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A Full Moon Night in the Desert

With the first monsoonal moisture reaching San Diego County this week, it got hot and humid – not exactly the greatest conditions to be in the desert, but at the same time, thunderstorm clouds towering to the east are quite naturally a lure that is hard to resist. My friend Tracy and I drove to Canyon Sin Nombre, hoping for some interesting conditions – namely, thunderstorms at night paired with a full moon.

And that didn’t really happen. As we were driving further east, it became clear… literally. The clouds that looked so great where we started began to dissipate more and more. We made a short detour on Sunrise Highway to Laguna Mountains, where we stopped at Kwaaymii Point for sunset – and we looked down at the desert landscape that partially disappeared in an incredibly haze (I’m suspecting that a part of it was actually smoke from wildfires in Mexico). We decided to continue to the desert nevertheless, thinking that the moonlit night and haze could bring some interesting conditions.

I had picked a spot above Canyon Sin Nombre that I photographed before, with nice plants, rocks and a good view over the Carrizo Badlands. The only obstacle this time was that it was 35°C/95°F – and it was an hour past sunset when we arrived. We packed our stuff and began the short hike along a ridge and then up the hill. A little wind, albeit warm of course, kept things tolerable all in all.

Despite the high temperatures and humidity, hiking at night in the desert under a full moon is truly special. There’s no sound at all, except for rocks crunching under one’s feet, and the occasional little animal scurrying away, and little clicking and chirping sounds from insects. Huffing and puffing up the trail in the sweltering heat was strangely invigorating, probably due to the excitement of the unusual, extreme conditions – exposing oneself to darkness, heat, humidity, and being surrounded by the unique desert landscape, heightens the feeling of being alive.

The moonlight was almost bright enough to hike without a headlamp, but to find the narrow use-trail (and not lose it either) that leads up the hill we still needed a little bit of extra light here and there. At the top, we caught our breaths and then set up the cameras. There was enough light from the moon to work in an almost “normal” landscape manner, except for using a higher ISO.

Of my various attempts, only the image below makes me happy and conveys what I had envisioned. It was nice that the high clouds were moving really slow and didn’t blur in this 30 second exposure. In hindsight though, I should have chosen a really long exposure (4 or more minutes) in order to blur them entirely, get even better depth of field (there’s a foreground blur that isn’t really visible in the web version), and lower noise. I guess the heat and humidity limited my creative thinking… next time! :-)

Some more notes and thoughts below the photo.

It’s amazing how the camera can see so much more than the human eye at night. You can even see the moonlight streaming through the clouds in the distance. Properly exposed images look almost like they were made in daylight – except that they have this otherworldly quality of softer light. Shadows are well defined as you can see, but they aren’t dark and hard like shadows in a similar daylight exposure would be. Similar to photos of the Milky Way, it’s completely mesmerizing to see the image on the camera display once the exposure finishes.

Long exposure noise reduction (LENR) was badly necessary – the temperatures are high enough to cause hot pixels from the very first exposure on. That’s one of the downsides of long exposures: the wait doubles with long exposure noise reduction. Even then, carefully inspection of the photo at a 100% magnification is necessary to find black drop-outs from the LENR, and other artifacts.

I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts with night photography that I like my night photos to have a cool blue color rendition – what you see above though is a color temperature in the daylight range (~5000K). The moon reflects direct sunlight, so this is actually quite accurate. But I hear you – it doesn’t look like night! Here’s a version with adjusted color temperature and brightness. :-)

I think both images have their individual quality and couldn’t pick one over the other as being “better”. If you have any thoughts on this, I’d appreciate a comment. Thanks!

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6 thoughts on “A Full Moon Night in the Desert”

  1. Fantastic! I can imagine the long exposure, but not the heat! However, the view is very special, at least when thinking about it as a Finnish man. So many things in one photo that we don’t have. The photo is very much like a painting.


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