Photographing An Idea

“Go slowly, my lovely moon, go slowly.”    Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

The last day of October, 2020, brought a rare event—a Halloween full moon. This last happened in 2001, and won't again until 2039. Even more rare, the full moon of 31 October 2020 was a “blue moon,” the second full moon in the month. It seemed like a good idea to make a picture. Setting out to do that, I discovered it takes more than a good idea to make a compelling photograph.

I suspect we all know that; I certainly did. But when I hit the road in the wee hours of 31 October with nothing more than my photo gear and the idea that the Halloween full moon would make a compelling image, that knowledge surfaced with a vengeance. I knew I wanted the moon just above the horizon and with some clear terrestrial object or scenery, most likely silhouetted, in the frame. I also wanted to get something at least a little different from the many moon photos I already have. I've photographed the moon in every season, moonrises, moonsets, eclipses, super moons, (see the gallery of moon photos on our site). Except for occasional battles with the elements, it's not hard to make technically-good photos of the moon. But I hadn't previsualized the picture this time, so I had no particular location in mind for making the photo. I drove to several spots and got out of the car to look around, but didn't see or feel anything that said “Halloween full moon!” to me. I drove down along the shore of Flathead Lake, which put me at a lower elevation and closer to the Mission Mountain range. This proximity to the mountains has an unfortunate side-effect; when the moon rises over the mountains it will be much later in the morning. The sun will also be climbing, eliminating the dark sky and making the moon less visible and dramatic. I turned around, heading back north, and by the time I'd reached the turn off the highway for home I'd decided this random wandering wasn't going to work. Clearly, trying, without a plan, to capture an idea is less than smart. Staying in bed would have been more productive.

Another Chance

The Halloween full moon rises over the Mission Mountains

The Halloween full moon rises over the Mission Mountains.

I thought about this off and on all day, feeling a little bit stupid and annoyed with myself. I knew better than to do what I'd done earlier. Really. But I'd have another chance; I could go out again that evening for another attempt, but only if I came up with an idea for the photo and a plan to be in that place at the right time. So that's what I did.

The picture that came to mind would be made in Montana's Big Arm state park on the west shore of Flathead Lake. I imagined the lake, a nearby group of islands, the Mission Mountains across the lake, and the moon rising into sky above.

Once I'd visualized the photo I wanted, I launched the PhotoPills app on my iPad. Assuming the cloudless afternoon would lead to a clear night sky, I chose the location so I'd have some interesting terrestrial “stuff” in the scene, something different from my other moon photos. I'd learn later how well that choice worked out (as usual, if you can't be good, be lucky!). Dropping a location “pin” in the park, PhotoPills showed me when and where the moon would rise. I could then zero in on the best location for my tripod. From there I could adjust and play with composition as needed. Then I had only to wait for the right time.

I arrived at the park an hour before moonrise. This gave me plenty of time to look around and set up. I watched a couple of people bring their boats in across the lake and pull out at the park's boat ramp, but otherwise I saw no one the rest of the evening. I wandered along the lake shore to find the best angle for the composition I had in mind, which would have the moon rising above the mountains with the lake's Wild Horse Island below. As things turned out, the scene I liked best would have only the barest edge of the island in the frame, and it'd likely be too dark to see it. But I liked that angle because it maximized (I hoped!) the spread of the moon's light in the water below, so I planted my tripod and settled in. As the moon hadn't yet appeared, I'd have to wait to see if I'd guessed correctly.

The Spooky Moon

The Halloween full moon rises over Montana's Flathead Lake

The Halloween (2020) full moon rises over Montana's Flathead Lake.

A nearby picnic area provided a place where I could sit back, listen to the sky, the lake, and the trees, and watch for first signs of the moon over the mountains, my tripod and camera no more than 40 feet (12 m) away. The temperature just above freezing and the breeze coming off the lake made me glad I'd worn a hat and gloves but wishing I'd brought a jacket heavier than the light fleece I'd worn.

The exposures I made as the first sliver of moon appeared over the horizon told me what I needed to know, how the moon would move as the evening progressed. To capture any detail in the mountains and island I over-exposed the moon, completely blowing out any lunar surface details. This also gave me the first hint that the predicted clear sky would be something else. A thin veil of cloud bands lit in yellows, oranges, and blues radiating out from the moon. It added a bit of “creepy” to the scene, perfect for the feeling I wanted in these Halloween pictures. While I waited the wind strenghtened, adding some chop to the lake's surface. The moon rose, as usual. As it moved higher it also moved south, so I frequently turned the camera on the tripod to maintain the moon's position in the frame. Since the island refused to move along with the moon, little of it remained in the frame by the time I got my final exposures, but as expected, full dark had settled in making the island almost invisible in the final image. Interestingly, the camera has adequate dynamic range to allow me to “pull out” the island in later processing, separating it from the darker background of the mountains. But doing that impacted the scene's contrast in ways I didn't like. It didn't look real, so I saw no point pursuing that result.

I continued to work the scene until the moon had risen too high to be interesting. It, and the clouds it lit, had lost the cool color and the spooky feel I'd captured earlier. The time had come to pack up and head for home. By then, only the cloud-filtered moon lit my trek back to the car, in which I'd safely left my headlamp. Treacherous tree roots and rocks rose up to tangle my toes, making for a slow and cautious walk. This is why people photograph in the daytime. Fortunately I did not have a great distance to cover, and made it back to the car with both body and photo gear intact.

The car's clock showed a little after 7:00. My day had started 14 hours earlier on a sour note, but a little thought, an idea for a photo that came from wherever these things come, and some time spent with PhotoPills resulted in a much happier end. Photographically it couldn't have worked out better, and I'm happy with my photo of the blue October moon in creepy light through the unexpected clouds. I love it when a planned photo comes together.

Maybe I'll try again in 2039.

November, 2020

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