Moon Over Montana

“Moonlight is sculpture; sunlight is painting.”
    Nathaniel Hawthorne

We had four supermoons in 2020, on four consecutive months, February through May. A supermoon 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”). A supermoon appears larger and brighter than normal. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. I'd decided to photograph all four of them, either rising or setting, from the top of a ridge at about 3800 feet (1158 m) of elevation. As always O'Toole's Corollary rules, and a clear night sky didn't happen on the appropriate dates in February and March. Perhaps to make up for that, those nights during the next two months proved brilliantly clear.

April Setting

The April, 2020, full 'supermoon' setting at sunrise

The April, 2020, full 'supermoon' setting beyond a ridge catching light from the rising sun. The ridge is three+ miles away.

For April I decided to photograph the setting moon. The full moon sets in the west at sunrise, but because of the Mission Mountain range to the east, and a tree-covered ridge a short distance from my shooting location, I wouldn't see the sun until a couple of hours after the moon set. Still, sometimes the sun lights the mountains to the west where the moon would set around the time of moonset. I've had some success photographing that, as you can see in the gallery of moon photos on this site. I'd hoped to get a little color in the trees on a distant mountain ridge as the moon set beyond it

The climb up the ridge to my shooting location is short but very steep. There are rocks, open gravelly patches, and dense clumps of bunchgrass, all tripping or slipping hazards. I had no trouble getting up there for scouting trips in daylight. I could keep my eyes on the ground and zig-zag my way up the incline. For the sunrise photo I'd be making my way up the ridge in early-morning twilight. I'd have to be very careful carrying camera gear, even with moonlight and my bright headlamp, which can throw dark shadows where one least needs them. For added excitement there'd been bear sightings in the area, and I'd no interest in encountering a hungry bear, just out of hibernation, in the dark (or daylight!).

I started my climb about 5:15 under a sky brightly lit by the moon, so bright it largely washed out the stars. I heard nothing; no animals, no cars, no people. Montana had not yet started its “phase 2” opening up during the COVID-19 pandemic, so there was little traffic anyway, and around here there wouldn't be much at that time of morning regardless. I felt no breeze, but still needed a parka and gloves against the frigid temperature. My headlamp helped counter the deep shadows cast by the brilliant moon, and I got to my previously-scouted location without incident. I set up quickly, found my composition, and made my first test exposures a little before 6:00. I played with some verticals, but the clear, empty sky didn't offer any interest. Now I just had to wait for the moon to lower into the position I wanted.

I didn't have to wait long. As the gap between moon and horizon narrowed the light and the composition changed very quickly, almost too quickly. The transit from a high, smallish moon with too much sky below, to a giant moon kissing the horizon with too much sky above took only minutes. During that time the trees on the distant ridge, between three and five miles from my location, began to light a pale red-orange as the trees reached out to grab the moon. The moon had gone from brilliant white to pale yellow, and then disappeared beyond the trees. My morning on the ridge top ended at 6:10. I made a slow but uneventful climb down from the ridge, and then made my way home for breakfast.

The picture above took very little effort in Photoshop to optimize for printing. That framed print is now hanging in a small local gallery.

May Rising

My May supermoon photo would have the moon rising over the treetops to the east. I'd climb up to the ridge to the same shooting location as the April photo, but this time I'd be climbing up in the near-midnight darkness. I'd be doing that before the moon rose above the trees, so there'd be no moon to help light the way. The photo I had in mind would include the sharply-focused moon, exposed for maximum detail on the lunar surface. But I also wanted the silhouetted trees to be sharp. However, unlike the April moonset photo in which the trees are several miles away to the west, the trees to the east are but a few hundred yards from my shooting location. With the long lens I'd not have adequate depth-of-field to make a single exposure with both the moon and the trees sharp. I proved this by making some test photos earlier in the month. To get the image I wanted I'd have to make two exposures and then make a “focus stack” with Photoshop. More on that later.

Under a starless black sky I started my climb up the ridge about 11:45. A thin veil of cloud blanked the stars; I hoped I'd have a clear view of the moon in another half-hour or so. Frost is common in early May (and June). With the temperature a little below freezing I climbed the hill on frosty, crunchy grass, but had no problems with traction. I set up in nearly the same spot as I had for the moonset photo but with the camera pointing in the opposite direction. I then had only minutes to wait for the moon to appear through the trees. I adjusted my position several times as the moon came into view. And as it did, what a show! The moon's brilliance made it almost painful to look at directly. When looking through the camera's viewfinder the moonlight overwhelmed the info displays across the bottom of the frame. To see the exposure settings I had to darken the viewfinder by holding a hand in front of the lens.

The thin cloud layer had vanished, but with the moon so bright I could see no stars. When the moon reached a position seeming to climb up out of the trees I had about two minutes of shooting time, but getting good exposures of the moon is pretty easy. Next I refocused on the trees, taking the moon out of focus. Unfortunately this caused the moon to “bloom” a bit, enlarging slightly and becoming a soft but still very bright blob. I knew I'd struggle with this when processing the image for the focus stack with the sharp moon picture. Something to worry about later. The moon lit the frost riming the trees, lighting their edges with an almost artificial-looking glow. I'd no idea how this beautiful effect would photograph, but I bracketed widely to make sure I captured it. The moon quickly rose above the trees; any further work would result in Just Another Moon on Dark Sky Photo, which I didn't want, so I packed up and made my way back down from the ridge. The blinding moon lit my route nicely. Once again, no cars, no people, and no bears.

Putting it Together

A couple of days later I made time to work on the image, using Photoshop to process the raw files and then combine the photo of the moon with the photo of the trees. Normally I'd try Photoshop's focus stacking tool, but with the “bloom” mentioned above I knew it would fail. Instead I opened the moon photo, and then copied the trees picture as a layer above the moon's background layer. I spent far too much time masking and painting out the moon and its bloom in the trees layer, abandoning my efforts and starting over several times. With the goal of making a picture that looked like what I saw, overcoming limitations of the equipment used (and perhaps the physics) I eventually got what I wanted out of that night's photography session.

The May, 2020, 'supermoon' rises beyond pine trees in the foreground

The May, 2020, full 'supermoon' rises and gives a glow to the frosty silhouetted pine trees in the foreground.

I have not made a print of this picture, but experience has taught me that prints with large areas of detail-free black often don't work well. On my LCD monitors the trees have a nice edge glow, and I can see hints of detail in the dark trees toward the bottom of the frame. But the monitor is backlit, whereas the print reflects whatever viewing light is available and often suffers for it. Still, I'm happy with the picture, whether or not I make a print. The picture is exactly what I had in mind when I climbed that ridge to make it.

May, 2020

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