1 of 365 – The Beginning
On New Year’s Day this year I snapped a decent sunset photo. I’m not a big New Year’s Resolution kind of person, but that inspired me and I committed (to myself) to do a photo-a-day challenge for the year. This should be easy, right?
I think of it as a simple way to get my creative juices flowing without having to disrupt my work and family life too much. With my phone in hand, I set out to see what I would learn, what I would see, what I could create.
So, I am just over one month into my year-long photo challenge and I’ve made a few observations:
- Sunsets are pretty, but too many in a row can be yawn-inducing.
- There are not many good photos you can rush out and take at 9 pm when walking the dog.
- Just because it’s an interesting place/moment doesn’t make it a good photo.
A few days into the year I heard we were going to witness a rare lunar moment at the end of January – a rare combination SuperMoon/Blue Moon/Blood Moon/Lunar Eclipse. This, I figured, was a great chance to up my photography game! I dreamed of those beautiful National Geographic-like shots of a sky full of stars, the red lunar eclipse looming massively over a cactus or a ghost town or a beautiful natural feature in silhouette. I started making plans.
- I read up on night photography, stars, shooting the moon. I dusted off my old tripod and re-familiarize myself with my DSLR and the long lens I bought years ago (smartphone photography would not do for this project!)
- PLAN #1 – The lunar event will begin on a Tuesday evening and run through Wednesday morning. I decided to take a couple of days off work and take the family camping out to Joshua Tree National Monument – a great location to get that perfect shot.
- SNAG #1 – Can’t take the family camping – the kid has school. Plus it’s January, camping in the desert is going to be cold. My wife likes camping, but not being THAT uncomfortable.
- PLAN #2 – Fine, I’ll go alone! I make plans to head out on Tuesday morning. I’ll give myself time in the afternoon to scout locations and set up camp before the magic begins.
- SNAG #2 – Nope, my wife has to work that Tuesday night, so I have to be at home for my son. Okay. No big deal. I’ll stay local. I’ll find a location in LA that would be good for these photos.
- POTENTIAL SNAG: WEATHER! – The forecast for our whole region is “partly cloudy.” This whole thing could go bust. Come Tuesday morning it’s cloudy… uh oh. But by late afternoon it’s looking pretty clear. Snag avoided!
- PLAN #3 – My first photo should be at 4:45 pm Tuesday – when the moonrise for the Supermoon appears. The moon will look huge just as it comes up over the horizon. So I’ll just leave work a bit early, pick up my boy and drive out to someplace beautiful together and…
- SNAG #3 – Nope, he has baseball practice until 4 pm, smack in the middle of the valley. No time to drive to beauty. I’ll just have to shoot the moon from someplace near home.
IT WORKED! (Sort of)
Being in the valley, surrounded by mountains in the distance and buildings and trees up close I couldn’t see the moon just as it rose over the horizon (when it would be biggest and the best chance for a silhouette) but by 5:30 the moon was high enough to get a clear shot of it from a parking lot near home. I set up my tripod, took about 30 shots with different settings.
Supermoon Results – Not Too Shabby:
Satisfied with my modest success (hey, it’s the best I could do under the circumstances, right?), I planned for the big event itself. The lunar eclipse was set to begin at 3:45 am… so I put all my gear by the front door (camera bag, tripod, folding chair, flashlight). And even plugged in my extra camera battery to charge. I went to bed early and set my alarm for 2 am. That would give me enough time to get up, get going, check the cloud cover and drive someplace with a clear western view.
WEDNESDAY MORNING (early)
- 1:30 am – Wife wakes me up thinking I missed my alarm. “Oops.”
- 2 am – alarm goes off. Shut it off.
- 2:20 am finally roll out of bed. Wife thinks I’m crazy.
- I dress warm, in layers.
- Half asleep I load my gear into the car (and I remembered the extra battery that was charging! Yay me!)
- Need gas. Need caffeine and snacks.
- Finally, I hit the road. The sky looks clear. The full moon is shining bright and high in the sky. And my destination is… hmmm…
LOCATION #1 – DESERT: Going with my original desert plan, I head north to Vasquez Rocks. That trippy desert site alien-planet-like rock formations that will look great in the photo!
- The first thing I notice is how empty the streets and freeways are after 3 am.
- The second thing I notice is I am putting a lot of mountains between me and the western sky. I may not get a good shot from my destination. CHANGE PLANS!
LOCATION #2 THE BEACH: I turn around and head to the coast. It’ll take an hour, but there will be no obstacle on the western horizon.
- 3:50 am – the eclipse has begun. As I drive west on the freeway I can see the earth’s shadow begin to encroach on the bright full moon that is just past its zenith. But I still have some driving to do. So I won’t get photos of this phase, no problem. There’s still time and lots of great pics ahead.
- This time of day (night?) I’m the only person driving over winding Malibu Canyon Road… but I’m surprised to come upon a work crew halfway through the canyon, with several big trucks, working on wires/telephone poles. Their many bright lights are pointing up and dominating the canyon – blocking out tonight’s beautiful moon. These guys are missing out!
- On the PCH I see the moon still high in the sky… almost half eclipse now. I decide to head for one of my favorite places on this section of coast – El Matador State Beach. It has beautiful rock formations that will look great in my photos. I doubt I’ll have a signal on the beach so I text my wife a photo so when she wakes up she’ll know where I am. I look like the crazy man she thinks I am.
- It’s just after 4am and the parking lot gate is locked. I’ll have to park on the PCH and hike down. It’s not as cold as I expected, but I still wear a knit hat and bring gloves just in case it gets chilly. Time to gather my gear and hike down.
I forgot my tripod! Only now as I gathered my gear to set up do I realize that in my sleepy exit I must have left my tripod by the front door. With low-light and a long lens, it is absolutely essential that I have a tripod to get a good shot. The moon was at half eclipse now it was well past 4 am… no time to go back. I’ll have to make the best of it.
With my camera bag and bag of snacks and folding chair, I hike down to the parking lot and then down the path and steps to the beach. Halfway down there is a ‘real’ photographer set up with his tripod. He’s got a timer, a lite meter, he’s chosen a spot with some altitude. I walk past in silence, praying he doesn’t notice the loser who doesn’t have a tripod.
On the sand, I picked a spot by one of those great rocks I mentioned. It was a beautiful night – clear skies above with loads of stars to gaze at. Not a total loss, if I can’t photograph it at least I get to experience this beauty. I settled into my chair, decide to forget about photos and just soak up the moment. With no tripod I didn’t stand a chance at getting my dream shot. I decided to just let go and enjoy the night, meditate on the beautiful stars (I even saw a few shooting stars), and listen to the waves gently crashing on this narrow beach. I watched as the moon neared full eclipse and turned red – the “Blood Moon.”
OK, Why Not Try?
It’s not like I was going to waste film if I took a few shots. And it was dark enough that the ‘real’ photographer on the cliff above couldn’t see me being a rank amateur. Try as I might, and as steady as I thought I was, handheld just wasn’t going to get the job done. I had to get creative with what I had. I tried bracing my camera on the folding chair… and the tide started coming in so I had to move closer to the cliff wall. I kept shooting – propping up the lens on the inverted chair with a bag of chips and a water bottle… maybe one of these would be good…
Here’s what happens when you take night shots of the moon and don’t have a tripod:
The tide was coming in and I had to move even closer to the cliff… and then I discovered a ledge on the rocks… just maybe this would be steady enough for my camera… VOILA:
I would have liked to stay and take more… but as the red moon lowered in the sky, and the eclipse began to wane, it became apparent it was going to set behind the cliffs ahead. This was a south facing beach and the moon was setting to the west. Not only was the tide coming in and I was running out of beach, but I was now running out of sky! That’s it. Game over.
I packed up and began the long hike up to the car. I discovered that the “real photographer” has left as well. Perhaps he had also misjudged where the moon would set. Huh, he wasn’t perfect.
LOCATION #3 – Not Done Yet!
I decided to keep chasing the moon. Just drive up the coast until I found a west-facing view where the moon would set over the ocean… it wasn’t long before I found reached County Line State Beach. I parked and walked along a short path, this time with just the camera, no chair. And there was another “real photographer” with his tripod set up and looking like he knew what he was doing. I walked on by… there was a railing at the head of some steps that led down to the water. That would be my tripod… with the support of a few small stones to keep the camera steady and level:
I took the above photo of my “tripod” with my phone after the sun came up. But as the sun was rising behind me I got two of my favorite shots of the whole trip. The first is the waning eclipse just before sunrise… I got my silhouette, and a bluish sky as the sun began to rise behind me:
I glanced back to look at the rising sun and I saw two surfers watching the eclipse. Not wanting to disturb my delicately balanced camera, I ran down the stairs to the beach and took this with my phone:
Glancing up I saw the “real photographer” with his tripod had seen my move and he too had turned from the eclipse to photograph these silhouetted surfers.
- Pack your gear in the car the night before(!!!)
- If possible scout your location in advance.
- Improvise. You there might be a low-tech solution.
- Look around. Sometimes the best shot is in the other direction.
That’s the first month of my year-long photo challenge. If you’re interested, follow along on Instagram!