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.
Posted on March 24, 2016
Have you ever seen a glowing full moon suspended above a beautiful landscape and been moved enough to grab your camera? And how many times have those pictures actually matched your memory of the moment? Not too many, I’d guess. Either your landscape was completely black, or (more likely) the moon was an ugly white blob. You’ve just experienced an example of the human eye’s vastly superior dynamic range—while you could see detail in the landscape and the moon, your camera could only see one or the other.
Lot’s of scouting and plotting goes into aligning a full moon with a terrestrial subject, as close to the horizon as possible, when the light’s just right. For me, just right means a sky dark enough for the moon to stand out (the darker the better), but not so dark that I lose foreground detail in the twilight shadow. Since I don’t blend images, I need to get the landscape and lunar detail with a single click.
I’ve found that the “right-time” sweet spot for single-click full moon photography is a window about 10 minutes on either side of sunrise/sunset. Since the published sun/moon rise/set times assume a flat-horizon—unless you’re on a boat at sea, the sun and moon will probably be below the horizon when they’re advertised to be rising and setting.
It helps to know that as the moon goes through its 29-day cycle from new to full and back, it rises a little less than an hour later each day (that’s an average that varies with several factors, but it’s a good rule-of-thumb). This generally makes the moon visible in my 20-minute exposure sweet spot the day before it’s full for a sunset moonrise, and the day after it’s full for a sunrise moonset, because there’s more foreground light to work with. But even then the landscape will be bathed in shadow, while the moon remains daylight bright, so getting myself on location in this 20 minute window is only half the battle.
In general, digital cameras have made exposure easier. Shooting film, difficult exposures meant a lot of guessing, bracketing, and (especially) hoping. Shooting digitally, not only can we instantly eyeball each image, the histogram shows us exactly how our exposure worked. Unfortunately, the histogram isn’t much help when the moon’s involved, because the moon doesn’t usually occupy enough image real estate to register on the histogram. If you’re not careful, you might find yourself reveiwing an evening’s worth of images with beautiful histograms and a hopelessly blown moon. What’s a photographer to do?
The key to exposing any high dynamic range scene is pushing the highlights as far as you can without blowning them out. For most scenes the histogram is sufficient, but exposing for the moon requires help from your camera’s Highlight Alert (blinking highlights) feature. And since most cameras allow you to view images in multiple modes (e.g., with the luminosity histogram, RGB histogram, no histogram, full capture information, no capture information, and so on), it’s also important to determine which view or views actually show the blinking highlights (not all do)—if you’re not sure, I suggest intentionally overexposing a scene and reviewing the image in the camera’s various display modes.
When photographing a rising full moon at sunset, simply metering for the landscape works at the outset because there’s still plenty of light to capture foreground detail without overexposing the moon. At this point the histogram tells me everything I need to know. But as the sky darkens, so does the foreground, while the moon remains unchanged.
To keep my histogram in the ideal range as twilight deepens, I add light to my image by bumping the shutter speed in 1/3 stop increments. Each time I increase the shutter speed, I check the image to ensure that the moon’s not blinking. As soon as my exposure causes the moon to blink, I know I’ve reached my highlight threshold and I’m pretty much done adding light.
Once I’ve pushed the moon to my camera’s highlight threshold, I continue shooting until the shadows are so dark that no useable data can be recovered. Because highlight and shadow recovery varies with the camera, I strongly encourage you to familiarize yourself with your camera’s shadow and highlight threshold (how far to the left and right can push the histogram and still get usable detail).
If you’re shooting raw, you can probably push your exposure until part of the moon is blinking, but if the entire lunar disk blinks, you almost certainly will need to back down your exposure. Adding a graduated neutral density filter will hold back the moon enough to buy you five or ten minutes of shooting before the moon blows out.
Moonset (an example)
Photographing a setting full moon at sunrise is the sunset process in reverse—we start with the moon glowing above a landscape much too dark to get detail without hopelessly blowing out the moon, and finish when the moon sets, or when the sky brightens to the point that the moon starts to wash out.
In January, I got my Death Valley Winter Moon workshop group out to Zabriskie Point about 45 minutes before sunrise. The moon was indeed beautiful, but far too bright to photograph with the dark foreground. But it was high enough that I was able to do long exposures without the moon while I waited for the scene to brighten.
About 20 minutes before sunrise I pulled out a 3-stop hard-transition graduated neutral density filter and started including the moon, dialing my exposure down until the moon stopped blinking—the most light I could give the scene without losing the moon. At first the foreground was still far too dark to contain usable detail, but within 5 minutes I started to feel like the scene had brightened enough to allow usable detail (albeit with a fair amount of Lightroom Shadow/Highlight work later).
From that point on, I just worked on a variety of compositions that included the moon. Monitoring my histogram, I shortened my shutter speed to reduce the exposure as the foreground brightened. Eventually the foreground brightened enough that I didn’t need the GND filter.
In a perfect world the moon reaches the horizon while it’s in the sunrise/sunset 20(-ish) minute exposure sweet-spot (sky dark enough that the moon stands out, but not so dark that I can’t get landscape and lunar detail), but this morning the moon was high enough that the contrast flattened before it set.
The above image I captured early in the sweet spot—the foreground looked quite dark on my LCD, while the moon was mostly intact, with a couple of blinking specks. But I knew my Sony a7R II well enough to be confident that simple highlight and shadow adjustments in Lightroom would recover all the necessary detail.
Posted on January 24, 2013
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After three days of solid blue skies (Zzzzzzzzzzzz), yesterday morning my Death Valley workshop group was rewarded with a sunrise for the record books. I’ve seen color like this in Yosemite, Hawaii, and the Grand Canyon to name a few, but never at Death Valley.
As the group gathered at the hotel about an hour before sunrise, a deep ruby glow stained the eastern horizon. Hmmm. Second-guessing my tried and true policy of getting on location at least forty-five minutes before sunrise, I hustled everyone into the cars and we bolted for Zabriskie Point, just five (extremely long) minutes up the hill. At Zabriskie I gave a brief orientation with one eye on the expanding red that now stretched from the eastern horizon nearly to the zenith—in a matter of minutes it would reach all the way to the Panamint Mountains on the western horizon, filling the sky behind Death Valley’s most celebrated vista.
After explaining that the best place to photograph Zabriskie Point is on the dirt hilltop directly below the viewing platform, I set off with a “Follow me.” By the time I made it to the prescribed vantage point the red had indeed spilled all the way down to the Panamints. Thrilled with our good fortune I looked around—imagine my surprise to find that only two others had heeded my advice; the rest of the group had stopped well behind me to photograph in the opposite direction, lured by the electric show playing above the not-too-photogenic scene facing the sun.
Paradox alert: I spend a good deal of time teaching photographers that light trumps landscape—in other words, don’t get so locked in to the scene you came to photograph that you miss better light happening elsewhere. They had heeded my advice so well that they overlooked another truth I try to hammer home: See the world with your camera’s eye. In this case the most spectacular light was indeed behind the classic Zabriskie scene, where the eastern sky was infused with a magenta hue that was equal parts vivid and bright. On the other hand, the red sky to the west, above nearby Manly Beacon and the distant Panamints, was still quite dark to our human vision. What everyone had overlooked was that their camera’s ability to accumulate light would bring out color their eyes missed.
Fortunately, I was able to get everyone’s attention and to convince them where the real show was. We started with long exposures like the one here (30 seconds at f8 and ISO 400) that brightened the scene beyond what our eyes saw. Often sunrise color rises to a tantalizing level only to fade without warning. But this morning as the light increased, the color rose right along with it, faded briefly, then bounced back stronger than ever. At its peak the entire landscape glowed pink and the only sound was clicking shutters.
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A few words about color: I’m always amused when people question the credibility of sunrise and sunset color. I’ll grant that many people enhance their color in processing, but that doesn’t mean that every brilliant sunrise or sunset was manipulated. The truth is, there’s nothing subtle about color in nature, and when people question the color in a sunrise/sunset image, my first thought is to wonder how many sunrises/sunsets they’ve seen.
My group yesterday morning was chuckling about that problem as we packed up—we were all anticipating the inevitable doubts, some explicit, others implicit, but there was comfort in the knowledge that we all had witnesses. And for the record (I just checked), the only color work I did on this image was a slight desaturation of the blue in the sky and the magenta for the entire image.