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Big Dipper, Alabama Hills, California

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 9 July 2009 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.

This photo of the Big Dipper above boulders in California's Alabama Hills (near Lone Pine in the Eastern Sierra) was from my first serious attempt at moonlight photography. It’s the image that got me hooked on the entire night photography experience, ultimately leading me to include night photography (either moonlight or star trails) in virtually all of my workshops. And it was pretty much an accident.

My goal that night was to photograph Mt. Whitney by moonlight from the Alabama Hills. Thanks to digital photography’s immediate feedback and absence of reciprocity failure, determining my exposure was fairly straightforward. Once I had that worked out I set about happily photographing wide compositions of the luminous Sierra crest in the light of a full moon.

While waiting for an exposure to complete I noticed the Big Dipper suspended in the northern sky. So on a whim I swung my tripod 90 degrees and composed. To include the entire Big Dipper I switched to a vertical composition and went just about as wide as my lens allowed. I wanted something in the foreground and these rocks were convenient. Focusing was a combination of intuition and devine intervention—even full moonlight doesn’t provide enough light for autofocus, and I didn’t have a flashlight (an oversight that was quickly rectified). I took one shot and returned my attention to Whitney. It wasn't until I reviewed my images later that I realized I’d captured something special.

A few thoughts on moonlight photography: First, it seems most moonlight images I see look light daylight with stars, which defeats the whole purpose. While they must be brighter than what my naked eye sees, I still want my moonlight images to look like night, so standard histogram rules are out the window—I just eyeball the LCD and adjust my exposure a stop at a time until I get something I like (though I've been doing it long enough that I'm rarely more than a stop off). And night shots need a blue cast, so I shoot raw because moonlight plays havoc with white balance. Processing the raw file, I drag the color temperture slider to the left (blue) until I get something that looks night-like.

A question today’s image raises for many people is, why no star trails? First, 20 seconds isn’t a terribly long exposure. (Check out my March 18 blog for a star trail image.) From our vantage point on Earth, celestial objects appear to travel (though it’s actually you and me who are moving with the Earth’s rotation) about ¼ degree per minute. Wide shots like this capture so much sky that the small amount of stellar motion is insignificant (conversely, telephoto shots magnify motion blur, which is why hand-held telephoto shots require a faster shutter speed). And finally, in the Northern Hemisphere the night sky rotates around the North Star which is conveniently skewered by the Earth’s axis of rotation. The closer a star is to the North Star, the shorter the distance it travels in its daily 360 degree journey. In other words, because it’s relatively close to the North Star, the Big Dipper’s stars don’t move as far as stars closer to the celestial equator.

If all this is confusing, don’t stress—comprehension of celestial motion is absolutely not necessary for successful moonlight photography (and it won’t be on the test, I promise). What is necessary is a decent camera, a sturdy tripod, and a willingness to experiment. Enjoy!

Workshop update

BTW, I still have a few spaces remaining in my Eastern Sierra fall workshop, September 29-October 3, I’ve timed it for a full moon, so among other things, we’ll be looking for moonlight images like this in the Alabama Hills.

Next post: July 13 (stay tuned for something completely different)

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Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

Wonderful! (As usual!) This is getting me even more excited for your book to get here! I know that my photography will get a fresh jump-start, as I am sure to be inspired!

9 Jul 2009 1:31pm

@Tracy: Thanks, Tracy. My publisher told me to expect a pallet of 11 boxes in mid-August. This is for the pre-orders I received in February, so you'll be getting yours sooner than I promised. And apparently we're still on schedule with Barnes & Noble for September. Stay tuned....

Magda from Vancouver, Canada

Thank you for sharing your wonderful photography with us! :) I feel like I'm watching the sky with you ;)

10 Jul 2009 2:01am

@Magda: Thanks, Magda. You were MIA for awhile--welcome back to the blogosphere.

Claudia from Illinois, United States

Wow, I can't believe it took me this long to come across your photoblog. I am SO glad I found it. I have been entranced by the moon and by night sky photography for as long as I can remember. I have only taken a few moon photos in the past year (still learning so much about photography), but do want to attmept the stars and/or star trail photography. Your images are absolutely wonderful and I thank you so much for taking the time to write about each one in detail. I would love to take a workshop especially the one this fall that you have planned around the new moon. *sigh* Maybe one of these days but utnil then, so glad I found your blog and I will be a frequent visitor!

10 Jul 2009 4:49am

@Claudia: Thank you, Claudia, I appreciate your kind words. I'd love to have you in a workshop whenever you can make it work.

Pernilla from Andonno, Italy

Amazing photo. Look almost like a picture from the moon. Love the colours of the rocks and the sky.

10 Jul 2009 5:50am

@Pernilla: Thank you, Pernilla. That's the way I would describe moonlight on granite--a moonscape. The Alabama Hills has miles and miles of these huge granite boulders--you could photograph there for weeks and not run out of subjects.

Mags from Paris, France

Wonderful one, I like to see the stars :)

10 Jul 2009 2:51pm

Shahid from W Bloomfield, MI, United States

This picture is stunning, as most of your pictures are. I hope I get half as good as you someday.

12 Jul 2009 3:38pm

@Shahid: Thanks, Shahid. You're already a very good photographer, but I'm sure two or three more workshops would do the trick. :)

Mihail Vladaianu from Diano Marina, Italy

I like the composition, well done.

24 Jul 2009 8:48am