Missed Opportunities

Castle Rock at sunset, reflected in the waters of Lake Powell

Sometimes I get a case of tunnel vision and miss opportunities right behind my back.  Such was the case a couple of weeks ago.  I had the opportunity to be in the vicinity of Lake Powell for work and took advantage of my time in the evenings to go shooting.  I’ve visited the lake a number of times (sadly, only from the shore) and have always returned home with new ideas to experiment with the next time I’m there.

For this excursion I wanted to capture a very specific image.  I wanted to get a picture of Castle Rock, lit up at sunset, with its reflection in Lake Powell.  I wasn’t expecting to get a crystal clear reflection.  Rather, in this particular photo I wanted to take a long exposure so the blurred reflection would be smooth streaks of color in the water.  I knew I’d be dealing with boat wakes, but I was hoping they would be at a minimum at this time of year.  Indeed, there were only a few boat wakes, but they still caused big problems.  The wakes persisted for a long time, much longer than the shutter speeds I was shooting at.  They showed up as horizontal slashes in the vertical streaks of the reflected sandstone, breaking up the continuity of the image.

If the wakes weren’t bad enough the stationary boats also presented a problem.  Many of the vantage points I found of Castle Rock were situated in such a way that the reflection was obscured by houseboats riding at anchor.  I wandered around for some time before I found a location that maximized the amount of reflection available in the water.

But, I was determined to get a shot, even if it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.  I figured I could put the time to good use by experimenting.  I had a 10 stop neutral density filter and experimented with different apertures and shutter speeds to find the right balance of sharpness, smooth water and minimal sensor noise.  I settled on a 2.5 minute exposure, f/9 at ISO 250.  I spent a considerable amount of time taking some sample images, experimenting and waiting for boat wakes to dissipate (which takes forever) before finally getting the shot posted above.  It was okay.  I figured it would be a test shot and I’d be back the following evening to try again at a different location, if a better one could be found.

With the sun setting I packed up my gear and began walking back to my car.  About 100 feet from my car I happened to look back the way I came and kicked myself for not being more vigilant.  Behind me was a picture worth taking.  A full moon had risen over Tower Butte while I was busy taking pictures that I knew would just be test shots.  I hadn’t even considered the possibility of a full moonrise shot while I was in the area.

Moonrise over Tower Butte

I quickly unpacking my gear and set up the tripod.  Moon shots are tricky.  The moon is lit directly by the sun while the landscape is shrouded in the shadow of the earth and lit by reflected light.  Expose for the moon and the landscape is a dark silhouette.  Exposure for the landscape and the moon is a white, over-exposed blob.  The ideal situation is to shoot when there is still enough direct or reflected light that a single exposure setting works for both the moon and landscape.

Unfortunately, this was not the case for me.  I was too late.  Had I been prepared I could easily have gotten the shot.  As it was the landscape was fast receding into the shadow of night and the moon was very bright in comparison.  So I did the next best thing.  I took two images, one exposing for the brightness of the moon and another exposing for the brightness of the landscape with the intent to merge the two into a single file once I got them on my computer.  The resulting image is shown above.

I used the HDR tool in Lightroom to merge the two images.  I was pleasantly surprised at how well it merged the two images.  The moon moves surprisingly fast and there was a noticeable shift in the position of the moon between the two images despite the fact that they were only a handful of seconds apart.  I was afraid I’d get some ghosting in the image of the moon but it came out pretty clean.  The moon turned out great.  The landscape could have been better.  The color isn’t all that great and in the twilight the massive sandstone features lost their sense of scale and depth.

Had I been more prepared I would have arranged for a stronger composition of Tower Butte so that it would stand out more instead of blending into the line of cliffs behind it.  I also would have timed the shot so there would have been more reflected light to give color and contrast in the landscape.  In order to be more prepared I’m considering setting alarms for all the full moon rises occurring during optimal light so I don’t miss out on future opportunities.  I’m sure there’s an app for this if I look hard enough…

Regardless of whether I got the picture or not, it was a great sight to see.  It doesn’t seem to matter how many full moon rises I see, they always captivate me.  While this was a missed opportunity to get a picture, it certainly wasn’t a missed opportunity to enjoy yet another amazing moon rise.