Story and photography by F.M. Kearney
I enjoy shooting early on winter mornings. Besides capturing the beautiful light that occurs just before sunrise, I’m unencumbered by the masses of casual photographers and sightseers that tend to venture forth later in the day. Sometimes, however, I find that I’m out a little too early—long before sunrise or even the magic light of the day.
In the Northeast, too early means little more than bare branches dominate the scene. What initially might seem like a bleak subject, bare branches can reveal a multitude of creative options. Also, if the moon is out, it will shine like a beacon in the darkened sky and add even more interest to the shot.
There’s a certain kind of beautiful creepiness about bare branches and the moon. This classic combo can easily conjure up images of a baying werewolf straight out of a 1960’s grade-B thriller. Capturing the two (the moon and the branches, not the werewolf) at their best can be a delicate balancing act. You want the sky to be dark but not so dark that the branches fade into the darkness. You also don’t want the sky to be so light that the moon gets washed out. While magic hour light lasts about an hour, the kind of light I’m describing here can be gone in minutes.
Look for openings within the branches to position the moon. Unless you’re shooting extreme closeups, it will stand out much better if it’s free and clear of its surroundings.
Use your spot meter to avoid an overexposure. This is one of my favorite tools for obtaining perfect exposures, but sometimes, as in the case of these photos, the subject is too small to register on in-camera spot meters. Hand-held meters might be more sensitive, but there are other options if you don’t have one.
If your camera has overexposure indicators (commonly referred to as “blinkies”), now would be a great time to use them. An overexposed moon will show up as a blinking black mass on your camera’s LCD screen. Simply take another picture (or pictures) at a reduced exposure until it stops blinking. This will ensure that sufficient detail is retained in the highlights. If you don’t have this handy little feature, just zoom in closer to the moon and try spot-metering it once again. If you still can’t get a proper reading, just do it the old-school way and start bracketing toward underexposure one stop at a time.
Unlike nighttime shots, you probably won’t have to worry about the moon moving during early morning photos. The ambient light will be steadily increasing, so your exposure times should be relatively short—even at low ISOs of 100 or 200. This, of course, will prevent excessive noise in your photos.
The graphic element of bare branches conveys a mood that’s hard to duplicate at any other time of year. So, if you ever find yourself wandering through the woods on a moonlit morning in winter, look up. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you see.
F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com.