Commentary # 5 ~ June 2007
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Am I Really Mooning You? - Answering Questions About the Moons in My Photographs

June 2007

- by Craig Wassel

Some who see my photography on a regular basis have noticed the moon making an appearance in my landscapes and prints more frequently. The question is now being asked: "Did you PhotoShop that in . . ?"

What are known as "double exposures" in the film world are now often called "PhotoShopped" in the digital age. The creative results of double exposures that were only occasionally questioned are now stigmatized as "faked", and scrupulously inspected. Oh well. That is the modern reality for photographers, and I guess rightfully so. In the "film only" days a photographer had to at least possess the skills to double expose. You either got it right with back to back frames, or you balanced enough with your exposures that you could blend them in the darkroom. With digital, you can shoot and shoot and play the numbers game until you get a winner, or use the near alchemy of PhotoShop and other software to meld almost any two images.

As I have said in other commentaries on this site, don't brace yourself for yet another rant about digital photography being evil and a sign of the apocalypse; but as photographers, we do have to be prepared to substantiate our work. I don't think we can even insist that this only applies to press photographers.

So are my photographs with the moon real?

With the exception of one, they are real (but not yet spectacular). In my "Almost Black & White" gallery, the crescent moon in the photograph "Moon and Mill" is a composite exposure - a digital technique similar to film's double exposure. The moons in my "Moons & Barns" gallery are all real, though I burned around the sides of the crescent moon in the "Waxing Wheat - Waning Storm" photograph to remove long exposure flaring.

There is another more important difference between the moons in my past photographs and my recent ones: the former moons were captured by chance, whereas the moons in latter are anticipated.

I have long marvelled at great photographs like Ansel Adams' "Moon Over Half Dome". Though I have never had the urge to go out to someplace like Yosemite and make my own "version" of such a masterpiece, I have always wanted to catch the moon presenting itself in my own favorite places. Then I read an article about Ansel setting up a view camera in Yosemite with admirers looking on, while his wife commented that "Ansel knew" where the moon would rise that evening. It made me realize that Ansel probably did not make photographs like "Moon Over Half Dome" by just leaving everything to chance, or even by sitting around waiting. He must have known where it would rise that evening because he constantly checked its phases and positions, and anticipated an opportunity. I have not read any of Ansel Adam's books yet (shame on me), but I have the feeling that once I do I will find that he also tracked the sun and who knows what else.

Luck favors the prepared mind. It must favor the prepared photographer and camera, too, so I began doing several things that have resulted in the moon appearing in more of my photographs.

First, I started looking for software that tells me where and when the moon will rise and set. After trying more than 6 different tools, I found QuickPhase Pro (link) was the only one worth using. For less than $20.00, I thought it would probably be worthwhile. I was wrong. It is such a good program it is actually underpriced, and to me is worth at least three times that amount.

Second, I needed not just to know when the moon will be above the horizon (especially during the morning, day, and evening hours), but to also know when it will actually be visible. A general rule of thumb is that the moon is more visible when it is some distance from the sun in the sky. For example, an evening moonrise in the east tends to be very visible. If it is setting in the west in the evening along with the sun you simply will not see it even though it may be above the horizon. General knowledge of the sun rising in the east and setting in the west goes along way for estimating how visible a daytime moon will be, but I also found a utility named HomePlanet to be of use for tracking the sun.

Third, I went out to Galyan's and spent $10.00 on a compass. Just watching the sun itself gives you a pretty good idea of direction when you are in unfamiliar areas, but a simple compass really helps. Noticing the moon is out and taking a photo with it present is not terribly difficult or unique, but making a photograph with the moon carefully positioned relative to a particular place requires information about when the moon will be in a fairly specific place in the sky. Therefore, you need to go to your location ahead of time and write down compass bearings, then determine the next time the moon will arrive there (A compass is also great for scouting locations for outdoor portrait work; it allows you to pick your exact preferred spot, then come back in the late afternoon and check ambient and diffused light).

The last tool is the least expensive and easiest of all to use: a notebook and pen. I have made it habit to carry one with me - along with my compass - even when I don't have a camera bag with me (which isn't often). I frequently preview the moon's phase and position using QuickPhasePro, and compare it to compass bearings I have noted. After that, it is up to Mother Nature to co-operate.

The two photographs to the right - though not spectacular by any measure - show one of my favorite trees with the moon rising behind it. This was anticipated using QuickPhasePro, my compass, and my notebook.

To wrap it all up, I always shoot in RAW mode when doing serious digital photography, and as far as I know the EXIF information embedded in RAW files does not lie. The times and dates in those files could be verified against official moon position data or against QuickPhasePro - which, by the way, I have never found to be in error.

Of course, I can still make composite photographs, or "PhotoShop" or "fake" others; but my fascination with tracking the moon's monthly journey across our sky and the challenge of capturing it at those too infrequent moments where it shines brightly in just the right place is infinitely more satisfying.

I guess I am moonstruck.

"It is part of the photographer's job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveler who enters a strange country."

~ Bill Brandt ~

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Bad Moon on the Rise

" . . . It made me realize that Ansel probably did not make photographs like "Moon Over Half Dome" by just leaving everything to chance, or even by sitting around waiting. He must have known where it would rise that evening because he constantly checked its phases and positions, and anticipated an opportunity . . . "

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