A Bit of Luck, Moonrise Over the West Spanish Peak

January 22, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

80mm, 1/80 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100
HDR bracketed exposure, processed in Lightroom (no Photoshop!)

This image was not planned in advance, and I did not pre-visualize the moon sitting directly over the summit of the West Spanish Peak when I had the idea for this photo. In fact, I was just hoping that the moon would appear somewhere in the scene around the mountain. But as luck would have it, this happened!

When photographing the moonrise, it’s always a surprise when the moon actually appears. Sometimes there are low clouds on the distant horizon that are invisible but obscure the moon, so it seems to take forever for the moon to finally appear. On this day, it was the opposite. I was not expecting it for several more minutes, and it suddenly started peeking out from the north side of the mountain. As the full disk of the moon came into view, I realized that it was gradually moving to the south as it rose and would pass directly over the summit of the peak. I’ll admit, at the time I was super excited, and it was incredible to see even if I had not been taking photographs. But I only realized a couple of days ago just how truly unique this event was.

Moonrise series from the first appearance of the moon at 4:31 to the last light on the summit at 4:45. Officially, sunset was at 4:43.

Obviously, the moon rises in the east just like the sun, and the azimuth of the moonrise moves north and south depending on the season and a whole host of other astronomical factors. So I just assumed that a moonrise over the peak like this would occur at least a couple of times a year. But a recent Photopills podcast on moon photography with moon photo guru Jennifer Khordi had me thinking about other locations to capture the moonrise over the peaks, and I had a difficult time finding viewpoints and suitable times to get the shots I had in mind. I decided to look at this exact shot in my photo planning app (PlanIt Pro) and was amazed to discover that a shot like this won’t be possible again until at least February 2024, more than three years from when I got this photo, and afterwards not again until sometime after 2030!* (Sorry you missed it Scot.)

PlanIt Pro screenshot showing the plan for the title image of this post captured at 4:40 PM on
November 28, 2020. Note that this image was captured just before sunset at 4:43 PM.

This shot was captured at 4:40 PM on November 28, 2020, just 3 minutes before sunset. A few minutes earlier the entire mountain was in full sun; a few minutes later it was in shadow, but for this image the sun was still lighting the top of the peak as the moon passed over. According to PlanIt Pro, the full moon will rise behind the summit of the peak only three times in the next ten years (February 2024, February 2028, and November 2030), but none of those are exactly like November 2020 when the moon was directly over the peak just after sunset. The best opportunity might be February 2024 when the top of the mountain should still be catching a little bit of sunlight as the moon just touches the summit. In 2028, the moon will be farther above the peak after sunset, and in 2030 the mountain will still be in full sunlight. And of course, who knows if there will be clear skies in both directions!

PlanIt Pro screenshot showing the next time the full moon will appear just above the West Spanish Peak,
right after sunset on February 23, 2024. With any luck the top of the mountain will still be illuminated.

For me, the definitive photo of this scene is the black and white version with the moon directly over the half sunlit peak-it's truly a Zen moment. But I'm also drawn to the color image below that was captured a few minutes later. As the sun dropped, the colors in the sky deepened and the summit was intensified by the alpenglow almost like a spotlight, while the moon became brighter and whiter in contrast. 

80mm, 1/25 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100
Single exposure processed with Enhanced Details in Lightroom.

I think it’s worthwhile to mention that an image like this is easily faked with Photoshop, and unfortunately it has become all too common for photographers to create an image on their computer but claim that it was captured as a single exposure. For me, much of the satisfaction is in capturing an authentic photograph of the scene-this whole post has been about my excitement to have witnessed such a unique event. Of course, some photographers wouldn’t consider this to be a good image unless it also had a bald eagle silhouetted against the moon and a buck looking straight into the camera!

*I do realize that there are other vantage points from where it might be possible to get a similar photograph at other times. But the number of publicly accessible vantage points, especially in winter, are limited, so it's not possible to simply reposition the camera a few hundred yards north or south to get the moon to line up with the peak.

P.S. I wasn’t quite happy with the look of the final image as it was processed in Lightroom, but I felt that I had pushed it about as far as I could. So I re-worked the merged HDR from the color image in Photoshop to the version below. This image was my first attempt at editing in a "Fine Art" black and white style using the methods developed and taught by Joel Tjintjelaar at BWVision.com. It's not quite perfect, but this version is a lot closer to my vision for this image. I thought it was important to still share the Lightroom-only version, so I left it as the title image for this post.

Moonrise over the West Spanish Peak
80mm, 1/80 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100
HDR bracketed exposure, processed in Photoshop


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