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.


Dodging the Crowds at Dolly Sods

In October, I hiked Dolly Sods Wilderness to check out the fall colors.

Dolly Sods Wilderness is a rugged place. The area is largely a plateau on the Allegheny Front with elevations ranging from 2,500 to over 4,700 feet. It absorbs a constant assault by the elements, especially the wind. And that’s not to mention the after-effects of the human element. Logging, fires, and livestock grazing decimated its red spruce and hemlock forests. And during World War II, the military used the area for artillery practice. In fact, the United States Forest Service warns hikers to stay on marked trails to avoid encountering unexploded ordnance that may still exist in the area.

But for as rugged as Dolly Sods is, it is equally beautiful. Open meadows lead in and out of pockets of shaded spruce forests blanketed in soft beds of pine needles. A mysterious scene that could have been dreamed up in a storybook.

Once-chiseled bedrock now seems to bubble up from the ground. The surface of these ancient boulders are smoothed and pitted from centuries of wind erosion. Stunted spruces, nearly barren on their windward sides, stand in open meadows like permanently fixed weathervanes. And smaller deciduous trees grow bent with tangled limbs that reach outward like a mess of hair dancing in the wind.

I spent a day and night backpacking the northwestern section of Dolly Sods. I was hoping to see something different and to avoid the crowds near Bear Rocks Preserve. For a lot of photographers, Dolly Sods has become synonymous with Bear Rocks. In fact, Bear Rocks Preserve is a property owned by the Nature Conservancy that is adjacent to Dolly Sods. But it is no less a photography hotspot in West Virginia. If you’ve seen a landscape of pitted rocks surrounded by heath barrens and distant mountains, there’s a good chance you were enjoying a photograph of Bear Rocks. Unfortunately, that notoriety creates extremely crowded conditions, especially in the fall. After reading a couple reports of hundreds of cars jammed into the forest road in the northeast section of Dolly Sods Wilderness around Bear Rocks, I opted for a section of the wilderness that is slightly less popular.

Fortunately, there are a few different options for getting onto the trails at Dolly Sods. I decided to start my trek at the Blackbird Knob trailhead from Forest Road 80. The nearest entrance is in the western side of Dolly Sods. The adjacent Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge offers overnight parking in a lot off of the forest road by permit. The permit is free but must be reserved in advance. I had no trouble getting one of the last remaining permits with a day’s notice, although the refuge advises backpackers to apply at least four days in advance. The overnight parking lot is about 1.5 miles from the trailhead with about two-thirds of that distance on the forest road. The trees along the forest road had some of the best fall color of the entire trip. And traffic on the forest road was relatively light, especially considering that I went during the peak for fall foliage in the area. So I had no complaints.

I hiked the Rocky Ridge Trail and the Raven Ridge Trail on a warm, sunny day. What stands out most about this part of Dolly Sods is the variety of scenes in just a six-mile stretch. The Rocky Ridge trail is a steady incline that took me from marshy bogs to mountaintop (yet similarly soggy) meadows. Along the way, I enjoyed expansive views of Canaan Valley to the west and meandered around and over towering bedrock that juts out from the earth. The Raven Ridge trail offers similar variety. The trail winds in and out of developing red spruce forests and open meadows.

After completing my hike out, I decided to backtrack to a couple areas that I noted as promising photography locations for sunset. I spent some time testing out compositions and waiting for sunset. The landscape really came alive as the sun fell closer to the horizon. Everything with a red or orange hue seemed to explode with vibrant color. And the warm sidelight from the sun fell beautifully across the distant mountains.

Almost immediately after the sun set, the temperature dropped and the wind came howling out of nowhere. It was an abrupt change from the warm and calm daytime conditions. Fortunately, I was prepared with extra layers and hand-warmers. I raced to set up camp and bundled up for the night.

When I say it was windy, I mean it. Even with my tent fully staked to the ground, I thought I might get blown away. The slapping of my tent’s rain fly in the wind made sleeping difficult, but I intended to make an early start anyway. Just before dawn, I set up to photograph a few more compositions that I had noted during my hike and started to make my exit.

Dolly Sods Wilderness is a popular spot. It’s inevitable that you’ll bump into quite a few fellow hikers while you’re there. But because of its size and diverse scenes, you can have a great adventure away from the crowds at Bear Rocks Preserve and see something a bit different. The western side of Dolly Sods has a variety of scenes that offers a different take on a well-documented part of West Virginia. It’s also a great spot for a quick overnight backpacking trip with a conveniently located overnight parking lot off of the forest road. If you have any questions about the trip or want some advice, don’t hesitate to contact me. And thanks for reading.