Shooting the Moon at Monument Valley   6 comments

The moon was near its full phase while at Monument Valley recently. I did some photography which included wonderful Luna, so I thought it might be time for a little photography talk. Don’t get too used to it though; I get bored easily with photography how-to (I’d rather do it than talk about it).

The full moon rises between Monument Valley’s famous stone sentinels.

As many photographers know, “shooting the moon” when it’s full can yield killer shots, but it can also be a pain trying to deal with the high contrast.  To be successful, be persistent, and keep in mind the following:

  • The moon needs to be one day before the full phase if you want to shoot it rising at sunset and include the foreground landscape.  It is ideal when at sunset the moon is as close to 24 hours before full phase as possible.  Realize that the moon’s full phase occurs at a specific time; it doesn’t stay exactly full all day and night.  One day before full means the moon will rise just before the sun sets.  This puts it in a good low position, where it appears bigger and is close in brightness to the foreground landscape.  A full moon means it rises right at sunset, which is really a little too late.  You’ll have a darker foreground, with too bright a moon, all of which means major contrast.  If you shoot when it’s more than one day before full, the moon will be too high at sunset.
  • The fact is that on some months, the moon’s full phase does not occur near the time of your local sunset.  Instead, it occurs closer to mid-day, or midnight.  And so you won’t hit that magical 24-hours before full phase, where the moon has fully cleared the horizon at the same time the sunset is at its peak.  It’s worth checking the actual time of the full moon.
  • A reflective landscape helps enormously, since your foreground will always be darker than the moon. In fact, the more reflective the landscape, the easier it is to get good shots even when the moon is very near full. Monument Valley, and really any desert landscape, is just the ticket. Snowy landscapes are also good.
  • A good view toward the eastern horizon is ideal, so you’ll catch the moon at the moment it rises.  You will have more options in terms of exposure, and the moon will be naturally color-saturated when it is adjacent to the horizon. Of course, as with any landscape photo, you’ll want an interesting composition.  It might be better in some cases to let it rise a little ways.
  • If you don’t like what you came up with, just wait a day or so.  On the day after full moon, get up before sunrise and make sure you have an interesting view toward the western horizon.  This time you’ll be photographing a setting moon at sunrise, instead of a rising moon at sunset.
  • All of the above assumes you want a fairly evenly exposed landscape shot.  But there are two other general options.(A)You can simply allow the moon to blow out (making it look like a little sun) while exposing for the foreground. This works best with a smaller moon; that is, shorter focal lengths (35 mm or less). See my image of the Totem Poles, where the moon is not technically blown out, but lacks details and is too small to form a major picture element.(B) You can use a longer focal length (300 mm or more) for a very big moon, and expose for the moon’s details.  Then you can place an interesting subject(s) in front of the moon and let your subject go black in silhouette.  If you don’t want to do a silhouette, you could use artificial lighting for fill light on your subject.  For the big moon/silhouette effect, it doesn’t really matter what phase the moon is in, though the most popular style is to use a full moon.
  • Speaking of focal length, remember that the shorter your focal length, and the further from the horizon the moon is, the smaller it will appear.  Also, the further from the horizon the moon is, the whiter and brighter it will be.  Again, the image of the Totem Poles is an example.
  • There is no chance to balance the brightness of the moon with your foreground when it is well above the horizon.  See next point for an option.
  • If you want to include the moon’s details when it is much brighter than your foreground, you will need to shoot a separate frame for the moon, then add this well-exposed moon back into your first shot using Photoshop (or Elements).  This is called compositing, and you can find many tutorials on the web.  Zoom in to the moon and turn on your spot metering.  Place the center focusing point right in the center of the moon, then snap the picture.  During your photoshopping, it might be tempting to make the moon much bigger.  Although it is probably okay to enlarge the moon by just a fraction, making it a lot bigger is not a great idea in my opinion.  You will see these sorts of silly, amateurish pictures all over the web, and they all look fake.  A better plan is to use medium focal lengths (50-70 mm) so that your moon is naturally bigger.

    Sand dunes and the Totem Poles in Monument Valley as the sun sets and the moon rises.

What with all this knowledge about shooting the moon, you would think I got super excellent shots at Monument Valley.  Well, the first night I tried, in the sand dunes by the Totem Poles, the moon had risen too high by the time the sun had set enough for nice color in the landscape.  So I just let the moon go bright and didn’t worry too much about it being small.  This is an example of making the best of your situation, rather than being disappointed that the shot you had in mind is not there.

On the next night, the moon almost rose too late.  This was one of those months, described above, when the full phase was much less than 24 hours after sunset time.  I knew this might be a problem, so I got to a high point with a pretty good view toward the east.  The dramatic monoliths that make Monument Valley famous formed nice framing elements for the moon.  I knew I had to shoot within a few minutes of the moonrise, while the moon was not too bright, and also showed some nice color.  I used the longest focal length I had – 200 mm.

Sadly, my 100-400L has been stolen on this trip (no more wildlife photography for the foreseeable future – bah!).  I tried for a very simple composition, just a few sandstone towers plus the moon (see top image).  It would have been better if I was able to zoom closer.  I did not want to move closer since then my viewpoint would have been lower.  Looking up at the towers would have made them appear a little shorter, and I would not have had a full view of the moon until it had risen too high.

By the time the moon had risen above the rock towers, it was too bright in comparison to the rapidly darkening landscape.  Though the shots I got are dramatic, they are also fairly two-dimensional, without much of a foreground.  This is a common drawback to using longer focal lengths in landscape photography.  I’m sure I could find a better place from which to get this type of shot at Monument, but since you only get two chances per month, that would mean hanging out here for quite a long time before I got it right.

At Monument Valley, dusk and the sand create a peaceful scene.

The succeeding night was bright with the essentially full moon, and it was tempting to get moonlit landscape shots.  But I had done some of that the previous night, and I had done a lot of staying up late and getting up early over this week.  So I found a lonely spot along the Douglas Mesa Road and drifted off to a deep sleep.  Next morning after breakfast I was on the way out, heading south. I saw a woman on the side of the road with a hand-painted sign that read simply “Fry Bread”.  I realized I had not had any of this Navajo staple on my trip, so I stopped and had her make me a couple.  They were delicious, and cheap!  The same thing was available at the restaurant for $5; she was charging $1 apiece.  I talked with her for awhile, letting her daughter pet my dog.

Friendly and down-to-earth she was, so I enjoyed chatting.  I finally drove off in a great mood.  There was no better way to bid goodbye to Monument Valley than to talk with this Navajo woman while chomping down on a hot Fry Bread covered in honey and cinnamon.  I was on my way to the Hopi Mesas, which is the subject of my next post.

The moon clears the horizon at Monument Valley, Arizona.

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6 responses to “Shooting the Moon at Monument Valley

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  1. Your excellent images are really whetting my appetite. I will be there October 16th to see what I can create.

  2. These are absolutely beautiful! You’re very talented.

  3. Thanks!

  4. Incredible!

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