When I learned that residents of the Rocky Mountain region would have a rare opportunity to witness a lunar eclipse on the morning of December 10, 2011, I sprang into research and planning mode. I was excited about the prospects that this unique event had to offer, because unlike most lunar eclipses that happen during the night when the moon is high in the sky, this eclipse would happen just before sunrise when the setting moon would be near the horizon. As a result, the ability to render the landscape in the same frame and the same exposure as the eclipsed moon was almost certain.
However, to capture that pairing of a full moon with the landscape in a precise and meaningful way requires a level of research & planning on par with commercial photo shoots, where many variables need to be considered well in advance. Timing, geography, geometry, weather and access all need to work in perfect synchronicity for the union of the two worlds to be captured in a single exposure.
Perhaps the most significant barrier to capturing detail on the moon’s surface and on the landscape of the Earth in the same exposure is the difference of illumination between them. At any given time, the sunlit surface of the moon is as bright as a sunny day on Earth. Therefore, a camera set for a ‘daytime exposure’ would render both accurately. However, since the junction of the full moon and the landscape happens close to sunrise or sunset on Earth when our own landscape is considerably darker than the moon’s surface, obtaining correct exposure for both at the same time can only be done within a short window of opportunity when both fall within the exposure latitude of the camera’s sensor. Hence, any photograph showing a night scene on Earth with a perfectly exposed full moon above is surely a double exposure or a composite of multiple images.
In today’s digital world, its all too easy to fabricate the elusion of a spectacular event, then pass it off to the unsuspecting viewer as real. But for me, the persistence, patience and expertise that go into creating genuine images is far more valuable than cheap sales tactics that threaten the validity of photographs as trustworthy records of our world, and the validity of the profession as a whole.
My first goal with this particular eclipse was to identify an interesting landscape element to line up with the moon as it sank into the western sky. All the variables had to line up perfectly: horizon angle, azimuth and weather, not to mention accessing the perfect camera position in the dark over snow-covered terrain. At the time, before there was ‘an app for that’, the best way to figure it out was with astronomical data from the US Naval Observatory website, a detailed topographic map, baseplate compass and a recollection of high school geometry to calculate the local horizon angle.
After pouring over the variables and considering options all around the state, it became apparent that one of the best places could be just 15 miles from my home. Not only did all the required variables seem to synchronize, but the interesting landscape element was Castle Peak, an extinct volcano core that has a geologic and conceptual kinship to the moon itself. Since this was a once-in-a-lifetime shot, I followed up by verifying my calculations in the field the day before the eclipse. The scouting trip also permitted me to time the commute, pack a trail through the snow for myself and discover any unforeseen obstacles in the daylight.
The morning of the eclipse was exceptionally cold and luckily, exceptionally clear. I had exactly 20 minutes to get to my parking spot, 5 minutes to get geared up, and 35 minutes to snowshoe at a steady pace to the previously designated camera position. Nearly every landscape detail was visible in the moonlight as I traversed the sage & snow-covered terrain. With the exception of the relatively thunderous crunching of my snowshoes on the snow, the pre-dawn morning was utterly silent and still. A pack of coyotes started to yelp and howl perhaps a mile away, as if to celebrate the dawn of a new day in their mountain paradise.
Over my right shoulder, the moon was descending quickly toward the horizon. With each step, my lateral movement across the land was bringing the moon and Castle Peak into closer alignment. The first signs of the eclipse were becoming visible as the shadow of the Earth began to fall slowly across its forehead. Over my left shoulder, the aura of sunrise was brightening the eastern sky.
I arrived at my predetermined camera position a few minutes early, gauged the descending arc of the reddening moon and decided to advance to the south another 50 meters to align the moon with the shoulder of the peak, as opposed to having it ‘land’ on top like a golf ball on a tee.
Despite the rapidly brightening landscape, exposure readings for the moon and landscape were still too far apart to be recorded simultaneously. However, I was confident that a single exposure would soon be feasible as the eclipse continued to darken the face of the moon and as the rising sun continued to brighten the highly-reflective snow-covered landscape with each passing moment.
The moon approached the peak and all the variables synchronized into a single moment captured here. Within a few more minutes, the top of the red moon disappeared behind the peak and it was over. This apparent convergence of moon and Earth is always more provocative than seeing the moon by itself high in the sky. In this case, the thought that the Earth beneath my feet was squarely between the rising sun and setting moon, casting a shadow upon its surface, was additionally profound in my mind and in my heart.
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 300mm f/2.8L IS Lens f/2.8, 0.3”, ISO 400
39ºN 43'28 / 106ºW 41'52, Eagle County, Colorado 06:45AM MST, Dec. 10, 2011