Luna III - Moonshadows

Luna

This post is the final in a set of three detailing use of the moon in my photography. Here are links to the others.

Luna I, the moon as a compositional element.

Luna II, the moon as primary light source in frame.

Luna III, moonshadows or, moonlight from out of frame. (today's)

The South Rim

I spent a week on the south rim of the incomparable Grand Canyon. I did a little hiking, a little photography and enjoyed myself immensely. The place was cold and snowy and spectacular and I came away with a number of images I look forward to sharing with you. My trip overlapped with a waxing moon that set around 10 PM in the evening the first day and progressed to a 4 AM moonset by the time I left. I took full advantage of what clear nights there were to bundle up, look north and hang my camera over the edge of the world to bring back from that Arizona night a few glimpses into an abyss lit by the glancing rays of January moonlight.

Moonshadows are very, very deep and dark. There is little to no refracted airlight and far less reflected light from the ground to penetrate these shadows and one is left with the impression that there is no light whatsoever coming from the spaces untouched by direct moonlight. Opening up these shadows in a photograph, therefore, requires a bit of concerted effort. Here is a view of the Bright Angel fault stretching toward the Colorado riverbed and then past to the snowbound north rim. The Bright Angel trail starts just a little west of this position, and, were you to follow it down in moonlight, you'd pass the three mile rest house, descend Jacob's ladder to the portion of trail you can make out along the fault line in the bottom of the photograph below. From there, you'd be drawn in by the beacon of Indian Gardens campground, spitting yellow tungsten fire from the depths of moonshadow. Follow the trail a bit further, out of shadow and to Plateau Point overlooking the final plunge of the Colorado through the strange and ancient Vishnu Schist and back into the depths of moonshadow. If you look almost directly above the point of that plateau, you can see the pinprick of light coming from the Grand Canyon Lodge on the north rim, hunkered down for the season in gargantuan snowfalls.

Indian Gardens in moonshadow

The decision to visit during the winter months was a great one - although it was bitter cold at night and the trails were packed with snow and ice, the views were only enhanced by the snow, which gathered onto every shelf and accented the canyon's stratigraphy. The winter solstice wasn't far behind and the sun never crept very high in the southern sky. This meant great light on the north rim at all times during the day, especially during sunrise and sunset (the subject of a future post). Moonlight is just reflected sunlight, and therefore the physical phenomena determining their color are the same. That is to say, since the moon was setting over the south rim, the light from that moon was yellow, then orange, then deep red, enhancing the warm earth tones of the canyon's rock in the same way as the setting sun. I stood alone one night on a lookout called Hopi Point and captured a view of the abyss looking north east as the moon was lower in the sky. Out here the skies were pitch and one could see as much with the naked eye as he might see during the brightest part of the day. As the shadows gathered and lengthened, I exposed to capture moonlight on the face of the Vishnu Schist, revealing its strange and primordial textures. Next time, I plan on hiking down to that rock and having a closer look to see what a few billion years does to something as tough as stone.

Canyon and moonshadow

Here you can see the partially illuminated moon beginning to set over one of the stone finger outcroppings of the south rim. I climbed just a little bit down the beginning of the bright angel trail to get this angle on Jupiter and the moon beginning to pass behind the shadow of the earth. Just to the north of this scene a small cloud began to form and, within a few minutes, had been tortuously stretched by gale-force upper-atmosphere winds into tendrils. By the time I packed up and left, the fingers from this cloud had stretched clear across the sky and blocked out what chance I had of further night photography. Back to the warm confines of the built environment and goodbye for a bit to the Grand Canyon.

Moonset over south rim
Wind driven cloud over the south rim