Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Super Moon Dates

Super Moon Dates, originally uploaded by Jeffrey Sullivan.

On Saturday, March 19 I drove up one of my favorite dirt roads in the Eastern Sierra to catch the "super moon" rising over the Sweetwater range. The road was muddy slippery, and I'd soon hit the snow level form recent storms, but I only wanted to get a few hundred feet higher to a point where I'd get a panoramic view and some gnarled juniper trees that I could include in my compositions.

The weather was mixed, mainly cloudy but with some promising breaks that should let the moon break free from time to time. As I reached the snow, I was following some tracks, wider than my Ford Explorer, apparently made by a pickup truck. Hopefully it had broken trail all the way up the road to the one cabin up there, or at least as far as the overlook a mile or so ahead that I was trying to reach. The road became significantly steeper as I passed an old mine site and stamp mill, and my tires started to slip so I switched into 4WD. The snow quickly got got deeper and deeper as I ascended, until the tracks from the larger truck ended. I tentatively broke trail for a few more feet, sinking into the wet, soft snow now maybe six to eight inches deep around my tires. I could probably continue up for a while more, but the problem would be coming down. When you descend in snow, it tends to build up in front of your tire until your ties break free completely, and you find yourself suddenly riding a four-wheeled, four thousand pound toboggan. Been there, done that. Even if I could break a good trail going up that I could follow down with less snow buildup, the mud underneath was an additional risk. One slip a few inches off track on this hill would send me into the snow, then most likely sliding uncontrollably downhill.

The other problem was that if I continued and the snow got deeper, turning around would be problematic. Even if I could start a multi-point turn without completely losing contact with the road, it wouldn't take much of a slip to put a wheel into a snowy ditch or off the edge of the road towards an abyss (and on the first "point" in the process, I'd be facing uphill in perhaps a foot or more of snow).

I wrestled down my thirst for adventure and pinned it to the floorboards with one foot as I eased back down the hill with the other foot nursing the brake pedal. There'd be other opportunities to catch the moon, and to go play in the snow.

I retreated to a lower elevation and caught a few shots in fading light under mainly cloudy skies.

I drove a bit north as darkness descended on the Eastern Sierra, but the light was growing to the east. The moon might break free from the clouds as it rose! Well, it sort of did. Like most full moon dates, the "super moon" of March 19, 2011 (the closest the moon has come to the earth for 18 years), was occurring too late after dark to capture any detail in the landscape, or even in the clouds is was emerging from. The skies were never fully clear so the detail on the moon was fuzzy even at 400mm (and even with additional cropping to make it look like at least 600mm). So the moon was generous enough to come out for a few minutes and play, but as I was playing around with different lenses and camera bodies to see which could capture the sharpest image, it slipped back behind the clouds for the night.

The results? Well, the longest lens combination I have at the moment is a 70-200mm f/4 plus 2X doubler which yields 400mm at f/8 (but this configuration disables autofocus, grrr). Putting that setup on my Canon 40D provides a "lens factor" crop to make it an effective 640mm lens. But the 40D is 10 megapixels vs. 21MP on my 5D mark II, so the physical resolution of the sensor is actually nearly identical. I get roughly the same result in my 5D mark II after cropping. To try a lens with autofocus I put on an old Sigma 28-300mm. By that time the moon was already pretty fuzzy behind the clouds, so I can't really compare the results, but I know from experience that the Sigma is a very soft lens.

So I captured it, sort of, on the full "super moon" date, but it's JAPOTM... just another picture of the moon. I checked again the next morning, when the moon would be setting close to sunrise, but this week's storm was busy dropping 100 inches of snow on the Sierra Nevada, so no luck there.

This isn't the end of the story however. A super moon is simply a full or new moon that occurs on the day when the moon is at the perigee, or closest point, of its elliptical orbit. As the moon makes its slow 27+ day orbit around the earth, it has two perigee points in its orbit, so there are two chances every month, and there are multiple so-called super moons every year. Here's where you can plan to be out to catch super moons... a Web page where the guy who coined the term super moon published dates for 2011 and beyond:

Remember though that the best dates to photograph the moon tend to be the sunset moonrise the day before the full moon, or the sunrise moon set the day after the full moon. So technically you'll be a few hours off of the actual super moon date, but you'll have a great opportunity to shoot the moon in its closest, largest state, looming large as it peeks above the landscape.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What's the Point of a Photograph? (Part I: The Capture)

East Meets West, originally uploaded by Jeffrey Sullivan.

It's a simple question, and to most people, the answer may seem simple, obvious, and automatic: "to take a picture of something!" While that's a great way to get a quick snapshot of some thing, if that's all you're thinking about when you trigger the shutter, a simple snapshot is all you're likely to get.

One of the first things we notice in an image is the presence of any flaws in the technical process of capturing the image. But getting distracted with technique in shooting or editing may challenge your ability to focus on a more compelling opportunity: the opportunity you have to present something specific in an intentional context which affect your viewers in some way. Perhaps you want to teach or convey a message, perhaps you want to entertain or inspire, or perhaps you simply intend to document and illustrate the subject in its surroundings. You may want to shy away from the added responsibility of being accountable for any such intent, or think that your photos are "just for yourself," but if you're reading about photography (as you are now), if you're posting photos online, if you like to get positive feedback on your images, don't cheat yourself; admit that you want your photos to elicit some reaction, and your chances of achieving that goal are far greater if you admit and embrace that intent up front.

The first thing photographers need to conquer is not the camera, but their apprehension, their fear of failure. Everyone has insecurities to some degree, even the most successful people in the world (they probably have them worst, because they feel more pressure to meet external expectations). But try thinking of it this way... one of the most important secrets of good photography is that there is no such thing as good photography. As Ansel Adams put it "There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs." Learn and practice the beginners' rules for good photography, then by all means, break them every chance you get. The good photos will stand out, and I'll bet that they succeed not just in spite of breaking the "rule of thirds," but because they break it.

This brings up another useful approach for successful photography: you can make your odds of capturing a good picture go up with practice and development of knowledge and skill, but no one captures a keeper with every release of the shutter. In many if not most genres of photography, the photographer is not in complete control of everything that happens on the far side of the lens. So let go of your desire to control. Let go of perfectionism. Accept that most of your shots will not be your best. It's far more productive to assume that it's a numbers game... some percentage of your tries will turn out well, so dive into your next 100 shots to get the one that stands out from the rest. The beauty of this approach is that the other 99 are still extremely useful: you learn from them. The following day you may have 2 great shots per 100, the following month you may have 5, the next year 20. But never assume that perfection is your goal; that will only prevent you from shooting enough variations to get the truly stunning ones. This ability to shoot and learn from volumes of shots at practically no cost per shot is one of the key advantages of digital photography, and it's exactly what makes learning and access to better results so accessible to so many people these days.

But be careful and keep in mind that shooting numbers of photos isn't about the numbers, what you're doing is still about the subject of the photo. Try different compositions, try different camera settings, try different filters, whatever. By all means pay some attention to technique and settings, but all the while remember to dedicate a healthy share of your attention to your subject, and to your intent for it. Which of your various approaches turns out to be the most successful can be determined later, in the darkroom (even if it's a digital one).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Catch A Near-Supermoon Moonset at Dawn Monday

The so-called "supermoon" event came when the full moon rose yesterday, while the moon was the closest it has been to the earth in 18 years. Remember though, the moon takes over 27 days to complete its orbit of the earth, so it's still very close for the next few days. Fortuantely for photographers, the days after a full moon are great for catching the full moon in the sky as sunrise arrives.

For example, at Mono Lake tomorrow (Monday morning March 21), the moon, still 97.6% full, is scheduled to set at 7:47am after a 6:59am sunrise. The apparent moonset however, when it dips behind Mt. Dana, will be around 7:16am (at an azimuth angle of 247 degrees, a direction slightly north of southwest). So the moon will be prominent in the western sky during the best sunrise light (roughly 6:30 to 7) and as the alpenglow from the emerging sun creeps down the face of Mt. Dana and the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada towards Mono Lake.

While the term "supermoon" has been invented specifically to apply to a full moon coinciding with the perigee of the moon's orbit (the point of its 27.322 day orbit closest to earth) on Monday less than 2 days after the full moon, the moon will still be close and large.

For Mono Lake specifically, there one one potentially unfortunate aspect of the particular lineup of this full moon set. At 6:30am when a few dedicated photographers may be in place at the South Tufa site and shooting back towards Mt. Dana from the farthest cove, the moon will be directly in line with the beaches leading back to where the trailhead from the parking lot arrives at the lake. Any additional photographers arriving late for twilight/sunrise shooting will walk directly into the shots of the folks who were there on time. If they're shooting timelapse sequences, usable results could be difficult and time consuming (if not impossible) to salvage.

So if you do go to Mono Lake, please try not to storm in with flashlights blaring, and resist the temptation to walk thoughtlessly right out onto the scene and shoot your way down the shore. Instead stay far to your right, away from the lakeshore, and move quickly to join the other photographers at the far side of the second cove. The route is pretty easy to see on Google Earth or The Photographer's Ephemeris (even if you've never been to Mono Lake before, you can see a path curving to the right behind a large tufa tower at the end of the first cove). A little courtesy will go a long way towards making all of our shots more useful. Of course the more people who arrive, the more clueless or self-absorbed, narcissistic ones who will wander recklessly into and out of everyone's shots. Once a dozen or more people are onsite, things pretty much degenerate into chaos (and I've seen 60+ people show up for Fall sunrises here). Your best defense when shooting west will be to minimize dry land in your foreground, and shoot mainly over the water where it'll be more difficult for people to interfere with you. The former island on the left in this shot however is now a peninsula, so in some cases it may be next to impossible to completely negate the impact of the crowds.