Full moons seem to have an irresistibly magnetic attraction for photographers. After last night’s ironically named “Snow Moon”, it was fascinating to see all the various images of the event on Flickr, Facebook and more. There were several excellent renditions on the New England Photography Guild Facebook page. Of course I had to take my shot as well. I ran home from the office, threw my camera bag and the dog into the car and rushed to nearby Spofford Lake. The night before I had used the wonderful program The Photographers’ Ephemeris to find a good location to catch the moon rising above, and reflected in, the lake. I was perfectly content to endure the cold, but Nellie seemed a little less impressed with the need to be shivering in the dark instead of getting her dinner and evening walk. Moon photography imposes special technical and logistical challenges, but with today’s digital software techniques we can overcome the light difference between land and moon, accurately capturing the show. It all reminds me of last March when I joined the entire photographic community trying to capture the historically big moon.
The Biggest Moon
The full moon in March 2011 was the largest in more than 18 years. The combination of a full moon within 50 minutes of its Perigee (closest orbital point) made it appear about 14% larger than at Apogee. Despite the dire predictions and, the Japan earthquake aside, the world didn’t come to an end as it was ripped by disastrous tidal forces, but it did lead photographers all over the earth to wonder the same thing … where do I go to get the shot. Living in the Monadnock Region of New Hampshire, I had little choice. I had to find a place to record the moon rising over the mountain profile that so dominates our corner of New England.
I started with a few simple requirements for my observation point.
- First I needed to be in an unobstructed position to catch the moon rising directly above Mt. Monadnock.
- Second I wanted to be far enough away to allow my 400mm telephoto to do its work magnifying the moon against the mountain’s silhouette.
- Finally I was hoping that, after the shot, I wouldn’t have to hike miles in the dark to get to my car.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris
Thank heavens for the “Photographer’s Ephemeris“. This remarkable freeware program not only shows the time of rising and setting of the sun and moon, it also displays on a Google Map the precise location of the objects at any time and from any location. I was able to find a line along which the rising moon would appear from behind the mountain. By following the line westward I could then scan for potential viewpoints that would meet my criteria. As seen on the screen capture, I eventually settled on a spot on a hill overlooking Spofford Lake in Chesterfield New Hampshire. From this location I could see that the moon would rise above the northern shoulder of the mountain (blue line) and then move south across the peak. This placed me about 20 miles from Monadnock which worked well with my long lens. I set up my tripod, experimented with framing and then settled in to wait for the show. Remarkably the moon peeked from behind the mountain in exactly the spot Ephemeris predicted. Then the challenging stuff began.
Taming the Obscenely High Contrast
The night was clear and the moon was spectacularly large as it appeared above the mountain.
Because of an optical illusion the moon always looks larger next to the horizon, but this was amazing. The problem of course was the contrast. It is important to realize that at night the moon is still bathed in brilliant full daylight and to properly see the detail on the surface you must use daylight exposures. It can be helpful that full moons always rise at twilight when the sky’s partial illumination can blunt the high contrast between the brilliant moon and the dark foreground. You may have noticed that the sky is brighter when the moon rises above the true horizon on the ocean, but in mountains things can be a lot darker. Unfortunately the moonrise on that Saturday was at 7:22pm, but it was actually several minutes later before the moon crept up over the mountain ridge. Sunset wasat 7:02pm making the dwindling twilight quite dim on Monadnock. I found that, with a moderately underexposed Moon, there was an 8 stop difference between moon and mountain. Obviously this was a job for multiple exposures. In the two images included here you can see the range of exposure required for the final picture and you can also see that, yes, the moon was REALLY that big! Both exposures were at f8, ISO 400. The trick was to jump quickly between the 1/60 exposure for the moon and 4 seconds for the mountain, all before the moon moved out of line. Although it was important to make the jumps quickly, I discovered that I had to allow a couple of seconds each time to allow the camera to stop shaking. I ended up taking about 40 images including some pulled back to see the lake in the foreground. I then packed up and ran to the annual dinner in Keene for which I was already 2 hours late. I think my priorities were precisely in the right place. So what if my dinner was cold.
Of course I couldn’t wait to get home to start working on these images. It took some painstaking Photoshop work to get the moon selection just right and to balance the lighting and color, but I think the result is a good representation of the magnificent display that met my eyes on that historic evening. It was also a good example of how careful planning and a shameful neglect of social responsibilities can lead to some nice results.
If you missed the record moon last march, don’t despair. A full moon comes along every month or so. You don’t have to wait another 20 years.