Great North Mountain Winter Adventure

Last week I completed a 13-mile backpacking trip on the Great North Mountain in the George Washington National Forest. The trip covered parts of Virginia and West Virginia. The snow-covered forest was magical, the views endless, and the night bitterly cold. Fortunately, we were well-prepared to spend a night in the woods in twenty-degree winter weather.

As we ascended the Great North Mountain, more and more snowfall appeared. First some frost and a dusting on scattered rocks along the trail. Then more of the trail and trees were covered, until finally the entire trail had a couple inches of the crunchy white stuff and all of the trees and branches were blanketed. It was nothing short of a wintery wonderland.

In fact, the snow was so heavy it weighed down tangled branches of thick mountain laurel, which obstructed much of the trail along the ridge of the Great North Mountain. Our hike slowed to a crawl at times. Fortunately, we built in plenty of time to reach our intended campsite, so the delay didn’t cause too much concern.

The payoff was an amazing view overlooking the Trout Run Valley of West Virginia and the distant peaks of the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians. After gathering firewood and setting up camp, I couldn’t help but spend some time photographing a beautiful winter sunset.

The next morning we were packed up and back to the car just before a major snowstorm approached the area. I never thought of myself as a “fourth season” camper, but this trip really showed me that it is possible to spend a comfortable night in the woods at temperatures well below freezing without a whole lot of expensive gear. The key for me was some extra planning, having a well-insulated sleeping bag and pad, extra gloves and socks, plenty of food and water, and great company. I can’t wait to get back.

This blog is a new thing for me. I really like the flexibility it offers to showcase and explain some of my recent work compared to social media. Now that I have a few posts up, I would love some feedback. Let me know what you think! You can contact me here. And if you enjoy reading, please visit again or sign up to receive email alerts of new posts.


Visiting Great Falls in December 2020

I visited Great Falls over the weekend. We’ve had a fair amount of rain, and I was hoping to see some intense rapids along the Potomac River. I wasn’t disappointed.

I love visiting Great Falls this time of year. There is hardly anyone in the park in the early morning hours. And the 7:00 a.m. opening leaves plenty of time to arrive and set up well ahead of sunrise in the winter months. When the temperatures are low enough, frost and icicles form on the sides of the boulders along the river. Here’s hoping for a cold winter!


Moonshot from the Marine Corps War Memorial

One of my favorite places to photograph the National Mall in Washington, DC, is actually outside of the District of Columbia. An open hillside near the Marine Corps War Memorial and the Netherlands Carillon offers a view of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and the United States Capitol.

My favorite times to visit this spot are when the sun or the moon rises directly behind the monuments. There are plenty of apps out there that will help you predict those astronomical events. The best is the app by PhotoPills.

In this post, I’ll give you some of the nuts and bolts for capturing the moonrise behind the monuments from this location.

Equipment

You can pull this shot off without special equipment. A basic telephoto lens will do the trick. But if you want to really compress the monuments and enlarge the rising moon in the background, you will be best served with something in the 200 to 500mm range. You also don’t need to break the bank for a fast lens with a large aperture. That’s because you’ll stop down your aperture to maintain focus from the nearest monument to the distant moon (basically, infinity).

A sturdy tripod, however, is a must. The trickiest aspect of executing this shot is minimizing camera shake with a long lens and maintaining sharpness in low-light conditions.

An optional, yet helpful, tool is a remote shutter release. Depressing the shutter release on your camera, even when on a tripod, causes tiny vibrations. When using a long lens at long shutter speeds, the smallest camera vibration will blur your image. A remote allows you to release the shutter without touching your camera or the tripod. If you don’t want to invest in a remote shutter release, there are a couple of other options. One option is to use your camera’s built-in shutter-delay mode. Canon cameras have 2-second and 10-second delay modes. The 10-second delay should leave enough time for any vibrations to dissipate before the image is captured. A second option is to pair your camera with your phone wirelessly and use your phone to release the shutter. This second option obviously requires that your camera has wireless-pairing capabilities.

Composition

I compose my images so that there is a roughly even space between the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and Capitol Dome. I’ve found this to be a balanced and pleasing composition, but there are infinite options from this spot, so make sure you experiment until you find something that you like. The vantage is less obstructed at the top of the hill, nearer to the Netherlands Carillon. But I’ve seen successful images from lower elevations on the hill, too.

Once the moon is rising, you won’t have much time to move around. So prepare to settle in after you’ve decided on a spot and set up your tripod. I try to vary from wide and cropped landscapes and portraits. These are variations I can achieve without relocating and instead by adjusting my camera position on the tripod and focal length of the lens.

Execution

I don’t like to spend a lot of time playing with images in Photoshop. So my goal is always to get the shot in a single, clean frame. When the moon rises later in the evening, there is a greater dynamic range between the brightness of the moon and the dark sky and landscape. In those situations, I may blend two frames, one exposed for the moon and one exposed for the landscape. For most full moons rising at the end of the “golden hour” or beginning of the “blue hour,” however, only one exposure is necessary.

The most difficult part is getting a shot that is in focus and sharp. There are a lot of factors working against this goal — low light, camera shake that is exacerbated by long shutter speeds and long focal lengths, and a distance of over 200,000 miles between the nearest object in the frame and the moon. Throw in some wind and getting a good image will be a real … moonshot.

The first step is to determine the lowest f-stop (widest aperture) that will let in the most amount of light while keeping all of the monuments and the distant moon in focus. The PhotoPills app has hyper-focal tables that will tell you the lowest f-stop (widest aperture) you can use to achieve focus from the closest object in the frame to infinity. The tables are based on information you provide, like camera type and lens length. The only variable you wouldn’t have already is the distance from your camera to the closest subject in the frame. I can tell you! It’s just about an even mile (5,280 feet) from the Netherland Carillon to the Lincoln Memorial. PhotoPills has an excellent tutorial that explain how to use the tables.

The next step is to focus your lens. I prefer to use my camera’s live view function, digitally zoom in on the camera screen, and manually focus on a piece of the Lincoln Memorial (the closest monument in the frame). I try not to adjust the focus ring once I have it set, because it just gets more difficult to focus as it gets later into the evening. Just remember that if you adjust your focal length, you will probably need to refocus your lens.

The third step is to achieve a proper exposure. Set your camera to manual mode. Then, set your aperture based on the results of step one above. Because aperture is constant, the only exposure variables that you need to worry about are shutter speed and ISO. As you shorten shutter speed, you’ll need to increase ISO to maintain a proper exposure. The same relationship holds if you lengthen your shutter speed. The goal here is to use the longest shutter speed (and hence lowest ISO) that will get you a sharp image with your equipment.

Because the moon moves quickly, you don’t want to shoot at anything less than 1/2 second. Don’t be tempted to shoot at longer shutter speeds. The image may look fine on your camera screen that night, but you’ll be disappointed with the motion blur in the moon when you check your images on a computer later. And if there’s any wind or you’re having issues with camera shake, you’ll probably need to shoot at much shorter shutter speeds. Correspondingly, don’t be surprised if you need to shoot at a relatively higher ISO than you normally would for an outdoor landscape. In fact, it wouldn’t be unusual to shoot at ISO800, ISO1600, or even ISO3200 to capture a sharp image. Of course the downside to this is that image quality tends to degrade at these higher ISOs.

Finally, wait and hope the skies remain clear. Once you see the moon start to emerge, start shooting. Check the first couple images for sharpness and adjust accordingly if your images are soft. If you can’t figure out why, try increasing the f-stop or shortening the shutter speed (and making corresponding adjustments to ISO). You won’t have a whole lot of time to figure out what’s going wrong in the moment. Keep an eye on your histogram, too. The moon reflects a lot of sunlight. Once it is above the horizon, it tends to become much brighter than the surrounding scene. So you’ll want to make sure you’re not blowing out any highlights in the moon as you are shooting.

I hope you have found this helpful. If you have questions about the location or best practices for your lunar photography, drop me a line.

That’s no moon. Smoke from the west coast wildfires in September 2020 obscured the sun in the DC region.