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Learning to Love the Moon

Quarantine took a toll on virtually every human being on Earth. We went from traveling all across the world to confined to our backyards in less than a few days. Schools shut down, businesses shut down, and millions lost their jobs all in one fell swoop. The world fundamentally changed due to an insidious, invisible enemy, and who knows when we will feel any sense of "normal" again. But one thing that makes me feel normal, is getting out to photograph the Moon.

I am one of those laid off indefinitely. I am also located in Chicago and stuck in light pollution. However, I am ok, as my job counted towards those eligible for unemployment. So, now it is about the time to complain about the very "first world" problem of light pollution. For a night photographer, being grounded in a Bortle 8/9 class area is akin to torture. Watching fellow photographers able to capture the Aurora or the Milky Way from their backyards makes me want to scream. Ha! In all seriousness, I am happy for them! Please don't take this the wrong way! So what's a girl to do?

Re-kindling the Romance with the Moon

That's right! Next to light pollution, the Moon is a night photographer's worse foe. But is it, really? The following stories outline some of my recent adventures with the moon. From using the Moon to help light up a foreground, to shooting with the full Moon, there are many reasons to love the Moon. Well, other than the fact that it does make life possible on Earth. Minor details!

Chicago and the Moon Rise

Ever wanted to use your telephoto lens at night? Planning and shooting for the full Moon really takes advantage of a telephoto lens. Wide-angle shots make our celestial satellite out to be quite the minuscule object. Switch out the focal length, and voila! The Moon comes to life! Since the Moon and only a handful of stars are visible in Chicago, one can really get creative with the Moon.

Moon shots, not unlike Milky Way shots, comes with its own set of challenges. While some happen though sheer luck, many of these telephoto shots are planned well in advance. The timing is essential, as well as location. While the Moon (and sun) for that matter generally rise east and set in the west, that actual rise can vary on the horizon at different times in the year. The shot above was more or less a "trial run" for one I want to photography this May. The Moon rose a bit too far to the north of the city for proper alignment with the buildings. However, with the clouds and general atmosphere that night, it still made for a fun photograph.

Apps such as Photopills and Planit! are invaluable for pre-visualizing these types of images. So much is dependent on the alignment between the moon and the object in interest. The other challenge is time. Once the Moon crests over the horizon, it moves much faster than most anticipate! Which is funny it and of itself, as the Moon moves at the same rate - it's our perception that makes us believe it is moving faster on the horizon! Which bring me to the next point -

Playing with Perspective

I cannot think of another photo that illustrates the power of perspective than the one above by Joshua Cripps ( He recently was a guest on the Photog Adventures podcast (check them out!!) and went into detail on how he planned and executed this shot. This technique can be applied to almost an endless amount of possibilities. Unleash your imagination!

What Makes These Images Special?

These images take an object that is incredibly far away and place it right into our world. It becomes an integral part of the story - if not THE story. For some, it can create a bit of confusion, though, as many will claim that shots like these are not possible and are composites. Most have probably never truly observed, say, a moonrise over a skyline 10+ miles away. The Moon against those "small" buildings trick our brains into thinking the Moon is enormous. When it actually never changes size. It is the art of playing with perspective.

The illusion that the moon is so much larger along the horizon is akin to the Ebbinghaus illusion. How does it work? Two circles of identical size are placed near to each other, and large circles surround one while small circles surround the other. This juxtaposition creates the illusion that the central circle surrounded by large circles appears smaller than the central circle surrounded by small circles.

Beyond the illusion, there are several studies out there as to why we perceive a Moon on the horizon as so much larger than when above the horizon. Some theories stem from binocular vision, or that as the Moon rises, we lose that reference to a terrestrial object, and thus have nothing to compare it to anymore. Regardless, we are getting off-topic! If you would like to read more on this phenomena, check out this study:

Long story short - if someone calls you out for "photo-shopping that big Moon," you can explain the illusion to them! (That's not to say that there are no photoshopped Moon shots. There definitely are!)

Moon and Conjunctions

Remember these famous laws of physics?

  • -A body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an external force.

  • -The force acting on an object is equal to the mass of that object times its acceleration – or in mathematical notation, F = ma.

  • -For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Quarantine was said to have brought about some of the Science's greatest discoveries. During one of many outbreaks of Bubonic plague, Sir Issac Newton spent around a year and a half in self-isolation. It was during this time he made some of the biggest contributions to modern science. In addition to the statements above, Newton discovered gravity, and how prisms refract light into its color spectrum.

Now I am not saying you need to go out and make discoveries that will change the world. However, if you do, then AWESOME! Use this time to make your own discoveries - even if they are already well established. Really take a look at and observe the sky without the use of an app or the internet. You will find a sense of wonder and awe that no computer can duplicate. Of course, if you want to plan out something specific, then, by all means, bust out Stellarium!

In the above image, this conjunction was so brilliant in the twilight sky that it was hard to look away. I walked around the yard, looking for ways to put it into an Earthly context. This tree provided me that visual cue! With its gnarly branches, it twisted around and framed each object individually. That was the "story" I was looking for!

Using Moonlight in Nightscapes

The Moon is not always the enemy of non-quarantined, planned nightscapes, as well! A crescent Moon, or a setting Moon, can be used as a celestial lightbox! Most are in agreement that the crescent phases provide the most pleasing effects by not overpowering the scene. The added contrast to your composition may be that little something special to set it apart! Don't hesitate to experiment around with the various phases. The best part is that you don't have to lug around extra equipment!

The Moon is not our enemy! Use this extra time home to experiment and play around with subjects that you once ignored. You may find yourself enjoying a whole other avenue into night photography. There's another saying for this - oh yeah! Making Lemonade from Lemons!

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Your photography is amazing, really top notch. I have a challenge though, since you like optical illusions, Chicago, and Earth-and-sky. When visiting Indiana Sand Dunes I got two photos of Chicago, one from the beach and the other from atop a 80 foot tall sand dune. The curvature of the lake actually hid half the city when photos were taken from the beach. So amazing. My photos were grainy and hazy, probably used a smart phone, but I would love to see what you could do. You could probably blow me away, that's for sure.

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