Failure is not an option

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One does not simply photograph the moon.  It is rather not uncommon to see throughout social media a plethora of grainy images showing a small white dot in a darken sky with a caption that reads, “The moon looks so great tonight!”  The problem with this, however, is that one must accept the caption on faith alone, as a tiny washed out speck does no justice to the actually moon when viewed with the naked eye.  I know this all too well because the first photograph I made of the moon was in 2011, before I had any understanding of lighting and photography.  The result was quite abysmal.

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If at first you do not success, try, try again.

Having taught myself the intricacies of lighting through a lens in the past three years since, I now know why the aforementioned tiny white speck on an LCD screen appears rather different than what one actually sees when looking at the moon on a dark night.  The human eye can gather much more light and shadow than a silicon sensor, and the human brain is a much better processor than a chip in an iPhone.  We can see and perceive at greater detail than a camera can actually capture (though one may argue a case with the Zeiss 50mm f/0.7 lens that NASA and Stanley Kubrick had used).  While we can differentiate the details of a bright moon and darkened outlines of trees and buildings on the ground altogether, a camera can only see one or the other, not both.  In short and without going into an insipid discourse, the best time to photograph the moon to capture both a crater-detailed moon and recognizable foreground is, counter-intuitively, before just before sunset when the sky is still lit.

Of course, one can rebut with the proposition of photographing the moon alone, focusing on its splendid craters and ridges in fine detail against a completely black backdrop.  “Who cares about having something in the foreground?” one may rhetorically ask.  To this, I once again look back to my own experience of shooting the moon: an image of the moon, by itself, is boring.  It is only serves as a compositional element, and therefore cannot by itself be a photograph.  Photographing an isolated moon is akin to photographing a lone bottle of Scotch—yes, a bottle of Laphroaig is beautiful to look at, but without the context of a snifter besides it and sitting on a rough wooden table surface, it lacks scale and impact.  This is why I had learned awhile ago that one does not simply photograph the moon by itself hours after sunset with a lens pointed straight up into the sky.  On the contrary, the ideal shot is just before sunset with lens aimed at the horizon with some ground structure in frame.  To accomplish all of this, however, requires planning that expends much more time than actually being at the spot on the concerning day and time and pressing the shutter release.

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To achieve the most impactful moon shots, I had for awhile aimed for dates when a full moon would move into perigee orbit, or what the media had been dubbing a “supermoon.”  Rather than a perfect circle, the moon follows an elliptical orbit.  As such, there is a point where the moon is closer to Earth and therefore appears larger.  Combine this supermoon phenomena with moonrise just before sunset, with an interesting ground structure as a foreground element to add scale, and a telephoto lens in order to compress the foreground and background (ie. make the moon appear closer to the structure and therefore larger), and what hypothetically can result is a fantastic image.  That is, of course, if all other factors align.

Last year, I attempted to photograph a “Harvest moon,” which is the first full moon closest to the Northern Hemisphere’s autumn equinox in September, regardless of orbital position—they are not necessarily always supermoons as they are not always in perigee orbit.  Nevertheless, as the Harvest moon holds much historical agricultural importance, the celebration of its arrival is still celebrated in some cultures, I made an effort to make images of its rising.

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Not good enough.

Even though the photograph I made last year was of a full moon rising over the horizon with some foreground structure visible to give scale and impact, I still was not completely content with what I had produced.  I was not far away enough from my foreground to compress it against the moon.  The timing of sunset and moonrise were off, resulting in a lighting imbalance.  Back to planning.

Fast forward to June 2014.  Around this time, news outlets began reporting of astronomical forecasts pointing out of three supermoons occurring this year, and in particular, this summer: 12 July, 10 August, and 8 September.  By this time, I had amassed many resources in planning out such a shot.  While camera body, lens, and sturdy tripod often hogs the glory, the most important tool available when planning landscape and astronomical shoots is an ephemeris—a mathematical display of the position of celestial objects.  Paired with a map, such as the app The Photographer’s Ephemeris, one can precisely pinpoint the moon’s position at a given location, viewpoint, time, and day.

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This past June’s full moon fell on the 12th, rising thirty minutes before sunset.  While not a supermoon, it was a good opportunity for practice, especially with using the Ephemeris app to preselect a shooting point.  There was one major problem, however; on that evening, I was stuck in my much bemoaned appellate advocacy class practicing oral arguments.  Despite that on the following night the moon would rise thirty minutes AFTER sunset instead, I decided to proceed regardless, selecting the platform of the CTA Blue Line stop at Western as a shooting point and the city skyline as foreground.  If anything, it would have been a test of the effectiveness of my planning methods.  As I had expected, the difference in lighting was too much for an APS-C sensor to handle.

I had high hopes for the 12 July shoot, the first actual supermoon of the summer.  The moonrise and sunset were to occur simultaneously.  Everything was set . . . that was, everything under my control was set.  Clouds and rain in the Chicago area grounded the shoot.  No matter, I had another chance at a month afterwards, I thought to myself.  Sadly, no.  The 10 August attempt was, too thwarted by massive cloud coverage.  I was still foolishly hopeful and ventured out that evening, setting up near Lakeshore Drive downtown with a 300mm lens pointed at the dome room of the Adler Planetarium, counting on an off chance that the clouds would break.  That never happened.  I only saw the moon an hour after returning home, high in the sky, as though it was taunting me.

Given two failures already, I had come to suspect that the 8 September moon shoot may also be frustrated by some force outside of my control.  Nevertheless, I went back to the Ephemeris.  According to the news, this “Super Harvest moon” would be the last for this year, and the occurrence of the next supermoon has been in dispute.  While some sources have forecast six supermoons for next year starting early as January, others have stated that it will not be until 2017 that a perigee full moon would be visible in the Northern Hemisphere.  It appears that even astronomical occurrences are not immune to the media’s unreliance and sensationalism.  This, therefore, was possibly my last chance for the shot I had been chasing for months.

If there was ever a time that I needed a major photographic “victory,” it was in the month of August when I had hit an emotional and creative recession, as I had mentioned last week.  And so, I scoured the map for a good vantage point.  After trying some simulations on the Ephemeris, I settled for somewhere around Navy Pier with Chicago Harbor Lighthouse as the foreground structure.  The weather forecast this time called for clear skies on the evening of 8 September.  Not wanting to muck things up, I hiked down to Navy Pier the day before to scout out shooting points and do a test run.  As moonrise occurred an hour before sunset, the barely visible outline of the moon against a neutrally exposed foreground reinforced how vital timing is in achieving a good shot.


Then came the following day, this past Monday, 8 September.  My schedule was cleared for the evening.  Moonrise was set at 6:51 PM, sunset at 7:11 PM.  I arrived at Navy Pier at around 6:30 PM and set up my gear at the edge of the water, off the Lakefront Trail at Gateway Park.  Two other individuals with cameras and telephoto lenses shortly arrived, apparently with the same objective.  At 6:51, I was ready, the 300mm lens at f/11 pointed east 93° from my position with the lighthouse in frame.  Nothing.  Was the Ephemeris incorrect?  Was I at the wrong position?  I frantically scanned the horizon before me.  Minutes passed, and still nothing.  Then, I saw above the lighthouse a sliver of orange peaking out of what was apparently a distant cloud that merged into the sky’s backdrop.  I suddenly forgot why I was there.  I just stared ahead as the moon rose in all its splendor.  It was not until I heard the all-too-familiar sound of a camera shutter firing eight-frames per second from the photographer to my left that I finally grabbed the shutter release cable on my own and began to shoot.

The moment lasted a mere six minutes as the moon quickly climbed away from the horizon and into the sky as the sun’s soft light faded away.  Knowing that my task was done, I packed up and returned home with an SD card containing what I had unsuccessfully pursued for so long, now finally captured.  More than that, it contained something else: validation.  After transferring the files onto my MacBook and seeing the images for the first time on the display, it reassured me of what I had needed to grasp for the past few months—that I AM good at what I do with a lens.  At long last, success!

All images © K. Dao Photography 2011-14, all rights reserved.