Shoot the moon

Beginning with the end in mind is something I place a great deal of importance on in my work, and this image demonstrates some of the many reasons why. 

On one particular evening, as I was headed back toward Santa Fe, the corner of my eye caught sight of a golden orb rising in the east… a massive full moon! I hadn’t been thinking about photographing the moon that day, so it caught me a bit off guard. Of course, I had the camera with me, and so immediately shifted into “where can I pull over?!” mode. 

My tripod was in the back of my car, and I didn’t particularly feel like getting it out. (Yep, I am tripod-lazy. I know. I don’t care.) Fine. I knew I could handhold at a reasonable shutter speed and avoid camera shake.

My camera was sitting on the seat next to me with a 70-200mm zoom lens attached. Perfect focal length range to capture the moon rising over the Sangre de Cristos, leaving me the flexibility in the amount of foreground to include, or not include. Awesome. 

Now, there was just one problem to deal with. Dynamic range. The moon was bold and bright, and the land below it was sitting in post-sunset shadow. If I wanted to capture the full dynamic range of the scene, I could make aligned and bracketed exposures - for the moon and for the foreground - and combine them later on to get the full dynamic range of the scene from foreground to back. I also don’t particularly enjoy combining exposures unless it’s really, really necessary for the shot I’m visualizing.  

On this occasion, the finished image I had in mind did not require a perfectly exposed foreground; the varying density of the cloudcover was fantastic, and the mountains were taking on a silhouette-like quality I really liked, with only the remaining snow on the peaks existing as a highlight. Thus, I could reasonably judge that aligned and bracketed exposures weren’t necessary for the final image I wanted.

I also knew that my camera’s sensor had more than sufficient dynamic range to me to expose for the moon and still lift the shadows and recover some measure of detail in the foreground. So, I made several photographs of slightly different overall compositions, all underexposed (relative to the bulk of the scene in front of me) to some degree, ensuring I’d captured the detail in the moon. 

This method obviously won’t work for everyone, depending on what they’re shooting for. If a photographer wanted their final image to show the entire dynamic range of the scene, they’d need to get out that damn tripod and make bracketed exposures. And if that had been most important to me here, I would have done that - or figured out a way to prop the camera up on my driver’s side window to keep it aligned and stable while I was shooting (yes, I know some of you just cringed… I understand why we need tripods, and they’re great, and yes, I do use mine, but I like to joke about it, too…).

For comparison, here’s the straight-out-of-camera version of the image above: 

In the as-shot file, you can see the moon, the outline of the mountains, and clouds, and that’s about all. In post-processing, I adjusted toning (I liked the very blue look of the original, but prefer the somewhat more ethereal feel of the final version), took advantage of my Sony a7iii’s dynamic range and lifted the shadows, and adjusted the contrast. 

How do you shoot the moon? What have you tried, and what has worked best for you? I’d love to hear!

My favorite week of the year

Palm frond cross, 2019. (C) Sarah McIntyre Photography

Today is Palm Sunday, which means… it’s Holy Week. 

In New Mexico, and of course Catholic New Mexico in particular, this week is about processions with palm branches, veiled statues, and long, penitential walks to places considered sacred. If you’re Catholic, these things are par for the course; if you’re not, they’re still rather unavoidable. 

Whatever your faith tradition (or even if you don’t claim one), I think there is great beauty to be seen in the traditions that will come to life this week. We human beings have a certain need for tradition: we need to remember. We need to do it again, see it again, smell it again, feel it again, experience it again. And as life changes and we change with life, sometimes it isn’t even so much experiencing something again as it may be experiencing it anew.  

As a photographer, I am a “professional rememberer”… I photograph - I document - indeed, to bring experiences and traditions to the eyes of the unfamiliar - but also, so that others may not forget those experiences and traditions which they love. And yes, if you’ve ever wondered, I am a Catholic, born-and-raised here New Mexican. I’m grateful for that, too, because those two things - and certainly the struggles associated with the former - give my life and my art a perspective they wouldn’t have otherwise. 

This is my favorite week of the year. 

There will be an abundance of cynicism offered about Christianity and the flaws and sins of its earthly institutions (particularly Catholicism) this week. Plenty of it is warranted - believe me, I know that well - but that’s not the discussion I’m here to have today. 

As a counterpoint to that cynicism, I’d like to offer to *all of us*, irrespective of our religious beliefs or lack thereof, that this week is not about flawed churches. 

This week is about remembrance. 

Even if you don’t plan to be an active participant in any of this week’s traditions, I hope you’ll take a moment to appreciate that for many people, this week really does, really deeply, mean something - and the commitment to that is worth respect… and if you do participate, make this week a true remembrance. 

Growing into the New Year

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope 2019 brings you joy and goodness.

In many ways, 2018 was a whirlwind, but it provided ample opportunities to learn and grow, particularly in my creative process. I challenged myself throughout the year to approach photography with greater mindfulness - to really think before clicking the shutter. I’ve long been a believer in making photographs “with intention” - that is, to visualize the image before making it - sometimes LONG before - and to be really present in the moment when I am making them. This past year, I pushed myself to take this mindfulness and intention to a new height, really paring down how often I click the shutter, focusing intently on exactly *what* I am trying to accomplish - and pushing myself to take action to get the image I have in mind instead of accepting only what the situation presents, when such action is possible. 

And so, as we begin the new year, I wanted to share an image I made just yesterday, that demonstrates precisely what I mean by approaching photography with “greater mindfulness”. 

I’ve long wanted to make a photograph of the Santuario de Chimayo covered in snow, at dusk, farolitos aglow. This year, the weather obliged and brought some nice snow right after Christmas. On New Year’s Eve, with another storm on the way, I made my way to Chimayo with this shot in mind. Arriving a couple of hours before sunset, I made a few additional photographs around the Santuario. I wasn’t shooting aimlessly - I worked to be present in the place, at the time, seeking out views and details I hadn’t captured before. I also checked the vantage I wanted to use for “the” image I’d come to make.  

As darkness fell, the farolitos on the courtyard walls around the church came on. I captured a couple of images, and then waited for the rest of the electric farolitos on the church to light. At sunset, they still hadn’t come on. I knew that even without the farolitos on the church lit, I could get a shot that was close to what I wanted (and knowing that, as the Stones put it, “you can’t always get what you want”) - but I also knew that if there was something I could do to ensure I was able to get the shot I’d visualized, I should do it. 

So, I ducked into the church, and asked the priest if he knew when the farolitos on the church might switch on. “They’re not on?” he said. He smiled sadly and told me they hadn’t been working as well in the cold, so there was a chance they might not come on at all. Okay. Well, at least I’d tried.

I thanked him, and figured I’d go ahead and get a few more shots, whether all the lights were on or not, and wait a little while longer, just in case they did turn on.

I looked up as I walked out of the church, hoping against hope. No lights.

I headed back to the vantage I intended to shoot from, and when I turned around to set my tripod down… the farolitos atop the church had turned on. 

I made the photograph I had planned for, and then packed my gear back into the car - and made it home before the incoming storm came on full force. As I edited my images afterward, and reflected on the experience, I couldn’t help but feel that the way the evening turned out - with the farolitos turning on just at the right time - was simultaneously its own reward, and an acknowledgement of what I’ve been striving to do all year.  

You might say, this was not a bad way to end 2018. I’d agree. 


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