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Big Bend '17: No. 18 - Goodnight SuperMoon

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

The brilliant SuperMoon lifted ever higher into the sky and cast a cool and eerie light down onto the quiet desert of Big Bend. I waited until the moon was beyond the haze still lingering around the horizon, and shone vibrantly in the clear sky above my head. With everyone else asleep, I was silent and alone in a space that felt almost as large as the universe above. It was the perfect way to spend my final night in the park, and wrestle with the thoughts still lingering in my mind from the days just prior to wandering into the desert.

Walking around on foot, the empty road seemed to go on forever as if a path to the stars might very well exist just beyond that distant and untouchable horizon.

With the moonrise all but over, we finished our meal and packed up for the night, carefully placing our edible goods in the large bear box. Travis stayed up for a while as I dialed in settings on the 600mm rig, but in time he retired to bed and I was suddenly in the desert alone. I am an introvert, so being alone has never bothered me, but there was something ominous about the tall shrubs that blocked my vision in every direction. I kept photographing as I saw photos emerge, hauling my tripod to each new locations, but I always kept an eye on my surroundings just in case a nocturnal animal decided to wonder too close.

The moon slowly traversed the star dappled sky in a long, gentle arc, and in time it seemed to escape the haze still clinging to the ground. The night sky was beautiful and clear, so distortion was about as low as I could hope for. Technically, atmospheric distortion would be least apparent at 90 degrees from the ground plane, but taking photos at that angle is very difficult. Crouching underneath the tripod to look through the viewfinder is very uncomfortable, and using the Live View feature of the Nikon camera (a digital image taken through the lens) generally does not focus accurately enough (the focus type is different and it is not as accurate with low contrast images) and it tends to add noise to the image by overheating the sensor.

I don't know of any camera gimbal that can rotate to 90 degrees (other than large, heavy equatorial mount rigs for telescopes), but the side-mount gimbal is particularly ill-suited for this task as the foot is in line with the center of elevation rotation, instead of below it. This means that the lens intersects with the tripod at a lower angle, which in my experience seems to be around 60 degrees. Knowing the limits of my equipment, I played with different settings until the moon was near the max rig elevation, at which point I took my final photos with the settings that seemed to work the best.

The Moonshot rig: 300mm f2.8 + 2x teleconverter + Nikon D750 + cable release on a Wymberly Sidekick, anchored to a Manfrotto tripod

I have still yet to get what I would consider the perfect moon shot. I think this is my best ones to date, but it still lacks a considerable amount of detail even though environmental conditions were near optimal (SuperMoon, in the desert, in a dark skies region, on a relatively clear night). The Nikon D750 was shooting at around 600mm through a 300mm f2.8 lens and a 2x teleconverter. If I had more time to prepare, I think I would have rented a Nikon D500 which has a similar resolution sensor in a DX format which would bump me out to 900mm with its 1.5x crop factor (I used this setup during the total solar eclipse). Additionally, I may also consider renting a true 600 or 800mm lens the next time around to minimize the need for the 2x teleconverter which tends to soften the image even though it provides a larger moon to sensor ratio (and thus more resolution). In short, the quest for the perfect moon photo lives on, but this is an important step.

A single star managed to shine through the incredible glow of the winter SuperMoon

I played with my settings for a good while, but I finally settled on 1/1250 sec, f/8, and ISO 800 with mirror up and about a 10 second delay before snapping the shutter via a cable release. The shutter speed may seem high, but at 600mm the moon travels very quickly across the field of view. If I drop it too far, the motion blur becomes obvious at high resolution. The 10 second delay after the mirror flips up is essential to reduce vibration in the rig which can also reduce sharpness. After a dozen shots or so, I was happy enough with the image on my screen, so I decided to explore for a little while and see what else the desert had to offer in the glow of the last SuperMoon of the year.

The Bower 14mm aspherical lens is a fantastic manual focus lens that is great for night photography. It has considerable distortion that can be an issue in some shots, but starscapes generally are not hindered by distortion as there are few lines to show bending. However, it also has prominent lens flares that can get in the way sometimes, but other times I think they can be an interesting point of focus for an image. The moon was far too bright for the Milky Way to show through, but there were plenty of stars to enjoy, so I let the lens bend the moon light into brilliant halos surrounding an ethereal, lunar orb.

While stars are somewhat muted during a full moon, the benefit is that the landscape generally has a more balanced appearance with the night sky. There was still plenty of haze in the desert to keep the glow near the horizon ever-present, but that didn’t take away from the shear number of stars visible over the Chisos Mountain Range as viewed from the Grapevine Hills campsite. The moon was even bright enough to cast long, intricate shadows along the ground beneath the gnarled brush.

I walked softly up and down the long dirt road in deep thought for what seemed like hours as I gazed out upon the desert and starry sky. I had experienced a very painful death in the family just hours prior to coming to Big Bend, and the memory and emotions of that event still weighed heavily on my mind. Over the past few days in the park, the calm and incredible beauty of the desert had helped to quell the turmoil in my mind and my heart, especially the small moments I had alone to think. I stood there on that cold night in silent, contemplative meditation, just my camera and me...gathering in what answers I could from the stars, as my camera gathered light. It seemed to me that the photons trapped inside my small camera might have very well been equally confused about their final destination (had they the ability to discern it). Perhaps it was one of the best eulogies a photon could ever hope for, to be absorbed by a camera sensor and immortalized at least for a few decades on an alien world that will likely never know the star that birthed it. I can't say that I found any real answers out there in the dark, but I did decide to move on, to continue wandering and exploring, creating and growing, loving and caring, and most of all living with my fondest memories still I feel she would have wanted me to do.

The primitive campsites may not have the towering cliffs of the Chisos Basin, but the sky out on the desert floor is simply bigger and light pollution is nearly non-existent. With virtually no one else for miles around, and with very little vehicle traffic, the silence and isolation is incredible. It’s the perfect location for stargazing, and considering that Big Bend is one of the best dark-skies stargazing locations in the world, I can’t recommend a visit enough to anyone who wants to see the universe as well as it can be seen with one's feet still planted firmly on the ground.

The cold began to seep into my tired eyes, and it was clear that it was finally time to retire to the tent myself. I packed away the big gear into the truck, but still hauled my camera with the zoom into my sleeping bag to keep the batteries warm. I knew that all too soon the sun would be back, and as usual, I planned to be up for that as well. There are few things more frustrating to a photographer than waking up for the sunrise only to find you have frozen batteries with no power.

As I closed my eyes and slowly drifted off to sleep in the inescapable glow of the full moon's light, a small part of me lamented that I was abandoning my final night in Big Bend for the ephemeral promises of sleep...but sleep was essential with an 11 hour drive looming the next day.

© 2017-2019 Shaun C Tarpley


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