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Snow Moon Over Spring Hills

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 3 March 2010 in Landscape & Rural.


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New Article on my Website: Balancing Images in Post Processing

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I love photographing full moonrises (assuming the weather cooperates), and we all get one opportunity each month when the moon rises close to sunset. Why is this so important you might ask? Well, it all has to do with the limited capture range of our digital sensors (a mere 5 stops for most cameras), and the tonal range presented at that time of the day, with the softer light, usually fits quite well (i.e. no blown highlights or blocked-up shadows). I made this image along one of my favorite drives (Quien Sabe Road - Spanish for Who Knows) about 20 minutes from where I live in California's San Benito County.

Let's first start with a moon exposure. Remember, the moon is illuminated by the sun, thus it is essentially a daylight exposure. Experience has taught me that as the moon crests the horizon, I can adequately expose by using the Sunny 16 rule (1/ISO at f/16), then opening up one stop (1/ISO at f/11). One has such a small window of opportunity available when the light on the moon and the landscape balance, that you must be ready.

Unfortunately, the window of opportunity for balanced light for this image had come and gone, but in the end, this was my favorite composition. In my first attempt, I used a foreground barbed-wire fence, which in retrospect (isn't that always the case), ended up being a distraction. When I scrambled to get into position for this frame, the light illuminating the clouds began to fade to the point that it was only a faint pink. Yet nature can change on a moment's notice and just as quick as the vivid light left, it re-appeared, only stronger than before (partly because the sky had dropped in tonal value making the pink hue on the clouds, at least to my eye/brain, appear more vivid).

I quickly scrambled to capture this frame and did so with the help of my Singh-Ray 2-stop, hard-edge, split neutral density filter. I turned on Live View to aid in positioning the filter (which I did by hand holding), and captured three more frames before the light once again vanished off the clouds - this time for good. My main concern was whether or not I had captured enough detail in the moon to recover it in post (during Raw conversion).

I actually triple-processed this image in Adobe Camera Raw (once for the tones of the grass and tree, once for the sky, and lastly for the moon). The moon was just about 1.5 stops to hot in the initial capture, and I was able to regain all of it in Camera Raw! Using layer-blending in Photoshop, I was able to compile just what I needed out of the three processed frames to make the image appear more natural to my eye.

In retrospect (here we go again) I would have been better served using a 3-stop split grad, but in the moment, when every second counts, I was making the best decision possible and didn't feel I had time to switch for fear of losing the light off the clouds. Had this been slide film, I would have had to settle for a somewhat washed-out moon, but thanks to digital, the image was saved!

BTW - the name Snow Moon is an old Indian name for the February full moon.

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 5/2 seconds F/16.0 ISO 200 85 mm

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