• John Gregory

Moon Set over the Southern Alps

Moon set over Black Range, Southern Alps, New Zealand

It was an early start to the day back in June 2018. I left Christchurch about 4.30am heading for Runanga on the West Coast of the South Island. There was a waterfall there I wanted to capture a photo of called Coal Creek Falls. The drive was about 250km, and I had a few other jobs to do, just south of Runanga in Greymouth so that explains the early start.

I did ask my wife the evening before if she wanted to come for a drive. She said ‘Going where??? And leaving when???’ As it turns out, apparently it was a good idea to head over to the west coast on my own.

There were two main reasons for leaving early. Firstly, because it was going to be a 500km day in the car and that just takes a lot of time. Especially on New Zealand roads which specialise in corners. All sorts of corners. Long sweeping corners, short sharp corners and of course the odd hairpin for good measure.

Porters Pass - a winding mountain road

Secondly, because I wanted to be somewhere amongst Southern Alps of New Zealand around dawn – not so much for the sunrise, but for the moonset. My goal was to get to somewhere near Arthurs Pass National Park and with clear few of snow-capped mountains and photograph the moon setting behind them. Maybe near the Waimakariri River as that would provide a bit of clear ground in the middle of the final image, so there would be no distractions. The shot I was after wasn’t going to be a classic landscape shot with a clear foreground interest, mid ground object and a clear backdrop to pin the image together. I was particularly looking for a mountain to contrast against the moon. And the further away that mountain was – with nothing in front of it - the better the juxtaposition of the two key elements was going to be.

There are a number of apps that can be used to help find the timings and directions of the sun and moon. I have used both ‘The Photographers Ephemeris’ and ‘Planit’ for photographers. I do swap from one to the other depending on what I am targeting. They are very useful for planning and there are plenty of blogs out there on how to use them. The main tool I use though is a simply googling moon and sun rise and setting times for any part of the country that I am going to be in. Then I just try to get to the general area I want to shoot well ahead of time so that I can plan the shot.

Balancing exposure between the moon and the landscape and a little bit of compression thrown in with a zoom lens to create some sort of relationship between the mountains on earth and the mountains on the moon was my goal. Balancing the exposure is all about timing. Timing the setting moon before it disappears below the visible horizon, timing the sunrise so there is a hint of morning glow kissing the mountains. Timing the light, so the exposure of the moon is not too dark or too bright in relation to the land. Timing the shutter speed so the moon is crispy sharp with no trace of movement. Timing the full moon with a weekend, so I had time to get out on the road to shoot. There are only a few days each year that work. Then when you mix in the weather, there are only perhaps one or two days a year when its going to be viable.

If I wasn’t so concerned with capturing the moon and the mountains in the same image, then it is a straight forward exercise photographing the moon. You need quite a fast exposure if done at night time – maybe up to 1/100 of a second at f8. At that speed you can get quite good results handheld – but I will generally use a tripod.

One of the very first attempts I made at shooting the moon relative to a terrestrial object was taken from Howick a few years back. Howick is an eastern suburb of Auckland City - About 17 kilometres in a straight line to the Sky Tower. I wanted a shot of the moon setting behind the tower and this was a full-on exercise of timing and location. One of the things I wasn’t prepared for with this shot was just how quickly the moon appears to move as it gets closer and closer to the horizon. It doesn’t leave any room for error or much time at all for fine adjustments.

I was lucky enough on this attempt though to get the moon directly behind the spire on the tower – right in the middle. I even had this shot judged as a photoshop manipulation on a local camera club night with a quite experienced judge suggesting it was practically impossible to shoot this type of shot. Of course, it is not a manipulation and was shot in camera. So, I guess his comment in a way was a compliment. Wouldn’t say this image is a great compositional success, but it was a good learning exercise and the knowledge I gained from it ultimately helped a lot with the moon over the Black Range.

Sky Tower and the Moon. Auckland, New Zealand.

On the road I scouted a couple of locations while it was still quite dark, however settled for a spot where the Waimakariri River spread out below the Black Mountain Range just a few kilometres before the Arthurs Pass Village. With the zoom lens, the Waimakariri was not going to feature in the image. For that to happen I would have need to use a wider focal distance and that would have shrunk the moon too much in relation to the land. It is also worth noting that the benefit of having the moon set behind mountains is that it is not too close to the actual horizon. When the moon is very low is tends to get more orange or red in colour, and that can be okay, but the other problem in that the light coming from the moon has more atmosphere to travel through the lower down it gets and therefore tends not to be so sharp in detail.

Black Range behind the Waimakariri River, Southern Alps, New Zealand.

An example of the moon rising quite low relative to the land, still quite reddish in colour as it peeks above the Coromandel ranges was taken from Maraetai Beach near Auckland in New Zealand's North Island. It is being watched by someone enjoying the view before jumping off the wharf into the water below. This image also shows how ridiculous impossible with the zoom lens being used it would be to get the foreground in focus. And as far as timing goes - the moon rise was perhaps 20 minutes too late to get a better exposure of the Waiheke Island in the mid ground.

Full moon rising.

Once I found the spot, I set up the tripod, grabbed the camera which was already all good to go with a 100-400 Canon lens and a 1.4 converter attached which gave me a full focal length of 560mm on a full frame camera. And I used the lot – 560mm. I also used a very small aperture of f20. Softening around the edges can sometimes occur with a small aperture, but this wasn’t going to be a problem with this composition and I knew at this distance at f20 I could get a relatively sharp shot. The small aperture also allowed me to get both the moon and mountains in focus in one go.

I am a little conflicted as to which is my preferred shot. I like the one at the top with the moon just starting to duck behind the mountain. It provides the ultimate contrast of mountains on the earth versus mountains on the moon and for that reason it leads the blog. However, the one below feels more balanced compositionally with the moon separated from the mountains and just right of centre. It offsets the weight of the more dominant part of the mountain to the left.

Moon and Mountains

Oh – and I made it Coal Creek Falls near Runanga. There was a very nice 30-minute bush walk down to the river and not too many other people around which made taking the photo much easier.

Coal Creek Falls, Runanga, West Coast of the South Island

New Zealand is a great place to

try out photography of the twilight sky and if you are planning a holiday here …..check out the travel services offered by Inspired NZ. Also check out the dates of the full moon or if you are interested in Astro Photography including shot of the Milky Way – maybe check when there is no full moon.

And don't forget your camera!

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