Tuesday, October 18, 2005


You think it is easy to take a picture of the full moon rising, don’t you? It happens once a month, that’s 12 photos a year, right? Well, it’s actually 24 times a month, or, even better, 36 times a month, because the day before and the day after are “as if” it’s full. You can’t tell the difference. It’s so close we may as well give the moon credit for being full three days each month. It doesn’t matter. It’s still difficult to get a picture of the full moon rising.

Let me explain it to you. Residual light. Without enough residual light, a photo of the full moon is a white dot in a black sky. I had a slide like that on the light table during a visit from the Grandees. The oldest, upon seeing it, said, “Look! A hole!” She was right. It looked exactly like a small white hole in an otherwise solid black slide. The requirement of residual light negates the third day the moon appears to be full. On the third day, it is too dark by the time the moon rises to take a photo. We’re back to 24 full moons a month to work with. But, because of the residual light requirement, it’s more like the original 12, but whether it is the day before, or the day of, the actual full moon, depends on when the sun sets.

To arrange for the right amount of residual light, the moon has to rise in conjunction with the sun setting (or, if you are trying for a picture the next morning of the full moon setting, it has to set in conjunction with the sun rising). If the moon rises much before the sun sets, the moon is likely to be too high in the sky by the time the light fades enough, and the moon becomes reflective enough, to stand out. Too high in the sky, that is, to use something on the ground as a “compositional element”—a lake, say, or mountains, or the branches of a tree. It helps for the sun to go down between 5 and 15 minutes before the moon rises. And 15 is pushing it. How many days a year do you think that happens?

I haven’t counted them up, but let’s say, for the sake of the discussion, 12. One day, each month. Out of the three full moon days, there is one day when the moon rises within 5 to 15 minutes of the sun setting. You get 12 chances. And, here’s the catch, you have to be there. To get a sense of how difficult that is, ask yourself how many times in the past year you were present and available when the moon rose (within 5 to 15 minutes of the sun setting). It’s amazing how much is going on in our lives to keep us from being present and available with the full moon rises. But, even if you work that out, it isn’t enough.

Here’s another catch. You have to be present and available within the right context. At the right place, at the right time. You will need some interesting “compositional elements” to help frame the moon rising. A grain silo, say, in a field of wheat. The Memphis skyline with the Mississippi River bridge in the foreground. Grandfather Mountain reflecting in Price Lake. Oops. You’ll never get that one for a moon rise. You’ll have to get up early and get the moon setting over Grandfather Mountain, with both reflecting in Price Lake.

And here’s another catch. You can’t count on the moon rising, or setting, in right relationship with your compositional elements. In October, for instance, the moon sets 10 degrees too far to the west to offer much impact to the Grandfather Mountain, Price Lake setting. The moon isn’t always where you want it to be. To be at the right place, at the right time, you are going to have to dig a little. You’re going to have to do some research. You are going to have to know your camera position relative to the compositional elements, relative to the horizon, and where the moon is going to be when it rises.

And, if the wind is whipping up white caps on Price Lake, there goes your reflection. And, if it is overcast, there goes your moon rise. That’s two more catches, wind and thick clouds, or even thin clouds at the wrong place, at the wrong time. I haven’t been counting them, but I know enough without counting to know that’s enough catches to make any but the most determined among you say the hell with it. All but the craziest among you can live out the entire rest of your lives without ever having to take a picture of the damn moon rising. And, my hat’s off to you.

You are wise beyond your years, and will live long and happy lives, not taking a picture of the moon rising, or setting. Just don’t make the mistake, at any point during those lives, of seeing a picture of a full moon rising and think it’s easy to do that kind of thing intentionally. Don’t think to yourself, “Anybody could do that.” It’s only easy if you stumble upon one—if you “just happen” to be in the right place at the right time with the right weather conditions. Trying to arrange the right place and time and weather will make you crazy, or, at the very least, old before your time. Be content with stumbling around, lucking into the right time, place, and weather. Be happy with whatever you come up with. Don’t aim toward anything. I think that was the Buddha’s advice. Don’t aim toward anything. All suffering comes from desire, I think he said. He was probably talking about the desire to take a picture of the full moon rising.

1 comment:

Le Roi said...

I presume you tried (and failed) to get a picture of the moon rising this morning?

There's always next month.