Chasing the Moon

I find myself on a vengeful quest to conquer my own personal Moby Dick.  In my case, it is not a whale, but the moon.  While my motives are more innocent and less violent than Ahab’s, a desire to vindicate myself drives me to follow the moon with a modern version of intensity that involves many goggle searches.

I think back to the day, now more than two years ago, when this quest began.  I had the idea of getting a shot of the full moon rising behind the Walnut Street bridge.

I had purchased my 100-400mm lens a few months earlier–far enough ahead to have learned my inexpensive tripod wouldn’t support the weight of the lens.  I took my monopod with me, hoping it would offer enough stability to get a good shot.  As I stood on the bridge in the dark watching the moon rise perfectly behind the bridge with people walking by in front of it, I was buffeted about by the wind.  My monopod was useless–my images were completely blurred.

Yet, I went home elated that this idea would work.  I sent my blurry photos to a photographer friend who said, prophetically, “You wasted some good moonlight.”  Naive in the nature of the moon, I thought, “well, there’s always next month.”

Over a period of weeks, I researched tripods and finally made an investment in one I expect to last the rest of my life.  Finally ready, I headed out the next full moon only to discover there was too much cloud cover for the moon to be visible.  The next month I learned that the moon was no longer rising behind the Walnut Street Bridge.  It would be another 8 months before I would have another opportunity.

In the meantime, I practiced shooting the moonrise.  In those months I learned just how fickle the moon can be.  The obstacles are many:  obscured visibility, daylight moonrises, my schedule, the speed of the moonrise, the unpredictability of the appearance of the moon, and focusing in the dark, to name a few.

At long last, the moon began rising behind the bridge again.  The first two months, haze prevented it from being visible until it was far above the people on the bridge.  On the one evening I had my chance, I arrived too late and missed the moment.  Next month, it will no longer be behind the bridge.

I will bide my time.  I will persist.  The moment will never return exactly as it was that night.  That is one thing I know with certainty–each moment is uniquely its own.  But chasing the moon has its own merit.  There is something to be said for tenacity.  While there is a time and place to let go and move on, having a goal that requires planning, making time, learning, and adjusting seems like an important lesson in life.


Super Moonrise – At Last


At long last, the super moon rose last Sunday evening.  I suppose it wasn’t really the super moon–after all, the moon was officially full nearly 12 hours earlier.  But whether you count it as the full, super moon rise or something less than that, it was dramatic.


At first, I was afraid the moon would not be visible at all that night.  The low-lying clouds around the horizon threatened to ruin the view altogether.  We watched and watched and suddenly a reddish glow started to show through the clouds.  The glow turned from a faint hint of red to a full moon with a silhouette cloud in the foreground in a matter of moments.  I barely had time to breathe before the scene before me was changing.

The moon disappeared behind a strip of clouds

The moon disappeared behind a strip of clouds

After a quick exposure adjustment, I managed to capture the red-glowing moon.

A second moon rise in the same night

A second moon rise in the same night

It rose a second time–or at least it looked that way.  It passed through a stretch of clouds, appearing to rise all over again, when it crossed over the top of the cloud bank.


As it rose above the last trace of clouds, I switched lenses.  I’m not that excited by close-ups of the full moon and I was shooting with a 100-400mm plus a 1.4x extender.  There’s not much you can do wide with that combination.  I switched to the 24-70mm lens instead.  It was a good decision.  The extra bright moon over the Market Street Bridge was far more interesting than a close up of the rock.  Plus I got some serious topics to study up on as a result.

A helicopter forms a bright streak in the foreground

A helicopter forms a bright streak in the foreground


Switching to wide angle brings the Market St Bride into view

Switching to wide angle brings the Market St Bride into view


Super Moon

Moon faintly glowing through Walnut St Bridge

Moon faintly glowing through Walnut St Bridge

I made it back from Monaco and Nice just in time for the super moon.  The super moon refers to when the moon is closer to the earth than usual, resulting in an extra large moon.  The point when the moon is full is the point when it appears the largest.  I’m not sure if this is because the moon is actually the closest to the earth at that point or just the effect of it being a full moon. In any case, I have now chalked up a couple of years of experience shooting full moons.  I remember the words of advice I got from a fellow photographer when I first started shooting full moons.  They were, “Don’t.”  He went on to explain that the full moon is too bright to make an interesting image.  It simply looks like a flat, smooth circle with some gray areas in it compared to the much more pock-marked, three-dimensional moon one can get when shooting a crescent moon.

Moon over the heads of unsuspecting lovers

Moon over the heads of unsuspecting lovers

I experimented with this advice.  I found that he was absolutely right that if you just shoot the moon, once it’s much more than half full, it becomes a very flat, uninteresting rock.  However, I also found that if you shoot the moon rising at the the horizon or going through architectural features or clouds as it rises, it’s much more interesting. Since this discovery, I have attempted to pay attention to when the moon is full (or close enough to full) and where and when it will rise in the hope of getting interesting moonrise images. I’ve gotten a few I like, although there’s always room for improvement.  The hardest part about shooting moonrise is how fast it goes.  While the moon is usually quite late appearing in the sky compared to when the official moonrise is supposed to start, once it appears, the period of time when it’s most interesting to shoot lasts only a few minutes.  The moon moves so quickly that you have to watch your shutter speeds–too slow and you start to get motion blur from the movement of the moon.

Moon over the bridge

Moon over the bridge

On this night, it was a pre-cursor to the actual full moon.  While the moon was fullest the next morning, it was still close enough to full to get a full moon effect both the night before and the night after the moment of total fullness. I decided to walk out to Market St Bridge in the hope of catching people walking in front of the moon on Walnut St bridge.  Unfortunately, low-lying clouds along the horizon prevented the moon from being visible until it was too high for people to be in front of it.  When it finally appeared, it was barely a glow through the haze with the sun still relatively high in the sky (although it was headed towards sunset). It was still beautiful, though.

Wide view of moon, bridge, water, and boats

Wide view of moon, bridge, water, and boats

No Moon

I really wanted the white house to be the moon, but no matter how many times I shot it, it was still a house

I really wanted the white house to be the moon, but no matter how many times I shot it, it was still a house

Once again, the moon has disappointed me.  I suppose it’s my own fault.  I lost track of when the full moon would occur this month.  I discovered this when we were walking home from dinner and I looked up and there it was, high in the sky shining brightly the way only a full moon can.

I thought, “No worries, it will still look full tomorrow night.”  I googled the moonrise time for the following evening.  I put it on my calendar.  I got out my camera, put on the 1.4x extender and my 100-400mm lens.  In plenty of time to get setup, I walked to the common room and setup my tripod and camera on the balcony.  Then, I waited.

Now, I was mentally prepared for the moon to be late.  I have enough experience with this now to know I can’t expect the moon to appear over the high ridge in front of me at the same time it crosses the horizon at sea level.  What I couldn’t remember was just how late it usually is.  I thought about the last time I was parked in the cold wind waiting on the moon.  Was it 20 minutes after official moonrise time?  Or was it 30?  Maybe it was even 45?

Had I been thinking, I might have looked up my last moonrise post to see how late it was.  According to that post, it was over 30 minutes late.  I can’t think of any reason why it would be more or less late at various times of the year if it’s rising behind the same ridge, shouldn’t it rise with the same lateness?

In any case, since I wasn’t thinking, I stood on that cold balcony in a blustery wind waiting.  And while I was waiting, I kept imagining I saw the moon.  In particular, the house in the image above reflected light in such a way that every time I scanned the ridge, I thought, “there it is!”  I ended up with about 10 pictures of this house during the hour I waited on the moon.

By the time it was an hour past moonrise, I figured it was time to call it quits.  I was tired of jogging in place to keep the blood flowing to my toes.  My nose was also running–like it was training for a marathon.  I took one last look at all the visible sky and saw no sign that the moon was anywhere to be found.  Not even a bright spot in the clouds.

I guess this is a case where even the best-laid plans go awry.  On the other hand, the best-laid plan might have been to check the weather forecast before the full moon and to decide to shoot a night earlier when the moon was truly full and the sky was clear.  But, I would have had to miss dinner with good friends to do that.

As my best friend reminded me, there will be plenty of moonrises in the future.

Circled Orb

O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

-Juliet, Romeo and Juliet

The full moon rose at 5:44 in Chattanooga tonight.  I was still working.  I failed to realize tonight was the full moon until well after 7PM.  I took Tisen for a walk and looked up.  Not only was the moon putting on quite a display, but Jupiter was there as if it were orbiting the moon.

As I shot the full moon in a completely clear sky, I thought about words of wisdom shared with me by another photographer about a year ago, although it seems more like a decade now.  He told me not to bother to shoot the full moon.  It turns into a flat rock in photos when it’s full.

Fascinated by the full moon as a subject, I undertook shooting the moonrise as often as possible so I could shoot the full moon as it clears the horizon.  I’ve found this adds an interesting dynamic to the moon.  Plus, the moon pretty much gets overexposed in order to preserve the other objects of the photo, so you get a ball of fire instead of a flat rock.

Tonight, I am too late.  But it’s the last full moon of the 2012 and Jupiter is there beside it.  So, I shoot it anyway.  Unfortunately, Jupiter looks far more impressive in person than on “film.”  The moon-rock effect is in full force, although I tried some additional adjustments in Aperture to try to make it more interesting.

I’ve supplemented the gallery with past shots of the moon.  You can see how the crescent moon looks far more 3-dimensional.  But I am still drawn to the full moon.

In the meantime, one of my friends posted a comment, “Oh!  There’s a full moon!  That explains everything!”  I have often thought I had more energy and anxiety during the full moon.  But, a quick search through some of the research available online doesn’t offer any proof that the full moon has any effect on our behavior at all.

I try to remember the explanation I once heard about why the full moon affects people’s behavior.  I recall being told that the full moon had an effect on the gravitational pull, but my brief search tells me that the increased gravitational pull of the moon aligning with the sun happens at new moon, not full moon.

If only I could find an explanation for why I feel like howling.

Maybe Juliet was onto something.  Maybe it’s the frustration of the inconstant moon changing shape, rising late, and appearing in unexpected places that makes me want to howl.  Especially when I realize I’ve missed moonrise.

Oddly, Tisen doesn’t seem to feel compelled to howl at all.  Maybe he doesn’t notice the inconstant moon?

Moon Meetings

Rushing to catch the full moonrise, I turned the corner onto Market St and got my first view of the horizon, a thin line of orange glowing just over the tree tops.  I started running again.  By the time I got far enough across the bridge to have good angle, the orange glow had disappeared.

I got my camera set on the tripod, got focused on the bridge, and waiting.  Then I waited more. About the time I got tired of waiting and decided to swing the camera around to shoot the sunset until the moon appeared, I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye and about jumped into traffic with surprise.  A man apologized for scaring me and then said something about my camera.  I smiled and he smiled back and then he walked away.  I have no idea what he said, but apparently a smile was an appropriate response.

Moments later, another man showed up.  This one with a camera in hand asking me if I knew where the moon would rise tonight.  I told him about the orange glow I’d seen.  He told me that he was the architect for the current, restored version of the Walnut St bridge and he’d been wanting a picture of the full moon rising over the bridge for years.

We waited together for the moon to reappear.  Eventually, I spotted another band of orange glowing through the heavy clouds.  We both started shooting like mad.

He wanted a very specific image with the moon centered over a pier of the bridge (or whatever it’s called).  I was hoping more for images with people in front of the moon.  Unfortunately for me, the moon was too high by the time it appeared from behind the clouds for anyone to be in front of it.  I lined up behind my new acquaintance and shot over his head as he bent over the rail of the Market St bridge in front of me.

Eventually, the architect’s wife pulled up in a car, pulling over in heavy traffic just long enough for him to jump in.  I was left to continue shooting on my own.  I shot as wide as my lens and teleconverter would allow, fascinated by the reflection of the moonlight on the water.

Then, another car pulled over.  A third man asked if I could send him some photos–he and his wife were trying to take pictures of the moon with a cell phone.  I asked if he had a card and his wife, apparently hidden in the back seat, leaned forward with a car from a vineyard in Ringgold, GA.  The man said, “Send us a picture and we’ll send you a bottle or wine!”  I wondered how good my picture had to be for a bottle of wine.

It’s funny how people seem to assume you’re going to get a great image when you’re shooting with a long lens.

Big Moon

Yes, it’s that time of the month again–the full moon!  But not just any full moon.  No, this is the super-moon!  Not only is the moon at perigee tonight, but it’s also Cinco de Mayo.

Seems like a recipe for disaster, but according to one article, there is no truth to the belief that crime and wild behavior increases with the full moon.  I’m not so sure.

Another special aspect about tonight’s moonrise is the time.  The moon will rise before the sun sets.  This means there will still be light on the trees along the ridge top.  I’m excited about the possibility of capturing the moon in this kind of lighting.

Pat and I had some logistical issues in our plan today.  I volunteered at the Audubon Society’s visitor’s center most of the day and Pat worked.  Tisen got to go to doggy daycare.

By the time Pat came home, it was 6:30PM.  We wanted to celebrate Cinco de Mayo at Taco Mamcito’s next door, so Pat jumped in the shower while I took Tisen for a walk.  Then Tisen had to be fed and we had to wait for him to eat before we could leave (he won’t eat when I’m gone).  By the time we were headed out the door, it was past 7:30PM.

While this may seem plenty early to begin a Cinco de Mayo celebration, the problem was that the moonrise was going to happen at 8:21PM and I didn’t want to miss it.  By that, I mean I wanted to be set up on the roof of our building with my camera ready to start shooting by the time the super-moon appeared on the horizon.

We went next door quickly, but when we saw the crowd, we gave up all hope of getting food and just ordered margaritas.  Fortunately, the margaritas were small because a margarita was probably the last thing I needed having still not eaten.

We drank our margaritas quickly as we huddled in a corner of the patio, trying not to crowd the people sitting next to us.  At 8:15PM, we are racing out the back door to get me up to the roof on time.

I manage to grab my gear and Tisen and get set up on the roof before the first glimpse of the moon appears over the ridge.  I am helped by the fact that it takes an extra 10 minutes for the moon to get from sea level to the top of the ridge.

I shoot and check focus and exposure and shoot some more.  I don’t know what it is about this giant, orange moon rising over the ridge that I find so exciting, but I wish the moon would pause for a few minutes so I could get all the adjustments just right and perfectly capture it as it hangs as a glowing backdrop to the ridge.  I never get tired of the moon.

What the . . .???

Today, Tisen and I are on a mission.  I’ve often said I wanted to go to the training hills some morning when I wasn’t flying in order to shoot.  Today seems like the perfect day for that.

My plan is to arrive at the entrance to the training hills no later than 7:00AM so I have time to hike down the gravel road and get set up before sunrise.

As Tisen and I get on the highway, I have a clear view of the full moon.  It’s still too high to make an interesting shot, but I want to shoot it before it sets completely.

Now I’m racing the moon.  Each time we go up a hill, the moon disappears behind the mountains.  I watch it set over a ridge on 4 separate occasions during our drive, only to reappear moments later.

As we enter Trenton, the moon is close to the ridge and I’m sure I’m out of time.  But as I drive on down into the valley towards our destination, the moon rises up above the ridge, giving me more time.

Unfortunately, I pull over where there’s a bad angle.  I hop out of the van, grab the tripod from the back and run up the road about 100 feet or so where the angle is better.  I set up the tripod and run back to the van.  Fortunately, my 100-400mm lens with the 1.4x teleconverter is already on my camera because that’s the only way it fits in my backpack.  I run back to the tripod.  The moon is getting closer to the ridge line; it’s already sunk behind some of the topmost trees.

As I get into position, I realize I didn’t grab my glasses or loupe and I don’t have time to get them.  I turn on live view, enlarge the image, and stand back as far as my arms will let me to try to focus.

The moon keeps sinking rapidly.  I fire off as many shots as I can before it disappears.  When I play them back in my viewfinder, I think they look OK.

Much later, when I view my moonset shots on the big screen of my computer with my glasses on, I almost spit a mouthful of beer on my screen.  I didn’t realize my vision was quite that bad!

Besides not having focused properly, I also had too slow a shutter speed so I’m getting movement blur in the moon.  I also have had some movement in the lens.  I don’t recall it being that windy, but that’s a possibility.

This leads to the age old question:  you’ve blown the shot, now what do you do with it?  I probably should just delete these images, but I decide to see how far photo editing can go.  I used Aperture, Photomatix, Lightroom, and Photoshop Elements (the majority are from the latter) to see just what can be done with a completely blown shot of the setting moon.


Well, I was hoping I would be posting a really cool shot of the full moon rising behind a row of buildings on a ridge.  I had this really great image in my mind that I’ve been planning for the last few days, watching the moon’s path through the sky, looking at the moonrise and sunset times, and figuring out the best place I have access to shoot from.

The moon had an alternate plan.  It decided to hide behind so many layers of clouds that not even a bright spot appears in the sky.

The good news is that it’s supposed to be clearing up tomorrow, so I may be able to shoot a nearly full moon rising tomorrow night.  The bad news is that the moon won’t rise until after dark tomorrow, so I probably won’t get any of the twilight sky I was hoping for tonight.  Oh well.

Instead, I’ve pulled together some moon shots taken since the last new moon.  I find it fascinating to see how the craters flatten out and disappear as the moon waxes until it pretty much looks like an unevenly colored, smooth rock.  I am still looking for a great shot of the full moon.  I have one shot I like of the full moon rising through the red leaves on fall trees, but now I can’t find it.  I’m sure it’s in one of my photo archives somewhere.  It’s fun, but not sure it’s great.

I’ve been working my way through 10 weeks of an online photography class and, this evening, I had one of those moments when something I’d been taught turned into something I’d learned.  I was looking at some of my recent vertical landscape shots, specifically this one:

I was trying to figure out why it doesn’t quite work.  While I’m sure I will eventually figure out several additional reasons (like the cutoff aquarium building), what I suddenly realized is that I am focusing on the stuff in the background instead of focusing about 1/3 of the way in, throwing the clouds in the foreground out of focus.  This realization was like a giant light bulb going on.  I can’t wait to shoot another diagonal subject that crosses the frame front to back and see if I can get all of it in focus!

As I scroll through photos, I see this has been a consistent problem in virtually every image I’ve shot where there is something that should be in focus in the foreground.  There have been so many times when I’ve stared at a photo trying to figure out why it isn’t the amazingly dramatic image I envisioned in my head but not being able to say why not.

I can’t wait for the next ah ha moment!

Tisen is less excited about my obsession.  He’s getting tired of competing with the laptop for space in my lap.  I feel guilty every time he bangs his head against it.  Guess it’s time to call it a night . . .

Missing the Moon

I am out walking late again.  It’s 11PM and the moon is full.  As I cross the street with Tisen, I realize I forgot to check the lunar calendar.  I’d been experimenting with shooting the full moon on the horizon.  It’s a more interesting subject that way.

Last August, I discovered the moon was rising behind the Walnut St bridge and attempted to capture people walking in front of it on the bridge.  This was a great concept, but the lack of a tripod led to poor execution.  Since then, I’ve only managed to catch the full moon in November.

Tonight, I look up and see thin, high clouds blowing across the sky, making me feel like I’m watching time lapse photography of a moon rise.  As the clouds pass over the moon, the moon forms a brilliant ring.  As the clouds and light continue to shift, the ring turns a glowing red.  Inspired by a much better photographer, I pull out my iPhone and attempt to capture a shot.  The first picture in the gallery is the best I could do.

A couple of lessons learned on iPhone photography:  1)  even the iPhone 4S with it’s new improved camera doesn’t handle night landscape photography well, and 2) if you’re going to try to get a decent shot of the moon with an iPhone, it’s best not to be holding the leach of a feisty dog while you’re shooting.  No matter how adorable Tisen is, he only assists my photography when he is the model.

About the time I realize I cannot possibly get a decent shot, the ring around the moon shifts from a glowing red to a circular rainbow.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Unfortunately, the colors do not show up in the iPhone shot and the clouds move on, the rainbow disappearing as quickly as it appeared.

As much as I want to return home to get out my DSLR and tripod, I know Tisen needs more time.  We complete our lap of the park until Tisen is satisfied.  Then, I rush us home as quickly as possible.  There is a huge bank of clouds blowing in and I’m sure I can get set up while it’s still passing over the moon.

I rush to grab my tripod bag.  I knock over a glass, drop the bag, and fall across the couch, waking my dozing husband.  After assuring him all is well, I get out my camera bag, pull out the camera, find the CF card and stick it back in the camera, attach the 1.4x extender and the 100-400mm lens, slide on the wireless remote, locate the remote, and snap the whole thing into the tripod.  I carry it all outside, locate the moon, position the tripod, and finally find the moon through my viewfinder just as the last wisp of cloud blows away.

All that’s left is the naked moon, overly bright and relatively uninteresting.  I’m fairly certain I can see the man in the moon laughing at me.