Posted on February 1, 2018
Since everyone else seems to be doing it, I thought I’d join the party….
I always schedule my Death Valley workshop to coincide with the January (or early February) full Moon, so it was just a coincidence that North America’s first super (a full Moon that’s within 90 percent of its closest approach to Earth), blue (the second full moon of a given month), blood (a lunar eclipse: a full Moon that passes into the Earth’s shadow and is bathed in light stripped of all but its red wavelengths by Earth’s atmosphere) Moon in 150 years coincided with my workshop. But since we were already there….
I got my group up to Zabriskie Point at around 4:30, well into the eclipse but before totality. Unlike most group photo events I’ve experienced, this morning’s crowd at Zabriskie was a little subdued—I suspect due to the early hour. Compared to the solar eclipse I photographed last August, a lunar eclipse moves with the speed of a glacier. While it was underway, I was able to assist my workshop students, set up my own equipment, switch lenses and camera bodies, experiment with exposure, gawk at the spectacle, and still had plenty of time to chat, laugh, and marvel with the rest of my group.
Starting with my Sony a7RIII, Sony 100-400 f/4 GM, and Sony 2x teleconverter, I cranked my focal length all the way out to 800mm and started clicking. After a while I pulled out my Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f/4, putting it on the a7RIII and switching the telephoto setup to my a7RII. Since time wasn’t a concern, I only used one tripod, switching the two bodies back and forth as my needs dictated.
Throughout the eclipse the Moon was softened by a thin layer of cirrus clouds. This image is among my first of the morning, before the Moon reached a band of denser clouds close to the horizon. I ended up with more creative captures, but those will need to wait for another day.
Posted on January 7, 2018
I used to resist using the supermoon label because it’s more of a media event than an astronomical event, and it creates unrealistic expectations. But since the phenomenon appears to be with us to stay, I’ve changed my approach and decided to take advantage of the opportunity to educate and encourage.
What’s the big deal?
So just what is so “super” about a “supermoon?” Maybe another way of asking the question would be, if I hadn’t told you that the moon in this image is in fact a supermoon, would you be able to tell? Probably not. So what’s the big deal? And why do we see so many huge moon images every time there’s a supermoon? So many questions….
Celestial choreography: Supermoon explained
To understand what a supermoon is, you first have to understand that all orbiting celestial bodies travel in an ellipse, not a circle. That’s because, for two (or more) objects to have the gravitational relationship an orbit requires, each must have mass. And if they have mass, each has a gravitational influence on the other. Without getting too deep into the gravitational weeds, let’s just say that the mutual influence the earth and moon have on each other causes the moon’s orbit to deviate ever so slightly from the circle it seems to be (without precise measurement): an ellipse. And because an ellipse isn’t perfectly round, as it orbits earth, the moon’s distance from us depends its position in its orbit.
An orbiting object’s closest approach to the center of its ellipse (and the object it orbits) is at “perigee”; its greatest distance from the ellipse’s center is “apogee.” And the time it takes an object to complete one revolution of its orbit is its “period.” For example, earth’s period is one year (365.25-ish days), while the moon’s period is a little more than 27 days.
But if the moon reaches perigee every 27 days, why don’t we have a supermoon every month? That’s because we’ve also added “syzygy” to the supermoon definition. In addition to being a great Scrabble word, syzygy is the alignment of celestial bodies—in this case it’s the alignment of the sun, moon, and earth (not necessarily in that order). Not only does a supermoon need to be at perigee, it must also be syzygy.
Syzygy happens twice each month, once when the moon is new (sun-moon-earth), and again when it’s full (sun-earth-moon). (While technically a supermoon can also be a new moon, the full moon that gets all the press because a new moon isn’t visible.) Since the earth revolves around the sun as the moon revolves around earth, the moon has to travel a couple extra days each month to achieve syzygy. That’s why the moon reaches perigee ever 27 days, but syzygy comes every 29.5 days, and the moon’s distance from earth is different each time syzygy is achieved.
The view from earth: Supermoon observed
While perigee, apogee, and period are precise terms that can be measured to the microsecond, a supermoon is a non-scientific, media-fueled phenomenon loosely defined a moon that happens to be at or near perigee when it’s full. To you, the viewer, a full moon at perigee (the largest possible supermoon) will appear about 14% larger and 30% brighter than a full moon at the average distance. The rather arbitrary consensus definition of the distance that qualifies a moon as a supermoon is a full moon that is within 90 percent of its closest approach to earth.
I really doubt that the average viewer could look up at even the largest possible supermoon and be certain that it’s different from an average moon. And all those mega-moon photos that confuse people into expecting a spectacular sight when there’s a supermoon? They’re either composites—a picture of a large moon inserted into a different scene—or long telephoto images. I don’t do composites, but they’re a creative choice that I’m fine with others doing as long as they’re clearly identified as composites.
For an image that’s not a composite, the moon’s size in the frame is almost entirely a function of the focal length used. I have no idea whether most of the moons the full moon gallery below were super, average, or small. The images in this and my previous blog post were indeed super, taken within minutes of each other last Sunday evening, at completely different focal lengths.
Every full moon is super
A rising or setting full moon is one of the most beautiful things in nature. But because a full moon rises around sunset and sets around sunrise, most people are eating dinner or sleeping, and seeing it is usually an accident. So maybe the best thing to come of the recent supermoon hype is that it’s gotten people out, cameras or not, to appreciate the beauty of a full moon. If you like what you saw (or photographed), mark your calendar for every full moon and make it a regular part of your life—you won’t be sorry.
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Posted on January 4, 2018
A man with a plan
It was New Year’s Eve and I was perched on a cliff overlooking Yosemite Valley, two feet from certain death and ten minutes from the rise of the largest full moon of 2018. While the death thing would have only been a problem if I’d have lost my mind, the moon’s appearance was entirely subject to the whims of Nature. And at that moment, she wasn’t cooperating.
The vast majority of my images are the result of a plan. But planning in nature requires both flexibility and resolve—an ability to adjust and persevere rather than quit when things don’t unfold as expected.
The master plan for this trip was to photograph 2018’s largest moon twice, on opposite sides of the Sierra. I’d start with super-telephoto shots of the moon’s appearance above Yosemite Valley at sunset on December 31, then drive to Lone Pine (just 100 or so miles as the drone flies, but more than 350 miles as the car drives) to capture its disappearance behind Mt. Whitney at sunrise on January 2. Unfortunately, it seemed that each day leading up to my trip, the weather forecast for both locations trended worse. But moon or not, can you think of a better way to celebrate the New Year than circumnavigating the Sierra? Me neither.
Assembling the parts
A beautiful scene is one part landscape and one part conditions (light, weather, and so on). We generally know where the great landscapes are, but finding them in the right conditions requires research, planning, and execution (plus a little luck). I try to time my trips, workshops and personal, to coincide with these special moments, usually some weather or celestial event. Whether it’s lightning at the Grand Canyon, the Milky Way above Kilauea or the bristlecone pines, or a moon rising or setting behind Half Dome or Mt. Whitney, I want to be there.
The problem is, nothing in nature is guaranteed. We know to the microsecond where the sun, moon, and stars will be at any given time, but have no way of knowing what weather we’ll encounter. I’ve lost many a shoot to inconveniently placed clouds, and I’ll never forget the time I scheduled an entire Yosemite workshop based on the anticipated arrival of Comet ISON, only to have the comet go all Icarus on me just days before the workshop.
But experience has taught me that regardless of the score you don’t leave the game until the last out, and you don’t cancel just because the odds are against you. Sometime the odds are wrong, and sometimes I end up getting an unexpected gift that feels like a reward for my persistence. One of the most memorable shoots of my life happened on a morning with clear skies forecast, but we ignored the forecast and went out for sunrise anyway. And I ended up getting the last laugh on the ISON workshop when Yosemite Valley became the beneficiary of a snowstorm and sudden cold that coated every exposed surface in sparkling ice crystals.
Meanwhile, back on the ledge…
It turns out that my Sierra circumnavigation didn’t yield the big moon images I’d planned, but it definitely delivered in many ways. Ignoring the clouds, I arrived in Yosemite Valley on New Year’s Eve afternoon and ended up at my chosen location at around 4:00 p.m. The sky was mostly clouds, but a few patches of blue in the east gave me reason to hope.
The spot I’d chosen was indeed on a cliff 300 vertical feet above Yosemite Valley, but it was only dangerous if I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing, and given my relationship with heights, there was little chance of that. Flanked by two tripods, I kept one eye on the horizon and the other on void at my feet. On my big tripod (RRS TVC-24LS) was my Sony a7RIII and 100-400 GM with a 2x teleconverter; on my compact tripod (RRS TQC-14) was my Sony a7RII and 70-200 f/4. Each tripod had one leg about two inches from the edge and two legs in the shrubs at my back. Me? I had two legs firmly planted on the narrow granite shelf, with my backside hugging the shrubs.
Sunset was at 4:50. With a cloudless sky the moon would appear from behind Cloud’s Rest at around 4:30, a location similar to last month’s full moon but closer to El Capitan. I’d hoped to start the moonrise with a long telephoto, then transition wider as it rose, but by 4:20 the persistent clouds made it pretty likely that if I saw the moon at all, it would be well above Cloud’s Rest and too high for a telephoto shot. At around 4:30 I waved a white flag at the big moon idea and replaced the 100-400 lens with my Sony/Zeiss 24-70 f/4, hopeful that the moon would make its way into a gap in the clouds before the sky became too dark. At around 4:45 the moon teased with a brief appearance between the clouds, but they scissored shut before the moon had an opportunity to shine.
While waiting I worked on my revised composition, which was complicated by my desire to include with the distant moon and Yosemite Valley, a dead tree in my immediate foreground. With very little margin for depth of field error, I opened my hyperfocal app and plugged in the numbers to determine the f-stop and focus point that would ensure front-to-back sharpness. With that out of the way, I bided my time photographing beautiful warm light on El Capitan and Half Dome.
The moon finally peeked above the clouds for good at 4:48. Ascending the darkening sky, the moon was enhanced by a sheer film of nearly transparent clouds that started out pink that intensified to fuchsia on their way to a vivid magenta that colored all of Yosemite Valley. I kept clicking as the foreground darkened, magnifying my image periodically to be sure I wasn’t losing detail in the moon. The image I share here was captured fifteen minutes after sunset.
You win some and you lose some
The Lone Pine segment of my trip was a photographic flop, but photography really shouldn’t be all about the photography. I arrived in Lone Pine mid-afternoon on New Year’s Day and spent the remaining daylight doing reconnaissance for the next day’s sunrise moonset. This was going to be another super-telephoto opportunity, this time at a location I’d driven past but never photographed from, so I wanted to ensure no surprises. That afternoon I enjoyed nice clouds and light above the Sierra’s east face, but to have photographed it would have compromised my scouting objective so I was just content to enjoy.
I rose before 6:00 a.m. on January 2 and drove out to my planned location with a pretty good idea that the clouds would shut me down. When I parked, the moon penetrated the clouds as an indistinct glowing sphere. As I waited, it descended into more-dense clouds and disappeared for good, but I stayed, quite content to simply watch Mt. Whitney and its towering neighbors emerge beneath the brightening sky.
The drive home took my beneath the serrated Sierra crest, past Mono Lake, through the Hope Valley, over Echo Summit and back down into Sacramento, completing the circuit with at least one successful image and many memories of a great trip. A very Happy New Year indeed.
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Posted on December 5, 2017
Large or small, crescent or full, I love photographing the moon rising above Half Dome. The alignment doesn’t work most months, so those months when the alignment is right, I do my best to be there.
For last week’s Yosemite Winter Moon photo workshop I’d planned three moonrises: Thursday and Friday we got lucky with the never reliable December skies, but Saturday night concerned me. Not only was this moonrise the “main event,” the forecast was less than promising. And while the first two moonrises were absolutely beautiful, the moon was less full and we were on the valley floor, much closer to Half Dome. Our location required a wider focal length that meant a relatively small moon. But on Saturday (it would rise too late to photograph on Sunday) the moon would be 99 percent full and rise shortly after sunset, just left of Half Dome when viewed from Tunnel View. Tunnel View is eight miles west of Half Dome, a distance, when combined with the moon’s proximity to Half Dome, that would allow a long telephoto that would fill the frame with the moon and all of Half Dome.
Saturday started clear, but soon a thin layer of clouds moved in, bathing Yosemite Valley in diffuse light that was wonderful for photographing pretty much anything that didn’t involve the sky. These clouds weren’t dense enough to completely obscure the sun, but with a chance of rain coming overnight, I knew they’d be thickening at some point.
I got my group in position near Tunnel View about a half hour before sunset. I’ve attempted moonrises that were completely obscured by clouds, and some where we could see the moon’s glow through the clouds, but no detail. I tried to stay positive but the fading light made it impossible to tell exactly how thick the clouds were. Fearing the worst, I rationalized that we’d already had two nice moonrises and maybe wishing for a third was just greedy. But still….
Hoping for the best, I pointed out where the moon should appear about ten minutes after sunset, advising everyone to continue shooting normally until then, but to have an idea of their moonrise compositions. Practicing what I preach, I got out my Sony 100-400 GM, added my 2x teleconverter, and framed up the scene. Because I wasn’t going to shoot anything else (as you may have noticed, I already have a couple of Tunnel View images in my portfolio), I focused and waited.
About five minutes after sunset an amber glow in the clouds next to Half Dome signaled the moon’s imminent arrival. That we could even see any sign of the moon gave me hope and I held my breath as the glow intensified, still unsure whether we’d see lunar detail or just a white blob. The glow was actually unique and very beautiful in its own way and I started clicking. The instant the moon’s brilliant leading edge nudged into view, silhouetting the trees, I knew we were in luck. The landscape was already fairly dark by then, but because this was the group’s third moonrise, they’d become old pros at dealing with the scene’s extreme dynamic range—at that point the workshop’s mantra had become: “Push the exposure until the moon’s highlights start blinking, and fix the shadows in Photoshop.”
The experience that evening was even more spectacular than I had dared hope, a perfect storm of conditions I might never see repeated: the moon’s alignment with Half Dome, the telephoto distance, the timing of the moon’s arrival that put it on the horizon with just enough twilight remaining, and (especially) the translucent clouds that enveloped the moon in a golden halo and eased the scene’s dynamic range.
Some thoughts on the Sony a7RIII
A couple of weeks ago, at a Sony sponsored event in Sedona, I got the opportunity to do some night photography with the new Sony a7RIII. But this Yosemite trip was my first time using the new camera on my own. It’s too soon for any final proclamations, but my general sense is that this camera has even more dynamic range than the a7RII (which is pretty incredible). The other significant takeaway from this weekend is that I used the same battery for three-and-half days and came home with more than 25 percent remaining. Anyone who shot with the a7RII, knows how significant this is.
I’m still getting used to the new camera’s interface—while similar to the a7RII, there are definite differences. I do like the new button layout and improved menu interface, but am still getting used to the joystick and touchscreen—pretty sure I’ll learn to love them too. And the dual card slots are a necessary and most welcome improvement.
My biggest complaint with the new camera is that the back-button focus that I loved so much on the a7rII is broken on the a7RIII. Every camera I’ve ever used (Canon and Sony) has allowed me, after tweaking some settings, to switch seamlessly between auto and manual focus without requiring me to change the focus mode. So the first thing I do when I get a new camera is disengage autofocus from the shutter button and assign autofocus to a button on the back of the camera. With back-button focus enabled, my workflow has always been manually focus by default, but always with the ability to autofocus with the simple push of a button—no focus mode change required. Doing this with the a7RII was the easiest of any camera I’ve ever used, but for some reason Sony changed the focus behavior of the a7RIII, so now I have to deal with the added step of switching focus modes on the camera before focusing. This might not sound like a big deal, but I don’t want to have to think about my camera when I’m composing a scene, so this behavior is extremely frustrating. That said, I’ve already communicated my frustration to Sony’s engineers and am hopeful (confident?) this is a firmware fix that will come soon. Sony’s responsiveness to things like this is one of the reasons I’m so happy I made the switch from Canon.
I’m happily retracting those words after Sony found a solution for the a7RIII back-button focus problem. At last month’s Sony media event Sedona, I was surrounded by Sony’s best and brightest engineers; when I brought the BBF problem to their attention, we all scratched our heads over how to make it work, and they finally asked me to send them a detailed write-up. They promised to address it ASAP, but I didn’t think it would happen without a firmware update.
To enable back-button focus on a Sony a7RIII or a9, simply assign any custom button (Tab 2, Screen 8) to the AF/MF Control Hold option (AF1 screen). To use BBF, keep the camera in Manual Focus mode—this allows you to manually focus with the focus ring, or to autofocus by pressing whatever button you assigned AF/MF Control Hold.
I’m pretty sure this is the best camera I’ve ever had my hands on. In fact, the dynamic range improvement was obvious as soon as I started processing this moonrise shoot—we continued shooting about 25 minutes after sunset, and just a little processing reveals useable detail in my highlights and shadows, even in my final image. Ridiculous.
A couple of full moon photography tips
Sun and moon rise/set times always assume a flat horizon, which means the sun usually disappears behind the local terrain before the “official” sunset, while the moon appears after moonrise. When that happens, there’s usually not enough light to capture landscape detail in the moon and landscape, always my goal. To capture the entire scene with a single click (no image blending), I usually try to photograph the rising full moon on the day before it’s full, when the nearly full (99 or so percent illuminated) moon rises before the landscape has darkened significantly.
The moon’s size in an image is determined by my focal length—the longer the lens, the larger the moon appears. Photographing a large moon above a particular subject requires not only the correct alignment, it also requires distance from the subject—the farther back your position, the longer the lens you can use without cutting of some of the subject.
This moonrise image is a perfect example. Tunnel View in Yosemite is one of my favorite locations to photograph a moonrise because it’s about eight miles from Half Dome. At this distance I can use 500+ mm (250mm plus a 2x teleconverter) to fill my frame with Half Dome—with the moon nearby, I get an image that includes all of Half Dome and a very large moon.
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Posted on November 14, 2016
The media tends to distort facts and blow events out of proportion. Perhaps you’ve noticed. The latest example is this week’s “supermoon,” an event heralded on TV, in print, and online like the Second Coming. Okay, now for a little perspective. Despite hype to the contrary, a supermoon occurs at least twice, and up to five times, in a year. In fact, our last supermoon was all the way back in October, and the next one isn’t until December.
But, as I’m sure you’ve heard, this month’s supermoon was special, an event the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1946, and won’t see again until 2034. True enough. But exactly how special was it? Not nearly as special as you might have heard: the diameter of the “epic” November supermoon was only one-half of one percent (.57) larger than the October full moon, and four-fifths of one percent (.84) larger than the December full moon—differences that are impossible to discern with the naked eye. Next year we’ll get two moons that are more than 99 percent the size of this month’s supermoon, and last year we had four.
So why was I out taking pictures of the full moon Sunday night? Because I think every full moon is beautiful, regardless of its size, and I take any opportunity to photograph it over my favorite landscapes. Which is also why each fall I schedule a workshop in Yosemite to coincide with the full moon.
Thursday night my Yosemite Autumn Moon workshop group photographed an 82% (of full) waxing gibbous (on its way to full) moon above Valley View at sunset. For Friday night’s sunset, from a quiet beach beside the Merced River we glimpsed through clouds an 87% moon rising just right of Half Dome. Saturday’s sunset found us beneath a magenta sky at Tunnel View to witness the 96% moon ascend between Sentinel Dome and Cathedral Rocks.
The workshop’s grand finale came Sunday night, when we gathered at the Half Dome vista on Big Oak Flat Road. Though I rarely encounter other photographers for any of my moon rise/set shoots, limited parking and tripod space here prompted me to arrive an hour before sunset. That turned out to be a fortunate decision, as within 30 minutes of our arrival the parking lot was brimming beyond full and photographers swarmed the nearby rocks like ants at a picnic.
With an hour to kill, I made sure everyone in my group was ready (but by now, this being our fourth moonrise, they were experienced veterans) and chatted with other photographers nearby. Comparing notes, it seemed that most (all?) of the other photographers had relied on apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Photo Pills to plot the moon’s arrival location and time, while I was the only one clinging to my old fashioned topo map, scientific calculator, trigonometry plotting approach. (I do it this way because I’ve been plotting the moon since long before the apps were available, I feel like I can be more precise, and I enjoy it—not necessarily in that order.)
In the viewfinder of my Sony a7R Mark II, atop my tripod and armed with my Tamron 150-600 lens to enlarge the moon as much as possible, was the composition I wanted—assuming the accuracy of my calculations. The consensus among others seemed to be that the moon would appear from behind Half Dome’s right flank, anytime between 5:00 and 5:10 p.m. I stuck to my guns that the moon would show up at about 5:05, and that it would be straight over the top of Half Dome. While I saw this more as an opportunity to check my plotting method’s accuracy than a competition between methods, it was pretty thrilling when the moon popped into view right on schedule and on target. Take that, technology!
Since the moon didn’t appear until a full fifteen minutes after sunset, the extreme dynamic range (very dark landscape beneath a daylight-bright moon) made this an extremely tricky exposure for anyone (like me) not interested in compositing two images (one with the moon properly exposed, another with the scene properly exposed). To capture this scene with a single click, I closely monitored the pre-capture “zebra stripes” highlight alert in my a7RII and pushed my exposure 2/3 stop after the first hint of the alert appeared. To hedge my bets and give myself processing options, I varied my exposure 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop in either direction (an exception to my standard workflow because the moon is too small to register on the histogram).
The result was a scene that looked quite dark on my LCD, and a moon with no detail. No problem, I reassured myself, for my a7RII’s ridiculous dynamic range. This morning in Lightroom I adjusted the white balance, pulled up the shadows, and pulled down the highlights. In Photoshop I applied a moderate dose of Topaz DeNoise and did a few minor dodge/burn moves to get the image you see here.
One more thing
The size of the moon in this image has virtually nothing to do with the fact that this was a “supermoon,” and virtually everything to do with the fact that I was far enough away to be able to use a 600mm lens. Click below to read about how to capture your own big moon:
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