The Howling Moon

There are nights when the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.
   George Carlin

I've photographed the moon with some frequency, usually when there's an interesting lunar event such as an eclipse or a full moon viewed from a good location. This site has a “Moon” gallery displaying the resulting pictures.

2014 brought several lunar events; total eclipses in April and October, and “super moons” in July, August, and September. A lunar eclipse occurs when the earth is between the sun and moon. The eclipse progresses through phases, with totality, or full eclipse, happening when the celestial alignment is perfect and the moon is in full Earth shadow. At that time the moon is typically a deep red-orange, or blood moon.

A super moon is a new or full moon which occurs with the moon at or near (within 90% of) its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit. Technically this is a perigee full or new moon (perigee meaning “close to earth”).

Details, Details…

Photographing the moon is relatively easy. Search the Web and you'll find lots of schemes for getting a good exposure. I think there's little reason to photograph the moon unless the details are preserved; a blinding blown white moon is unattractive and pointless and draws the eye away from the rest of the picture. For good color and to retain details, one can spot-meter on the moon, or use various other methods. One caution: the sunny 16 rule is often suggested, the theory being the moon's light is simply reflected sunlight. That's certainly true, but in my experience sunny 16 is rarely accurate for moon exposures. I prefer to meter on the moon, and bracket. Using a long lens to fill much of the frame with the moon, a good exposure is assured. If the scene includes foreground objects, distant trees or mountains, or other terrestrial objects of interest, they'll be completely black when the moon is properly exposed. Sometimes that's just what one wants. Sometimes it's not.

For a proper moon exposure while retaining some foreground detail, extra work is required. This might mean blending two or more exposures, each made to capture detail where desired. One might possibly use split neutral density filters, but those can be tricky in daylight, and nearly impossible in darkness. They quite likely will darken too much of the sky. It's worth a try, but a good result relies on luck as well as skill. I typically use the blending of exposures method, but when there's time (not always the case!), I'll hedge that bet with other techniques.

Cathedral Group Super Moon

July, 2014 super moon over Cathedral Group in GRTE

We camped in Grand Teton National Park during the July (2014) super moon, on the 13th of the month. After a nice walk to Hidden Falls on the previous day, we scouted shooting locations for compositions that would include the mountains and the setting moon. We returned to my chosen spot a little before sunrise on the 13th. I set up my gear, composed the image, and waited for the good light that never came, thanks to persistent low clouds on the eastern horizon.

We arrived at my chosen location about 5:30. We saw a perfect moon perfectly located over beautiful mountains, but the most important ingredient, great light, failed to appear. I fed mosquitos and wandered a sage meadow considering different compositions until 6:15, when it became obvious there'd be no improvement in the light before the moon disappeared behind the mountains. The sun would be quite high by then, too, losing the deep, warm quality and strong shadows one hopes for from sunrise light.

The resulting photo, of the full super moon setting over the Teton Range's Cathedral group (Teewinot Moutain, Grand Teton, and Mount Owen), is one of those almost pictures, a nice composition, a great subject, but less than wonderful lighting. Maybe we'll try again next year (2015), when there will be three more full super moons (29 August, 28 September, and 27 October, with September's coinciding with a total eclipse).

Two Months Later and Hundreds of Miles North…

In September, we made a trip to the east side of Glacier National Park to photograph the full super moon. Before leaving home, using The Photographer's Ephemeris (TPE) I determined the moon's location over the mountains during the appropriate hours of 8 September. After setting up camp in Glacier's Two Medicine campground I wandered the shores of the park's Two Medicine and Pray Lakes, using a compass and the TPE data to help me decide where to stand. I framed compositions at several spots, eventually finding one I found really exciting. Thanks to TPE and my topo map of the park I knew exactly where the moon would be the next morning; a short walk from our campsite would take me there. We spent the rest of the afternoon hiking around the lakes under crystal clear sky. I hoped it would stay that way. Thanks to a rare lapse in O'Toole's Corollary of Finagle's Law, it did.

The September, 2014, full super moon at Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park.

The September, 2014, full super moon at Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park.

I awoke around 4:00 AM, carried my gear to my spot, set up, and waited. Nights in the park are chilly at this time of year; we found ourselves among few other campers. Nights are also extremely dark there, but the brilliant full moon provided plenty of light. I'd not be tripping over rocks and the usual flotsam along the lake shore. As you might expect, I had no human company. Alone in the chilly, dark silence under a full moon, with only the soft lapping sound of the water on the gravel lake shore, it's a dream-like experience in a magical place.

The sudden shattering of that silence jarred me back to reality. Directly across the narrow channel separating Pray Lake from Lower Two Medicine Lake, from where I stood a distance of perhaps 40 feet (12 M), came the crashing of a large animal snapping branches and overturning stones along that opposite shore. The low water levels of late summer left the channel narrow, and no more than three to four feet (1 M) deep. I grabbed my bear spray, straining my ears and eyes to determine with what I suddenly shared the landscape. A moose? Maybe. Mountain lion? Possible, but less likely. A bear? I suspected so. We'd seen bear, moose, and deer in the area during the previous day. Thanks to the wide shadow cast by mountains to the southeast I could see nothing there. More than a little nervous, but with the moon getting so close to the area I wanted for my photo, I decided to watch, listen, and wait. The moment the big critter splashed into the water, I'd be gone like a shot, back to our camper before the animal reached “my” side of the channel. I hoped so, anyway.

Meanwhile, the Earth turned and the moon followed it's usual path, placing itself exactly where I wanted it for my photo. With an ear toward the opposite shore, I set to work. The resulting picture is made from two exposures, one for good moon detail, the other for the various shades of the mountains' silhouettes and the gleaming moonlight on the stones at my feet. I made the two exposures only seconds apart. The foreground exposure allowed the moon to go blindingly bright, flooding the sky around it with an 18-point star (due to the nine blades making up the iris in my lens). The moon exposure sharply captured the detail on the surface. Combining the two exposures resulted in the photo above.

Same Place, Next Month

The October, 2014, lunar eclipse at Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park

The October, 2014, lunar eclipse at Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park.

For the October lunar eclipse I repeated much of the preparation noted above. We camped very near the same site in the Two Medicine campground. Being late in the season we saw no more than four other campers. At totality the moon would be approaching Rising Wolf Mountain and might drop below the edge; a vantage point different from the previous month's would be required. I decided my best shot would be a bit before totality, and from a location farther south along the shore of Two Medicine Lake. This would require a short drive from the campsite.

We awoke about 3:00 AM (my wife came along this time, silly girl, but had the good sense to remain in the car). Unfortunately, the wind howled, rocking the car and making it difficult to open the door. To make up for that, the “notch” between Sinopah and Rising Wolf mountains, where the moon would be, was socked in with clouds. I wanted coffee, but more than that I just wanted to be back in the warm, solid camper. Ah, well. We'd sleep later; now, we'd wait.

Several times I got out of the car to make a few exposures of the stars and penumbral moon. Even protected on the lee side of the car, the tripod vibrated in the wind, making it impossible to keep the 400mm lens steady. Most of those photos are junk, but I do have one or two, probably made in 30 miles-per-hour lulls between gusts, that I'll keep.

The gem from the night, however, is shown above. I used a wide-angle lens to make this exposure shortly before totality, when the clouds momentarily parted to provide a view of the blood moon. I've made a print of this; it's darker than I'd like, with the mountains being a bit murky. If I increase the brightness in my viewing booth to maximum the print is terrific, but nobody would have that much light on their walls. I'll continue to work on the image to see if I can improve the foreground without also boosting the noise.

This seems to have been a lunar year for me. I didn't begin the year with plans to photograph the moon. As the year progressed I planned a few trips to capture the full moon or other lunar events. Others were lucky coincidences. Sometimes the moon howled, and sometimes I got to be there to hear it.

October, 2014