Quest for a Moon Shot

My quest this past full moon? To get a photo of the full moon setting behind La Jolla’s Mount Soledad Cross. After some research and driving around scoping out locations and taking test photos, I thought that I might be able to line things up right to put the moon huge behind the cross around sunrise. I would have two shots at it—the morning of the full moon and the morning just after the full moon.

The day before the full moon, however, the sky cover (cloud) forecast for the next two nights was 90% coverage—meaning it was highly unlikely that I’d even be able to see the moon. But as the day progressed, the forecast changed and I went to bed with a 49% sky cover forecast AND CLEAR SKIES.

Day One

I was up at 5 AM to see what was to be seen. Got to my dark neighborhood and set up. Couldn’t actually see the cross in the dark, but the test long exposure shots revealed a little lick of coastal marine layer… DIRECTLY BEHIND THE CROSS. The only clouds in the sky were directly behind my shot and would block the moon as it got closer to the cross!

But always you wait for that one moment, because you never know what will happen. So much of photography is figuring out exactly when some event you want to shoot is going to happen and then being there at the right moment and praying for decent conditions. Often the conditions look great an hour before and then go to crap… or vice versa. But you never know unless you’ve there at that one moment! And that one moment only happens once or twice per year for many sun and moon shots.

As the moon crept towards the horizon, the marine layer thinned out a bit and the moon was shining through where I needed it, though rather diffused.

While I had a pretty close idea of where I needed to be, it turned out that I was 1–2 houses off station… so I picked up my tripod and ran. But I ran the wrong way! Blame it on addled early morning brain. I couldn’t actually see the cross in the dark, so it took me one test shot to figure out that I’d gone the wrong way. Sprinted back the other way and got my tripod set up in the right place… maybe 30 seconds too late. The moon was getting a bit low for the shot.

Not to mention that a tree blocked perfect alignment of the moon behind the cross… I could only get the moon near the cross, not behind it.

The diffused moon through the marine layer required a much longer shutter speed than anticipated and it turns out that the moon is moving much faster than you think it is (I swear it speeds up as it approaches the horizon!!). When I looked at my photos back at home on the big monitor, the moon was quite visibly moving during the exposure—see the photo at the left here.

So one night down and I have a great photo of what could have been. As a photo, it sucks. But man it could have been good!

One more chance the next morning, then if that doesn’t work out, I’ll have to wait for next year.

Day Two

The moon was setting a bit later on the second day, so I got to sleep in … until 6 AM! Then off over to my neighborhood below the cross. On the second day, the lineups were about 3/4 of a block south of where I was the day before. The first day I could see over the line of houses between me and the cross. The second day—3/4 of a block south—I could not! Huge problem. But I found two openings to shoot through… one way up on some guy’s wet lawn right in front of his living room picture window and the other in front of his neighbor’s front door. Not good! And very little room to adjust left-right to get the line-up just right.

Then throw in that the morning marine layer was COMPLETELY covering Mount Soledad. Covering. What cross???

But you always wait… that’s a rule of photography.

…and the marine layer pulled back, revealing the cross and a gorgeous, gorgeous moon!

Meanwhile, the guy whose house I was shooting over spotted me. Out he comes, fairly suspicious. “Hey, what are you doing?!?” From his perspective, I’m sure it looked like some random person was across the street taking photos through his windows with a really long lens! So I quietly (so as to not wake the people whose house I was in front of!!) told him to come over and see. He was pretty jazzed once I showed him, and even offered to let me shoot from his back yard! Very nice.

I had to do a little scrambling at the end, but I got the shot!! If I could do it again I would tweak it just a little, but I’m completely jazzed to have gotten the shot!!!! Both days it looked as if it wouldn’t happen, but in the end it all came together.

A Final Note

The Mount Soledad Cross is white… why is it orange here? I’m not entirely sure! It’s “real” (that’s how it is in the unprocessed RAW versions of this shot). The shot was something like 20–30 minutes before sunrise, which is exactly the time that you get that beautiful orangish mountaintop “alpenglow” in photos. For a bit before sunrise, the tops of mountains have a classic, orangish glow that everyone loves in photos… then the color fades and the sun comes up. I was well below the cross, shooting up, and the time of day was right… so my guess is that this is a form of alpenglow.

One Response

  1. Very nice secret spot John.
    Great shot & perfect exposure.
    It looks like you can reach out & touch it.


    September 2, 2012 at 6:38 am

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