More playing in the dark

In consideration of the full moon on New Year’s day (well, okay, New Year’s night,) and with recognition of not having done a damn thing for the International Year of Astronomy, I ventured out on the evening of January 1st and tried for some moonlight photos. No, not photos of the moon itself – I have enough of those: full, crescent, eclipses, and so on. I mean photos taken by the light of the moon. What’s cool about this is that the moon is pretty neutral in its reflective properties, and while the light it provides is dim, it’s also pretty close to white. We simply don’t realize this because the low-light capabilities of our eyes lack color perception.

spillwayGiven a long enough exposure, however, moonlight can appear just like sunlight. This isn’t so much fun in itself, unless you have a subject that benefits from exposure times of several minutes. What I usually aim for is enough light to have detail, but still an overall darker effect, and allow for stars in the sky. In art, this effect is called “chiaroscuro,” roughly meaning “bright darkness.” It’s often seen in movies shot at night, because there needs to be a certain amount of light for the cameras, but still give an impression of night, so the actors are often fairly bright against the darker background. Moonlit shots work well for it, though, with more character in my opinion.

My biggest problem has been locating a great subject for it nearby. I’ve been lucky enough to get prime conditions for it while traveling only once, since it takes a clear night with a full moon. I still work for a living, so the times when this falls on a few days I have off are rare, and rarer still that the sky is clear too. So on the first I simply drove down to the Haw River spillway nearby and tried a few shots. What I most like about this shot is the fingers of shadow stretching out across the foam, from a nearby tree, and the trickles of reflected headlights from the edge of the water. Also, check the reflections of the opposite shore in the water above the spillway. When you know this is a six minute exposure, you realize that the water above the spill stayed amazingly smooth.

I wasn’t out there too long, mostly because there wasn’t a whole lot I could do with the subject, but also because I was freezing my butt off – the temperature was just below freezing and a stiff wind was blowing. Yeah, I hear the scoffs of the Canadians, but go stand doing nothing by the camera while the timer ticks down. It seems funny that, not all that long ago, I did a post about night photography where the sweat kept dripping in my eyes and the viewfinder kept fogging up. I seem to have missed the nice middle ground where I could be out all night and be comfortable.

hawtrails-sI did some other frames too, aiming upriver and trying to capture the stars. This one was a four-minute exposure, so I got some limited streaks from the rotation of the earth, and you can tell from the curves that I was pointing almost north – Polaris, the North Star, would be the focal point of these curves had it been in the pic. Click on the pic for a bigger example. One of these days I’ll do a wide-angle shot of the ecliptic plane, the “waist” of the starfield as it were, which splits the difference between the northern and southern arcs – should be a nice warped effect that will make people think I’m messing about in Photoshop (but then again, nearly every interesting photo makes people think that nowadays.)

I just took the digital camera body on this trip, because I wanted a better idea of exposure times, but Provia 100F is the film of choice for things like this – the star colors are much, much richer. The problem with Provia, though, is that it doesn’t like the color register from the orange sodium streetlamps now in common use, rendering them a sickly green, so it works much better far away from city lights. Yes, I still need to do some trips out west, thank you very much – contributions to those expenses can be made through my PayPal account, because the job sure as hell isn’t covering it. Hey, aren’t I supposed to be making some money by blogging? Or was that stuffing envelopes in my spare time? One of those, anyway…

If you do any photography, I encourage you to try this out (I mean full moon photography, not stuffing envelopes, blogging, or working for a non-profit). Both of these exposures were at 100 ISO. The top one is six minutes at f8, the bottom four minutes at f5.6. And yes, a firm tripod is a must – but then, it should be part of your photo equipment anyway. The camera must be capable of “B” (bulb) setting, and a cable or remote shutter release is recommended. Wait for the moon to be high, but directly overheard might be boring – some shadows often help. Two other examples of moon shots can be found here and here.