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