Best of the Tetons

Web Moon Over Teton Range1_Oct19

Shooting the October Moon: Tips for Being at the Right Place at the Right Time

 About every 29.5 days, the full moon will set over the Grand. There are quite a few challenges for getting a good shot.

Web Moon Over Grand_Oct19

Today, I was out early to capture the full moon setting just to the north of the Grand. It worked out well…this time! It seems like a good time to do a Feature Post on my outing and include some information that might help you capture a rising or setting moon. Even though I included October in the title for the post, the information is essentially the same for every month.

There are probably several different options for finding the correct place to be, but I like The Photographer’s Ephemeris. Best of all, it is FREE for your computer and available for a small fee for a SmartPhone.


TPE for October 18, 2013: Click the image to see it much larger.
You can get tutorials and more information on using the software on their web site, but the screen grab will give you an idea of what you might see when you set your own coordinates. This is the Map view, but there are several other options. I set the date first, then put the big red pin on Schwabacher Landing.  I set the Geodetics marker (the dark gray marker) at the top of the Grand. I was able to see the angle of the sun and the line where the moon would set if I were on flat land and could see the horizon. Lastly, I could move the little slider triangle on the time line and see the movement of the moon on the moon time line.

The software is much more sophisticated than I normally need. For example, you can also establish the altitude of the red marker and adjust for the altitude of the gray marker. You can get an idea when to photograph down a canyon without shadows. And, you can anticipate where to be in the valley to line up mountains and features for sunrises or moonrises. I used the software to know when to be standing at Artist’s Point in Yellowstone to get the moon setting over Lower Falls. The software worked like a charm, but clouds didn’t cooperate that morning. Again, consult their web site for more techniques and options.

Saved Locations: TPE lets me save a long list of my favorite locations. I just pick one from my list and the software automatically jumps to the spot and sets the red pin. I love the feature as it can save me a lot of time.

Today’s Moon Shoot: When I got up this morning, I had planned on heading to Schwabacher Landing and walking in. From the river bottom below, the moon should have gone down just to the south of the Grand. I headed north out of Jackson and drove to the gates at Scwhabacher. The moon was already quite low in the sky. (The area has been gated all year, but you can still make the 20 minute brisk hike to the site.) The moon slices across the sky from left to right as it sets, so you have to allow for the changes as you evaluate the current location and where it will eventually set.

Web Moon Over Grand2_Oct19

I had to decide whether to make the hike. I had time to get there.  The closer you are to the mountains, the sooner the moon sets. Conversely, the farther away you are, and the higher you are in the valley, the later it sets. I kept driving north and in doing so, the moon “moved” northward in my scene. Grand View Point, just north of the Schwabacher Landing access road would have been a good choice, but I wanted a little more in the foreground. I knew I’d have time to get to Snake River Overlook so I headed towards it. I could visualize the moon north of the Grand but south of Mt. Moran. I could shoot panos, or use the moon to let me offset the Grand, as seen in the photo above.

Web Moon Over Teton Range1_Oct19

Staying high on the valley floor allowed the moon more time to set today and that let the clouds start lighting up with color. If I had been at the river’s edge at Schwabacher, the moon would have already set behind the Grand.

Eventually, the moon dropped behind the mountain while I was at SRO. At that point, I took a few more sunrise images, then I pulled the plug and drove a few miles south of Snake River Overlook.

Web Moon Over Cascade Canyon_Oct19

The early pinks, rose and violets on the mountains were replaced with gold and amber. The moon had dropped a little more, but the low area above Cascade Canyon let me get a few more images before losing the moon for good.

Shooting the Moon: There are twelve full moons per year, allowing a tiny bit for the extra days (1 lunar cycle =29.53059 days). In June, the moon is the farthest south relative to the Tetons and in December, it is farthest north. To get the setting full moon near the Grand in June, you’d need to be at the far north end of Jackson Lake—somewhere near Lizard Creek. And, you’d need to get up very early! I typically don’t attempt to capture the May, June, and July moons unless I just happen to be out. Access is limited in the winter. The December full moon is visible from Snake River Overlook, but will be over Mt. Moran and not the Grand. But remember, I am concerned with getting the moon over the Grand or Mt. Moran in this article. They don’t move—and—neither do the popular shooting locations, so you have to be at these places at specific dates to line everything up correctly. On the other hand, if you were trying to get the full moon behind a windmill out on the prairie, you might be able to photograph it setting on any of the 12 prime moon sets and any of the prime moon rises because you can simply move around the windmill to the spot that lines up.

Clouds: Clouds and fog can be a moon killer! I’ve never kept records on it, but it seems fog and clouds keep us from getting good moon shots about half the time. I always like a few clouds for my landscapes, but they are so unpredictable.

Cunningham Cabin

One Good Day: While you might think you can get moon shots several days in a row, it seldom actually happens. There’s usually one good morning and possibly one marginal morning. Check out this chart: Moon Set / Sunrise . Enter Jackson, WY in the Search box, then hit the submit button. In October, the difference between the sunrise times for today and tomorrow is only one minute. But in October, the difference between the moon set is over an hour. I hit it right today. The moon was still up at the same time the first light and color was hitting the clouds and tips of the mountains (from my spot in the valley). If I went to the same spot the next day, the moon would be very high in the sky at sunrise. By the time it actually set, the sun would be bright and the moon would be mostly bleached out. Still, you can use the angles to your advantage. For example, tomorrow, going down to the river bottom at Schwabacher would allow the moon to set much sooner than it would if up on the flats or on Shadow Mountain. If you study the chart Moon Set / Sunrise, you’ll also notice the time differences change throughout the year.

Grand Tetons Moon Set Sept30

Scale and Distance: You might have had time to read a Feature Post I wrote a while back: Distance and Scale Relationships in the Tetons (and elsewhere) . It works the same for the mountains and the moon! The closer you are to the mountains, the smaller the moon will appear. It is possible to use a telephoto lens when close to the mountains and zoom in on the moon, but you won’t get much of the mountain in the scene. If close to the mountains and using a wide angle lens, the moon will likely appear as a dot in the sky. Conversely, if you are set up on the other side of the valley and use a mid-range zoom, you can get a good portion of the mountains and still get a nice sized moon. The earth wobbles on its axis, so the moon will appear larger in some months than others. You might have heard people talking about the “Super Moon” last year. Occasionally, you might see an image similar to the one above with the moon four or five times the size. Rest assured, they did some creative work in Photoshop!

Web Buck Mtn Moon Full Frame_Oct20

Exposure: If you were able to use a large telephoto lens, you’d be able to spot meter your exposure on the moon and get a perfect exposure for the moon itself. After all, it is just an object being lit up by the sun. In reality, most of us will be shooing a “scene” that happens to have a moon in it. If you are out too early, the moon will be a bleached out ball of white. If you expose for the moon, everything else will be black. There’s a point in the morning when the light of moon and the scene will be essentially balanced. You’ll get details in the shadows and details in the texture of the moon. At the extremes, people will often shoot multiple exposures of the same scene and take care of the issues in post production.

Filling the Frame: The photo above was taken one day following the earlier images using a 200-400 mm lens at 400mm. I used a full frame D800 body. I was fairly close to the mountains at the time, so all we are seeing is a chunk of Buck Mountain and the moon. The main reason I wanted to post this photo was to highlight the fact this is the largest the moon will appear in a shot without cropping the image, or without adding a teleconverter (or buying a longer lens). The moon is roughly 240,000 miles from earth. I could move five miles to the other side of the valley and shoot with the same equipment and the moon would fill essentially the same amount of space in any photo I take at 400mm. Five miles will not affect it much in relation to 240,000. What DOES matter is how far I am from the subject or mountain I put in front of the moon.

Artists Point 2011

No Accident!: I pre-visualized this shot, then used TPE to tell me the exact day to be at Artist’s Point. You can line up any two fixed locations months, or even years in advance using the software. After that, you just have to be there on the right day. Also, at some times of the year, there are harsh shadows in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone cast by the walls. With TPE, you can establish what time of the year to be there so the sun shines down the middle of the canyon, reducing the shadows.

Get out and try it for yourself! Download TPE, find some places of interest (like a barn, bridge, or about any object to use in the foreground) and shoot a bunch of images. Use a good tripod for the long exposures. You can line up geysers with the rising moon, or the setting moon. Or line up the moon over a railroad track and get the reflections on the rails. You don’t have to be in the Tetons to get good moon shots.

Addendum Oct 21: There’s a new app getting great reviews called PhotoPills. It works with SmartPhones and iPads, but is not available as a desktop application. I don’t own a SmartPhone, so I can’t comment.

Please Note: All of the images on this page are fully copyrighted with the US Copyright Office.  ©2013 Mike R. Jackson – All Rights Reserved

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Comments (6)

  1. Lowell Schechter

    Mike enjoyed looking at your photos with the moon over the tetons . Yes, you have to think carefully about where the moon is going to be when trying to capture it. And the higher you go you get the chance to photograph it.

  2. Great post Mike. I’m going to give it a try.

  3. Bill and Lowell,
    Thanks for the comments! Moon sets happen everywhere, so all you have to do is get out and enjoy them on the right day! Crescent moons are equally fun to capture! MJ

  4. MIke, I love the top ‘blue hour’ shot. Good info on the app. Another app I use is LightTrac, but I’m reviewing one right now that I think is vastly better than all three. It’s called PhotoPills. I’ll let you know more in a few weeks…

  5. Hi Royce,
    Thanks! Two comments:
    1: Royce is a heck of a night time photographer. Check out his blog and site.
    2: I checked with PhotoPills a while back. It was not available as a desktop app…only for smart phones. I don’t own a smartphone, so I can’t use it.

  6. […] friend, Mike Jackson, recently posted on his Best of the Tetons blog some “Tips for Being at the Right Place at the Right Time” when photographing the October moon (or the moon in any month for that matter). If you like […]

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