How do you do that?: Big Moon

The Secret for Supersizing the Moon

Gary Hart Photography: Foothill Moonrise, Sierra Foothills, California

Foothill Full Moon, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a6000
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1/100 second
F/8
ISO 400

(This is not a composite)

A few days ago I saw a picture of an oversize moon above the Golden Gate Bridge; beneath the picture someone had commented that the image was obviously was faked because the moon isn’t that big. Though I didn’t scrutinize the picture, I suspect that the commenter’s accusation was right, but for the wrong reason.

While some photographers take the easy (and deceptive) approach and just plop a huge moon into their beautiful scene, the mere presence of a large moon doesn’t mean that the image is a fake. In fact with the right equipment and a little preparation, any photographer can photograph the moon large in their images (without cheating).

Size matters

Most people understand that the longer the focal length, the larger the moon will appear in an image. But focal length is only half the equation, a fact that becomes clear when you take the extreme telephoto approach to the limit and attach a camera to a telescope. True, with a telescope you’ll achieve the maximum enlargement possible, but you’ll also end up with the moon and nothing else—you could capture the very same image whether you’re standing on a tropical beach, atop a towering peak, or in the comfort of your own backyard.

Size isn’t everything

Rather than simply photographing a large moon, what we landscape photographers really want is a moon that appears large relative to the rest of the image. And while the size of the moon in your frame is determined by the focal length, its size relative to the landscape has nothing to do with the focal length.

The moon’s extreme distance  means that it will appear the same size to our eye (or lens) regardless of our location on earth. We can enlarge the moon with optics (a lens or telescope), but not by moving closer (without a rocket). On the other hand, the perceived size of earthbound objects changes dramatically with distance—move closer and things get bigger, move back and they get smaller.

So, if the perceived size of the moon from earth is constant, but earthbound subjects shrink with distance, you can make the moon look larger compared to earthbound subjects foreground by moving back and shrinking the foreground—then, once you’re farther back,  you can use a telephoto to enlarge everything.

Understanding this makes it easier to see why the moon looks so small in most images because the photographer was too close to the subject: The closer we are to the scene we’re photographing, the shorter (wider) the focal length required to include all of the scene in the frame, and the wider our field of view, the smaller the moon will appear in the scene.


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The two images above were taken from the same location (at different times). The size of the moon relative to Half Dome is the same, but in one image I shrank the scene and enlarged the moon with a telephoto; in the other, I widened the scene and shrank the moon with a wide angle lens. To get the wide scene and the large moon, I’d need a vantage point with the same angle of view, only much farther back (sadly, that vantage point doesn’t exist).


Gary Hart Photography: Foothill Moonrise, Sierra Foothills, California

Foothill Moonrise, Sierra Foothills, California

The story of this image

Armed with this knowledge, I’m on constant lookout for distant subjects that stand out against the east or west horizon. This oak tree in the foothills west of Sacramento has been on my radar for awhile—for years I’ve noted it from the road, but was always on my way somewhere else and never had time to hunt for a vantage point that would work for the moon.

One evening I found myself with a little extra time when conditions changed and a planned foothills shoot didn’t materialize as hoped. Instead of heading straight home, I spent the hour or so of remaining daylight searching west of this tree for a vantage point that would align it with the upcoming moonrise. (Not only do I need a distant enough view that puts the tree against the sky, that view needs to align with the rising moon.)

Back home I did a little more plotting with my topographic software and came up with a tentative plan, and on the evening of the full moon I made my way back up to the foothills. I knew about where the moon would rise, but because I don’t know the exact altitude (in degrees) of the hillside from my planned location, I couldn’t be sure exactly when the moon would appear. (That’s not a problem once I’ve photographed a moonrise from a location, like Yosemite.)

Unfortunately, I got hung up by traffic that sapped all the extra time I’d factored into my plan, and ended up arriving at my location right at the beginning of the window when I thought the moon might appear. I started extracting and assembling my camera, lens, and tripod with one eye on the east horizon and did a double-take when I realized that the moon was indeed coming up. It was just slightly downhill from (west of) the tree, so I grabbed my gear and sprinted east a couple of hundred yards until they were aligned.

I used my Sony a6000 with my Tamron 150-600 lens (Canon-mount with a Metabones adapter). I maxed the focal length to 600mm, but since the a6000 is a 1.5 crop sensor, my effective focal length was 900mm. I quickly focused on the moon, metered, and started clicking. I used ISO 400 to speed my shutter and mitigate micro-vibrations that can be easily magnified at such a long focal length.

The tree was about a mile-and-a-half away. If I hadn’t been so rushed I’d have probably stopped down to f/11 or f/16 to ensure more depth of field (the hyperfocal distance was over 7,000 feet), but fortunately, focusing on the moon at f8 did the job. In Lightroom I cropped the image slightly (less than 15 percent) for framing and to enlarge the tree and moon a little more.

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The Moon, Big and Small

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Our first date: First impressions of my Sony a7R II

Gary Hart Photography: Flaming Oaks, Sierra Foothills, California

Flaming Oaks, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a7R II
Tamron 150-600 (Canon-mount with Metabones IV adapter)
1 second
F/8
ISO 100

Love at first sight

My Sony a7R II arrived Wednesday, but my schedule limited my use to staying home and familiarizing myself with menus and overall handling. If you’re familiar with Sony’s e-mount mirrorless bodies, you’ll be able to hit the ground running with the a7R II. The menu system is the same, though of course there are few new features.

The buttons and controls have moved a bit from their placement on the original a7 bodies (a7, a7R, a7S), but it’s essentially the same body as the a7 II (released late last year). Blindfolded, it would be difficult  to distinguish the a7R II from the a7 II, and in fact, my Really Right Stuff L-plate (which I ordered several weeks ago), is the a7 II L-plate. I didn’t order the battery grip, but I know the a7 II battery grip fits the a7R II as well.

On the other hand, the a7R II has more heft than the a7R—the body, while still far more compact than my Canon bodies, is definitely larger and heavier than the original a7R body. The grip noticeably larger too. The result is a camera that feels more solid without sacrificing its mirrorless compactness—a definite upgrade.

I find mirrorless so perfectly suited to manual focus (for stationary landscape subjects), and the a7R autofocus so sluggish, that I just stopped using autofocus. I think that will change with the a7R II, as just a few test frames made it clear that the autofocus is vastly improved, both in speed and accuracy—not just for my Sony glass, but for my Canon lenses paired with a Metabones IV adapter (just make sure you’re using the latest Metabones firmware). Manual will remain my primary focus paradigm, but it’s nice to know that autofocus is now a viable option.

Shutter lag

One prime consideration for me is shutter-lag (the time it takes the shutter to engage once the button it pressed). Measure in milliseconds, it’s not a big factor for virtually all uses, but when photographing lightning, every millisecond matters. My Canon 5D Mark III’s shutter lag was decent but not great; the a7R is too slow to even consider for lightning; the a6000 is quite fast; and the a7S is (dare I say) lightning fast. So on the eve of my annual Grand Canyon monsoon trip (for the workshop Don Smith and I do each year), I was quite anxious to know how the a7R II would perform in the shutter lag department.

I don’t have the means to measure the actual shutter lag of a camera, but since I have the shutter lag numbers for the a7S, and have had great success photographing lightning with it already, I just wanted to know know how the a7R II compares the a7S. And I was able to devise a way to test their relative speed. Without going into too much detail, my test involved both cameras set up on a tripod with a Lightning Trigger (the only lightning sensor I’d even consider using—I own two) attached.

With both cameras focused on a timer that recorded milliseconds, I simultaneously triggered each using its Lightning Trigger, then compared the times captured in the images of each camera. They were identical. Just to be sure I ran a second test and again they were identical.

As I write this I’m one day into my Grand Canyon trip and can tell you that I now have empirical data confirming that the a7R II is a great lightning camera, maybe even the best lightning camera. But that’s a story for another day….

Kiss and tell

Thursday night I took my new camera out to one of my favorite sunset spots in the foothills. Sporting her brand new L-plate and 128 GB media card, she was clearly primed for action. This being our first date, I didn’t want to push her too hard, but I could tell she was definitely ready for whatever I asked.

As luck would have it, this turned out to be more than a dry run shoot to test a new camera. The sunset that night was off the charts, so much so that I ended up breaking out a second camera (she didn’t seem to mind that either). I haven’t had a lot of time to play with the images from that night, but am sharing this one here from the very end of the shoot. Despite its appearance, and the rash of fires burning throughout California, no trees were injured in the making of this image. This is just silhouette of a trio of oaks against the sunset, underexposed to enhance the trees’ shape and hold the color in the sky.

My first impressions of the a7R II? I think it’s a relationship that’s going to last (at least until the next version comes out). In addition to the improved focus and increased resolution, in the very brief time we’ve been together, it’s clear that the dynamic range is even better than the phenomenal dynamic range I get from my a7R.

All this, and a great body.

My Sony Gallery (a history of my ten months as a Sony shooter)

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The grass is greener

Gary Hart Photography: Under the Weather, Sierra Foothills, California

Under the Weather, Sierra Foothills, California
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/8 second
F/11
ISO 100

“You’re so lucky to live so close to <fill in the blank>”: Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Big Sur, San Francisco, Muir Woods (and countless other coastal redwood sites), Point Reyes, the Napa Valley wine country, Mt. Shasta, Mono Lake. I hear it all the time. Okay, I’ll concede that—I’m lucky.

But…

Their implicit message is, “If only I lived closer to such-and-such, my photography would be so much better.” But you know what? We all have our grass-is-greener longings. When someone tells me how lucky I am to live where I live (I am), I can usually counter with, “Yeah, but I’d love to have the skies that you get.” Because the sad truth is, for someone who loves dramatic weather and interesting skies as much as I do, California is definitely not the place to be.

My advice to anyone who lives in Nebraska, or Texas, or Illinois, or pretty much anywhere else that lacks California’s dramatic scenery, is to emphasize your skies (which are almost certainly more interesting than mine). Keep a mental database of interesting foregrounds (they don’t even need to be particularly photo-worthy by themselves)—a single tree, reflective lake, cascading stream, whatever—that you can get to fairly quickly when the sky shows potential.

When photographing your subject beneath an interesting sky, place it at the bottom of your frame, compose wide, and give 2/3 or more of the frame to the sky (the better the sky, the more real estate it deserves). Vertical compositions often work great when you want to emphasize the sky. Is it Yosemite or the Grand Canyon? No, but I could be a very happy photographer shooting nothing but great skies for the rest of my life.

I digress

So. As you might guess, on the rare occasion when it looks like something special might happen overhead, I’m all over it. Unfortunately, and despite my proximity to so many world-class locations, there’s not a lot I like to photograph within a few minutes of my home.

I got a frustrating reminder of that a few years ago when, during a heavy (for California), persistent rain, I looked out the west-facing window of my home on Sacramento’s west side and saw nothing but clear sky on the horizon. Hmmm. Knowing three things: 1) the sun sets in the west 2) weather in Northern California moves from west to east 3) a rainbow needs low sunlight and airborne water, inferring an imminent rainbow wasn’t rocket science. All I needed was an east-facing scene.

And therein lay the rub: It’s at least a 30 minute drive to any scene that would do the rainbow justice. Of course with more than an hour until sunset, I figured there was time if I hurried, so I tossed my gear in the car and headed east, toward a small tree that stands by itself atop a hill east of town. And sure enough, within ten minutes of my departure, the rainbow did indeed manifest as expected. What also manifested was rush hour traffic.

For the next hour, I (along with what seemed like ten million commuters) were treated to a vivid double rainbow framing all six lanes of US 50. Poking along at less than 10 miles per hour, we were also beneficiaries of ample opportunity to appreciate the spectral splendor. On the positive side, this rainbow was so beautiful that I couldn’t even muster much impatience—I just sat there in traffic and marveled. And as if its beauty weren’t enough, this rainbow persisted longer than any rainbow I’ve ever seen, lasting at least an hour—all the way up until I pulled my car to a stop in front of the tree. True story.

Deja vu

Fast-forward four years. A couple of months ago I looked out the very same window during on a rainy afternoon and saw the same clear horizon I’d seen four years earlier. Within minutes I was in my car and heading toward the same tree. This time the traffic cooperated and I made good time, arriving at “my” tree about 30 minutes before sunset.

Sadly, despite all the signs pointing in the right direction, the rainbow never happened. Waiting for the sun to appear, I photographed saturated clouds in a steady rain, at no point not believing its appearance was imminent. Just about the time the sun appeared, the rain stopped. And then, about the time the rain returned, the sun set. Oh well.

Am I complaining? Of course not. I didn’t get my rainbow, but I did get a rare opportunity to photograph Midwest skies right here in Northern California. And I hope this image illustrates my point—wasting energy longing for what’s over there obscures the beauty at your feet. Good photography doesn’t need a towering monolith or double rainbow, it just needs a creative eye and a little persistence.

 A Gallery of Skies

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Exceeding the sum of the parts

Gary Hart Photography: Heaven and Earth, New Moon and Venus, Sierra Foothills

Heaven and Earth, New Moon and Venus, Sierra Foothills
Sony a7R
Sony 70-200 f4 G
2 seconds
F/8
ISO 400

When I decided to make photography my career, I promised myself I’d only photograph what I love. Not because I believed that’s where I’d find my best images (I wasn’t that calculating), but simply because the only good reason I could come up with for leaving an excellent job with a great company was to do something that made me truly happy. And lucky me—today most of my time behind a camera is spent pursuing subjects that touch a special place in my heart, subjects I’m naturally drawn to, camera or not.

For example…

There’s Yosemite, for sure. And pretty much anything celestial. Dramatic weather, dogwood, poppies, oak trees, reflections all thrill me. I could go on…. And as much as I enjoy these subjects individually, I love combining more than one to create (what at least feels to me like) a natural synergy. I mean, photographing Yosemite Valley is always great. And who doesn’t like to see a rainbow? But finding a rainbow arcing above Yosemite Valley? Well, you get the point….

While Yosemite Valley is a bit of a drive, and rainbows are unpredictable, ephemeral phenomena, the oak trees I love so much are deeply rooted less than an hour from home. And the moon is nothing if not predictable. So combining these favorites simply requires mixing a small amount of effort with a little cooperation from the weather.

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a number of candidate views in both directions: east for a full moon at sunset, west for a new moon at sunset; the other way around for sunrise. The east views will work for late afternoon rainbows too, but I’ve yet to capture one of those (it’ll happen).

Marking my calendar

Anxious for something to photograph between my Death Valley and Yosemite winter workshops, I made a point of highlighting the evening of this January’s full moon in my calendar. And rather than return to one of my tried-and-true foothill oak views, I left early enough to explore. After a great afternoon and many discoveries, I finally landed at the end of a new, graded but unbuilt cul-de-sac with a clear view of a distant trio of hilltop oaks.

While waiting for the moon to appear, I fired a few frames, silhouetting the trees against the sun descending through the orange sky, an unplanned and special juxtaposition in its own right. When the moon finally emerged above the darkening horizon, it was flanked by Venus. And when Mercury appeared a few minutes later (center-right, beneath the moon), I had a celestial triangle balanced above the terrestrial oaks. Synergy.

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A gallery of natural synergy

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The real California

Gary Hart Photography: California Sunset, Sierra Foothills

California Sunset, Sierra Foothills
Sony a7R
Sony 70-200 f4 G
1/200 seconds
F/8
ISO 100

I love driving the Sierra foothills east of my home in Sacramento, one eye on the road, the other scanning for gnarled oaks I can photograph against the sky. To my very California eyes, these are the scenes of home—not the palm trees and surf boards most people picture when they think of my home state.

California’s oak trees’ inherent beauty stands out when they’re silhouetted against a sunset horizon. I’ve accumulated many go-to locations for just this kind of scene, but because much of the joy of photography is the seeking, one afternoon last week I left home with no agenda but to explore some of the many untried foothill roads south of Highway 50.

My first detour took me into one of many new subdivisions that threaten the very foothills I love so much. Soon these wide open spaces will be smothered by homes, but right now they’re simply etched with a varicose pattern of fresh pavement. As sad as this “progress” makes me, on this afternoon the new roads gave me access to some views I’ve never had.

I wound as far back into the hills as the asphalt allowed, eventually ending up at the end of a cul-de-sac with a straight-shot view of three hilltop oaks. Because the afternoon was still young, I continued exploring, but as sunset approached, I knew this view was the one that would give me what I wanted—not just a sunset, but a sunset with a two-percent crescent moon flanked by Venus.

I arrived about fifteen minutes before sunset, surveyed the scene to find the best place align the moon with the trees, then watched the sun drop to the horizon. My original thought was to simply wait for the moon to appear, but when a the sun dropped into a translucent film of thin clouds gave that gave it yellow-orange cast, it occurred to me this would be a good opportunity to further test the dynamic range of my new Sony a7R. So out came my 3-stop Singh-Ray reverse graduated neutral density filter and my Sony 70-200 lens (sadly, the Canon 100-400 and Metabones adapter were at home), and I went to work.

Not only was I able to get a usable silhouette that still retained the color in the sun, the 36 megapixel resolution of the a7R allowed me to crop my result to more closely match the 400mm focal length I wished I had. Life’s good.

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A Sierra Foothills Gallery

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These are a few of my favorite things

California Sunset, Sierra Foothills

California Crescent, Sierra Foothills
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
2.5 seconds
82 mm
ISO 100
F11

Maria von Trapp had them, you have them, I have them. They’re the favorite places, moments, and subjects that provide comfort or coax a smile no matter what life has dealt. Not only do these “favorite things” improve our mood, they’re the muse that drives our best photography. Mine include the translucent glow of a California poppy, a black sky sprinkled with stars, a breathtaking sunrise duplicated in reverse by still water, and the vivid arc of a rainbow following a cleansing rainAlso on my list (as you may have guessed by now) are the rolling hills and stately oaks of the Sierra foothills, a delicate slice of moon hovering above the horizon, and the subtle band of shifting color separating day and night.

I do my best to put myself in position to photograph all of these moments—the more I can combine, the better. For example, on my calendar each month (among other things) are the best days to photograph the old moon before sunrise, and the new moon after sunset. And in my GPS is a collection of foothill locations (though by now I’m sure my car could navigate to these spots on its own) with hilltop oak trees that stand against the sky.

The best evenings for the new moon in the most recent lunar cycle were Friday and Saturday, January 31 and February 1. With plans for Friday, I blocked Saturday and made the drive up to the foothills, where I waited at a favorite spot for the sun to drop and the moon to appear. Over the years I’ve accumulated lots of pictures of these trees beneath a variety of skies, with and without the moon. My composition decisions on each visit were mostly determined by the conditions: clouds, color, the moon’s direction, and the moon’s elevation above the horizon.

Saturday night’s cloudless, unspectacular sky spread a simple canvas that emphasized the crescent moon floating above the day/night transition I love so much. As an added bonus, Mercury joined the party, leading the moon to the horizon (above the tree on the right). In the deepening darkness I moved up and down the road to change the moon’s position relative to the  trees. With the moon fairly high, I found that moderately wide, vertical compositions worked best. I underexposed slightly to  and emphasize the trees’ shape with a silhouette; with nothing else to balance my frame, I decided on the symmetry of an isosceles triangle connecting the trees and moon.

Same view, different day

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