Note: This post was originally published in 2016 when these photos were captured. As I was reviewing it to migrate to my new website, I decided to update the text and re-publish it as a new post because I think it is relevant and interesting so should not be buried in the archives.
A few years ago I was reading about how to photograph a moonrise and came across an interview with Ansel Adams sharing the story of how he captured one of his most famous images (and the inspiration for much of my recent work), Moonrise, Hernandez. The short version (click here for full story) is that he was driving along and came upon the scene with the full moon above the mountains and the gravestones lit up by the setting sun. He knew that he had only moments to capture the scene before the light was gone, so he literally ditched the car, frantically grabbed the camera gear, and set up to take the shot. In the rush, he could not find his light meter, so he quickly calculated the exposure in his head using the known value of moon’s brightness (I would not even know where to begin!) He dialed in the settings on the camera and snapped the photo. Then before he could flip the film plate over to get a duplicate exposure, the light faded and the scene was gone.
I’m no Ansel Adams, but I shared this story because trying to capture this image made me realize how truly skilled that Adams was. This image shows the scene as I saw it with my eyes, but I couldn’t capture it with my camera. You can see in the time lapse video that, as the light fades after sunset and the moon rises above the horizon, it becomes a white circle with no detail, and that is exactly what I had in this photo. After sunset, the difference between the dark landscape and the very bright moon is more than my camera can capture in a single exposure. Typically, I would capture multiple exposures at different shutter speeds to bracket the scene, but since the camera was recording frames for the time lapse, I couldn’t take a second photo exposed for the moon.
Instead I went back to the same spot the next night and took another photograph. I used a longer focal length for the second image, so the moon appears bigger than it really was, then I combined the two images together. But because our eyes can see the difference in brightness and the moon appears larger to us when near the horizon (the Moon Illusion), this is very close to what I saw standing there in the field.
The final image is actually a composite of several exposures from the time lapse in addition to the moon exposure. As you can see in the video, the evening was quite windy causing some movement of the grasses and flowers in the foreground. Since I had several photos from the time lapse sequence to work with, I was able to add in these foreground elements from other frames when they were still and create a beautiful fine art image of the scene. To this day (6 years later), this remains one of my favorite photographs of the Spanish Peaks, and I consider it to be one of my signature pieces.
For more information about Ansel Adams and his work, visit the Ansel Adams page at Artsy. This page provides visitors with Adams’ bio, over 150 of his works, exclusive articles, and up-to-date Adams exhibition listings.