Patience and Planning: Four Peaks Moonrise

Nearly full moon rising over Four Peaks
Nearly full moon rising over Four Peaks, with a dusting of snow on the mountains

Some photographs seem to be a matter of luck.  Luck is nice, but it’s also pretty fickle.  If you want to increase your yield of good photographs with luck as your mantra, you’re going to end up taking a lot of photographs (and spend more time in post processing as a result).  A much better alternative is to spend some time planning and preparing.  Understanding landscape dynamics and familiarity with your equipment will go a long way towards producing better photographs, and you’ll be all the more ready when luck swings your way.

Four Peaks, AZ – January 2, 2015

While thinking about the topic of this post two quotes came to mind.  The first is readily known by most people:

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.     Thomas Edison

The second is likely a little less well known.  I came across this in a biography on Tesla, the title and author of which I’ve forgotten.  Fortunately I remembered enough key words to find the quote online so I wouldn’t have to paraphrase a spotty remembrance:

I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved [Edison] ninety per cent of his labor.     Nikola Tesla

Both Edison and Tesla had very different methods of working and both were, without question, quite brilliant.  Edison gives the image of being very hands on, running experiment after experiment to flesh out the germ of an idea and realize his inventions.  Tesla, on the other hand, espoused the idea of turning things over in his mind until the thoughts were so well defined that they could be executed in reality with little extra work.

To be honest, Edison’s statement has always bothered me.  Maybe it’s a personal character flaw, but the idea that genius is nothing but a glimmer of an idea followed by a lot of hard work has always rung a little hollow.  Don’t get me wrong, I am an advocate of hard work and readily admit that it sometimes takes a great deal of effort to achieve a goal.  But Edison’s quote has always seemed to imply a brute force method.  When I read Tesla’s comment I saw an antidote to Edison’s pronouncement.  Perhaps he appeals to the engineer in me, but this sounds like a much better method.  For me, I think the truth is a mixture of the two.  Yes, hard work has its place, but so does understanding the fundamentals of the problem you are trying to solve.

So how does all of this apply to photography?  For me, the best photographs start off as an idea for a composition.  It helps if I’m shooting with a purpose.  Sometimes the idea is pretty simple and vauge; sometimes it is complex, involved and specific.  Even if the idea is simple I think about how to best compose the image.  I think about the exposure, depth of field, focal length and myriad other details.  More complicated ideas may take a lot more planning.  Certain opportunities only happen once or a few times a year, special equipment may be needed, or I may need to learn and develop new techniques.  Sometimes I’ll make multiple trips to a specific location to better prepare myself for an upcoming shot.

In my previous post I talked about taking advantage of the moment and learning to capture the image that works, not the one you are trying to impose on the scene.  This post may sound like it’s providing contradictory advice, but it’s not.  Just as there are times when you have to set aside what you want for what is there, there are also times when you can plan, prepare and get the photograph you have in mind.  And keep in mind that the more you understand your subject and equipment, the better prepared you’ll be to take advantage of the unplanned moments that do arise.

The photograph at the top of this post is an example of this process at work.  There are many elements at work here: planning and waiting for a full moonrise that would occur simultaneously at sunset (for optimal exposure of the moon and landscape), waiting what seemed like an eternity for a snowstorm to hit the mountain and lots of quality time with maps, trigonometry and Excel to determine optimal locations to get a moonrise shot

For those unfamiliar with Four Peaks, it is a geological prominence readily visible to the northeast of Phoenix, Arizona, about 40 miles away as the crow flies and rises about 6,500 feet above the city.  Because the mountain stands so high it’s not uncommon for the occasional winter storm to deposit a substantial layer of snow that will persist for several days at the higher elevations.  For years it has been this occasional snowcap that has kept my attention focused on the mountain during the winter months with the hopes of capturing a shot of the snow covered peaks at sunset.  For years, however, this picture has eluded me.

I’ve spent many a blustery evening shivering in the chill wind of a winter storm waiting for clouds to break at sunset so I could get my shot.  But the clouds always seemed to linger, shrouding the peaks or the setting sun and leaving me to return home empty-handed.  Much to my consternation I have had the chance to observe a perfect picture unfold only to be in a location or situation that prohibited me from being in the right place to get the photograph.  I can clearly recall being stuck in traffic with a clear view of the snow-capped summit brilliantly illuminated by the setting sun.

So I kept my vigil on the mountain, watching the weather and waiting for another opportunity.  This certainly fit Edison’s 1% idea to 99% work ratio.  In my case it was 99% waiting for a winter storm to hit at a time I could take advantage of it.  Patience is a form of work.

The opportunity presented itself as a cold winter storm moving across Arizona on New Year’s Eve 2014.  The first day of the New Year I was out before dawn heading to the Superstition Mountains to capture the desert landscape in snow.  Wandering among the snow covered cholla and saguaro I could see to the north, through breaks in the clouds, that Four Peaks had a heavy layer of snow with prospects looked good for an evening shot.  I don’t recall why I didn’t make it out that evening.  Whatever the reason, I ended up planning on the following evening for taking pictures.

As it happens, luck was kind enough to strike twice.  This storm coincided with another event that I had been waiting for: a full moon rise over Four Peaks. I’ve long been wanting to take a picture of a full moon rise over Four Peaks and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to combine the two goals into one shot.  It wasn’t just a happy surprise for me that there would be a full moon.  I’d been keeping tabs on moonrises at sunset for some time, going so far as to write a significant amount of code in an Excel file to track when this and other astronomical events would take place.  I’d also been utilizing other software such as Stellarium and The Photographer’s Ephemeris to get more detailed information about these events.  So I didn’t just know there was a going to be a full moonrise at sunset, I knew exactly when and where it would be rising as the sun was setting.  In the spirit of Tesla’s comment I was able to work out the critical details of the shot well in advance and saving myself the trouble of figuring it out in the field.  It’s amazing how fast the sun sets.  These aren’t details you can work out on the fly.

I had made a couple of excursions below the foothills of Four Peaks but I wasn’t sure yet where exactly I wanted or needed to be.  My brother was a willing partner in this expedition so we took his truck out and, guided by previous calculations and triangulating possibilities on a map we settled on a location that held promise.  The first day of shooting was January 2nd and was to be in preparation for the following day when the moon would be much closer to full.  The snow was rapidly disappearing and we were somewhat disappointed to have a couple of clouds lingering around the peaks.  But we took advantage of the time we had and among the pictures taken I got the one above.  I was really hoping for an empty sky so the moon would be much more prominent.

The next evening I headed out by myself and was glad to see I had the clear skies I wanted.  I took some photographs and returned home satisfied with the results.  The funny thing is, even though I had the clear skies I wanted I actually ended up liking the ones with the clouds more.  Maybe it’s because there is more snow on the mountains, or the dynamic quality the clouds lend to the scenery.  Whatever it is, I find it a more compelling picture.  Regardless, I’m really happy with how both pictures turned out.  A lot of planning and patience ended up paying off in the end.

Four Peaks Moonrise Clear Skies
Four Peaks moonrise with clear skies

The Technical Details

  • Camera: Nikon D600
  • Lens: AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED
  • Focal length: 92mm
  • Aperture: f/9
  • Shutter: 1/1000
  • ISO: 400