Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Super Moon Dates


Super Moon Dates, originally uploaded by Jeffrey Sullivan.

On Saturday, March 19 I drove up one of my favorite dirt roads in the Eastern Sierra to catch the "super moon" rising over the Sweetwater range. The road was muddy slippery, and I'd soon hit the snow level form recent storms, but I only wanted to get a few hundred feet higher to a point where I'd get a panoramic view and some gnarled juniper trees that I could include in my compositions.

The weather was mixed, mainly cloudy but with some promising breaks that should let the moon break free from time to time. As I reached the snow, I was following some tracks, wider than my Ford Explorer, apparently made by a pickup truck. Hopefully it had broken trail all the way up the road to the one cabin up there, or at least as far as the overlook a mile or so ahead that I was trying to reach. The road became significantly steeper as I passed an old mine site and stamp mill, and my tires started to slip so I switched into 4WD. The snow quickly got got deeper and deeper as I ascended, until the tracks from the larger truck ended. I tentatively broke trail for a few more feet, sinking into the wet, soft snow now maybe six to eight inches deep around my tires. I could probably continue up for a while more, but the problem would be coming down. When you descend in snow, it tends to build up in front of your tire until your ties break free completely, and you find yourself suddenly riding a four-wheeled, four thousand pound toboggan. Been there, done that. Even if I could break a good trail going up that I could follow down with less snow buildup, the mud underneath was an additional risk. One slip a few inches off track on this hill would send me into the snow, then most likely sliding uncontrollably downhill.

The other problem was that if I continued and the snow got deeper, turning around would be problematic. Even if I could start a multi-point turn without completely losing contact with the road, it wouldn't take much of a slip to put a wheel into a snowy ditch or off the edge of the road towards an abyss (and on the first "point" in the process, I'd be facing uphill in perhaps a foot or more of snow).

I wrestled down my thirst for adventure and pinned it to the floorboards with one foot as I eased back down the hill with the other foot nursing the brake pedal. There'd be other opportunities to catch the moon, and to go play in the snow.

I retreated to a lower elevation and caught a few shots in fading light under mainly cloudy skies.

I drove a bit north as darkness descended on the Eastern Sierra, but the light was growing to the east. The moon might break free from the clouds as it rose! Well, it sort of did. Like most full moon dates, the "super moon" of March 19, 2011 (the closest the moon has come to the earth for 18 years), was occurring too late after dark to capture any detail in the landscape, or even in the clouds is was emerging from. The skies were never fully clear so the detail on the moon was fuzzy even at 400mm (and even with additional cropping to make it look like at least 600mm). So the moon was generous enough to come out for a few minutes and play, but as I was playing around with different lenses and camera bodies to see which could capture the sharpest image, it slipped back behind the clouds for the night.

The results? Well, the longest lens combination I have at the moment is a 70-200mm f/4 plus 2X doubler which yields 400mm at f/8 (but this configuration disables autofocus, grrr). Putting that setup on my Canon 40D provides a "lens factor" crop to make it an effective 640mm lens. But the 40D is 10 megapixels vs. 21MP on my 5D mark II, so the physical resolution of the sensor is actually nearly identical. I get roughly the same result in my 5D mark II after cropping. To try a lens with autofocus I put on an old Sigma 28-300mm. By that time the moon was already pretty fuzzy behind the clouds, so I can't really compare the results, but I know from experience that the Sigma is a very soft lens.

So I captured it, sort of, on the full "super moon" date, but it's JAPOTM... just another picture of the moon. I checked again the next morning, when the moon would be setting close to sunrise, but this week's storm was busy dropping 100 inches of snow on the Sierra Nevada, so no luck there.

This isn't the end of the story however. A super moon is simply a full or new moon that occurs on the day when the moon is at the perigee, or closest point, of its elliptical orbit. As the moon makes its slow 27+ day orbit around the earth, it has two perigee points in its orbit, so there are two chances every month, and there are multiple so-called super moons every year. Here's where you can plan to be out to catch super moons... a Web page where the guy who coined the term super moon published dates for 2011 and beyond: www.astropro.com/features/tables/cen21ce/suprmoon.html

Remember though that the best dates to photograph the moon tend to be the sunset moonrise the day before the full moon, or the sunrise moon set the day after the full moon. So technically you'll be a few hours off of the actual super moon date, but you'll have a great opportunity to shoot the moon in its closest, largest state, looming large as it peeks above the landscape.