Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Moon Goes Round and Round...

"Super moonset" in Montana (c) John Ashley
"Super moonset" over a foggy, western Montana valley (click to enlarge)

Did you see that "super moon" yesterday? (Or, "perigee-syzygy" in astronomy-speak.) It looked just like, well you know, the moon circling around us at only 223,072 miles away. Even closer in kilometers. I saw it, too. Sort of.

Rolled out of bed at oh-four hundred, drove 59 minutes to the neighborhood of my subject for this morning's moonset, a lovely old Ponderosa pine tree that should cradle the moon in its lowest branches, forming a strong vertical image. My spousal unit says I need more vertical photos. (I can't get rid of the ringing between my ears, a friend paraphrasing, "You know, Hobby, that camera turns sideways, too.")

Did I say, "should?"

The cloud cover forecast anywhere in the mountains was ugly. Real ugly. I knew I couldn't put the moon in front of any of the instantly-recognizable (i.e., sellable) mountaintops in Glacier Park. No, I'll have to drive far, far away to crawl out from under this blanket. Fortunately, about an hour in the other direction lives this great old pine tree that I've photographed before. It stands apart in a grassy field, just far enough out of the forest that I can frame it on a clean skyline. Haven't gotten any sellable photos of this tree, mind you, but I've spent a few nights out there and love it none-the-less. It's the journey, right?

I arrived at 4:59am for the 6:05 moonset. Haven't been here for a couple of years, but I figure I can find my angles in full moonlight. Probably would have worked, too. Except for the small detail that, once I was on scene, the moon was completely invisible, smothered by a thick blanket of fog that I first entered not half a mile from my destination. I spun in a slow-motion circle in the misty fog, but I couldn't even tell which direction the moon lay.

Hmmm. I was already down to "Plan F" for this super moonset. Now I needed to come up with Plan G. As in, "Get your tail out of the fog and find something else to stick in front of this moon, pronto!"

Super moon slips into the clouds
As the moon slid towards the horizon, I spun gravel racing back up the forest service road, until I'd circled back above the fog and found an opening in the tree cover. Set up two tripods, one for a wide stitch and one for a telephoto, starting with the 500mm. And that's right about the time the super moon slipped into some super clouds.

Hmmm. Well at least I can see where the moon is, even if I can't see the moon proper. So I moved over to the 70mm medium-angle stitch. The sorta' moon-like glowing area in the morning clouds headed towards a forested ridge rising up out of the sea. The sea of fog. Ever a tease, the moon broke clear of the clouds just before disappearing behind a generic-looking horizon.

Well now, that was underwhelming. I chase the full moon every month, and by that I mean every month that the full moon is visible in western Montana. Which means maybe six times a year I find myself somewhere in the darkened wilds, alone with an amazing moon in a near-spiritual experience. Not like this "super moon" at all.

Now what? It's 6am and I'm miles from the nearest coffee pot. I loaded my gear in the back of the car, looked down the road towards home, turned and drove back into the fog.

Right off the bat, I saw a doe and fawn in the misty-blue of pre-dawn. But I still had the big honkin' lens on my camera, and I watched in silence as the spotted fawn bounced across the fog-shrouded, tree-lined lane in what would have been a Hallmark moment, if only I had placed the medium lens within reach. Strike two.

After driving down the winding road for several miles - not another fawn in sight - I parked in the middle of the road and climbed the slope to look at a mauve clump of sticky geranium - one of our native wildflowers that I hoped to write about for Wild & Free. Actually there were lots of wildflowers blooming in the thigh-high meadow grasses, now that I stood still and really looked. Colors trailed off into the fog in every direction.

Morning dew on wild rosebud (c) John Ashley
Jabba the Rosebud
My geranium photos were considerably less than inspired, so I moved over to a wild rose bush. You know, I never seem to notice the slightest breeze until I set up the macro gear. I tried and tried to shoot a 105mm focus stack of 6 or 8 images of dew droplets on the spiraling petals of an unopened rosebud. I had enough shutter speed, but I knew from past experience that a focus stack of a moving subject would result in a less than sharp final image. Looking at the back of my camera, the center circle in the rosebud looked just like Jabba the Hutt wagging his tongue at me. I moved on, further up the hill.

My feet started getting cold, and I slowly realized that my shoes were soaking wet from the heavy dew, as were my jeans from the thigh down. Everything dripped. Grasses, flowers, spider webs. Hmmm. Flowers and spider webs. That gives me an idea.

Moving quickly now, I strode back and forth through the soggy field looking for just the right situation. The breeze might return at any time, and the brightening fog told me that the sun was getting ready to clear the ridge. I had to hustle.

Is this it? Will this flower work? Does this spider web have enough droplets in the right places? I set the lightweight tripod as low as it would go, still couldn't get exactly perpendicular to the web. Okay then, focus stack it'll be. Hey, where'd that breeze come from?

I all but laid down in the wet grass and tried to get everything lined up just right with the 105mm macro. Slowly, carefully, I reached around to the flower stalk and gently nudged it closer to the spider web. Doh! Too close! Some part of the flower plant barely touched the stalks holding the spider web, and most of the water droplets fell to the ground.

Looks like I'm done with that one. I walked in widening circles until sunrise, looking for a similar situation, but never found another one that was just right. You know what I mean? The instant you see it, you know that you have to photograph it. Just the opposite of the super moon. I just knew I had to photograph the super moon many weeks before it arrived. But I never saw this moon just right, and the resulting image is uninspired and lacking.

But while trying to make my orbit intersect the glowing moon, I stumbled into a glowing wildflower that was distorted through dozens of lenses. Near the center, a type of sunflower. Along the silken web spiraling round and round towards the center, little orbs of life and color clinging to their delicate, watery worlds. And driving my little analogy into the ground, I turned this refraction of reality on its head so that we see what we might expect to see - if we don't reflect on it too much.
'Sunflower Galaxy' (c) John Ashley
"Sunflower Galaxy" (c) John Ashley


  1. That is an awesome shot. I can relate to chasing around fighting the elements but my chasing rarely ends up with something that wonderful.