beep, beep, beep, BEEEEEEP—the Sony mating call) to a 5-second timer (I’m not crazy about any of Sony’s remote options, wired or wireless), to give the whole setup plenty of time to settle down—probably overkill, but I was taking no chances.
With my composition ready and focused, I just let the moon slide through my frame and started clicking. The alpenglow on Mt. Williamson was just about peaking when to moon first touched it. Perfect timing.
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Category: full moon, Moon, Mt. Williamson, snow, Sony 100-400 GM, Sony 2X teleconverter, Sony a7R V, winter Tagged: Eastern Sierra, full moon, moon, moonset, Mt. Williamson, nature photography, snow, winter
Posted on February 4, 2018
Much of my photography is about juxtaposition of elements with the landscape. Sometimes that’s simply combining static terrestrial features, but when possible I try to add something more dynamic, such as meteorological subjects like lightning or a rainbow, or celestial objects like the Milky Way or the Moon. The challenge with dynamic juxtapositions is timing—while the meteorological juxtapositions are usually a matter of playing the odds, celestial juxtapositions are gloriously precise.
Just as the Earth revolves around the Sun, the Moon revolves around Earth; at any point in this celestial dance, half of Earth is daylight and half is night, while half of the Moon is lit and half is dark. The amount of the Moon we see (its phase) depends on the relative position of the Sun, Moon, and Earth in this dance, and once each month all of the sunlit side of the Moon faces the dark side of Earth, and we Earthlings enjoy a full Moon.
This alignment of three or more orbiting celestial bodies necessary for a full (and new) Moon is called ‘syzygy.’ Due to the Moon’s orbit around Earth, the Sun, Earth, and Moon achieve syzygy twice each lunar month: once when the Moon is between the Sun and Earth (a new Moon), and again when Earth is between the Sun and Moon (a full Moon).
The Moon completes its trip around Earth every 27.3 days, but it takes 29.5 days to cycle through all its phases, from new to full and back to new again. The Moon’s phases need that extra 2+ days because as the Moon circles Earth, Earth also circles the Sun, taking the syzygy point with it—imagine a race with a moving finish line.
Viewed from Earth, the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the sky when the Moon is full, so a full Moon rises in the east at sunset and sets in the west at sunrise. We rarely see a full Moon rising exactly as the Sun sets (or setting as the Sun rises) because: 1) the point of maximum fullness (when the Sun, Earth, and Moon align perfectly) only happens at one instant on the full Moon day—at every other instant of each month’s full Moon day, the Moon is merely almost full (but still full enough to appear full); 2) published Sun/Moon rise/set times assume a flat horizon—if you have mountains between you and the horizon, your view of the true Sun/Moon rise/set is blocked; and 3) The more extreme your latitude (angular distance from the equator), the more skewed the Sun/Moon alignment appears.
Knowing this, it should make sense that the closer the Moon is to full, the longer it’s in the night sky, and a full Moon is in the sky all night long. Less intuitive but very important for lunar photographers to know, each day the Moon rises an average of 50 minutes later (between 30-70 minutes) than it rose the previous day—I usually mentally round to an hour for quick figuring.
If the Moon orbited Earth on the same plane Earth orbits the Sun, we’d have an eclipse with each syzygy: every new Moon, Earth would pass through the Moon’s shadow and somewhere on Earth would experience a solar eclipse; every full Moon the night side of Earth would witness a lunar eclipse as the Moon passes into Earth’s shadow. But the Moon’s orbit is tilted about 5 degrees from Earth’s orbit, making the perfect alignment an eclipse requires relatively rare.
It turns out that the alignment of the Sun, Earth, and Moon necessary for a lunar eclipse happens from two to four times each year. Of these, about one-third are total eclipses, when Earth’s shadow completely covers the Moon. At totality, most of the sunlight illuminating the Moon is blocked by Earth, and the only light to reach the Moon has passed through Earth’s atmosphere, which filters out all but the long, red wavelengths. For the same reason sunsets are red, during a total lunar eclipse we see a red or “blood” Moon.
Putting it all together
As frequent and familiar as the rise and set of the Moon is, the opportunity to witness the beauty of an eclipse is rare. But in the last six months, after being shut out by schedule or weather for many years, I’ve managed to photograph my first total solar and lunar eclipses. I wasn’t able to juxtapose the August solar eclipse with a favorite landscape, but I wasn’t going to let that happen again for last week’s lunar eclipse.
Viewed from Death Valley’s Zabriskie Point in winter, the setting full Moon’s azimuth aligns nicely with Manly Beacon, one of the park’s most recognizable features. Though this year’s alignment was particularly good, the morning of the eclipse was a day earlier than I’d normally photograph the Zabriskie Point moonset—the next day the Moon would be setting about 45 minutes later, providing ample time to photograph the landscape in the warm early light before the Moon descended behind the Panamints. Nevertheless, I decided that a total lunar eclipse trumps everything, and since Zabriskie was the best place for the eclipse, that’s where we were.
We started with telephoto compositions of the beautiful “blood Moon” phase because there wasn’t enough light to include the eclipsed Moon with the landscape without compositing two exposures. Composites are fine, but I prefer capturing scenes with one click. For wider images that included the landscape I waited until totality had passed, shortly before the Moon set, and switched to the Sony/Zeiss 24-70 with my Sony a7RIII, moving my Sony 100-400 GM to my Sony a7RII.
I captured this image about 25 minutes before sunrise, normally too early to capture landscape detail without over exposing the Moon. But this morning, following the total eclipse, the lit portion of the moon was still darkened by Earth’s penumbral shadow, which reduced the dynamic range to something my cameras could handle.
To enlarge the Moon and emphasize its juxtaposition with Manly Beacon, I went with the 100-400. With my composition and focus set, I slowly dialed up the shutter speed until I saw my a7RII’s pre-capture “zebra” highlight alert. After clicking I magnified my image preview and examined the moon to confirm that I did indeed still have detail. The foreground was quite dark on my LCD, but my histogram indicated the shadows were recoverable, something I later confirmed in Lightroom.
Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.
Category: Death Valley, eclipse, full moon, lunar eclipse, Moon, Sony 100-400 GM, Sony a7R II, supermoon, Zabriskie Point Tagged: Death Valley, full moon, lunar eclipse, Manly Beacon, moon, moonset, nature photography, Zabriskie Point