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Lunar Gunsight: How I Got the Shot

By January 27, 2021No Comments
Photo of a full moon rising between two peaks. "Lunar Gunsight" © David S. Johnston
“Lunar Gunsight” © David S. Johnston

Story and photo by David S. Johnston

“Lunar Gunsight” is an image of the nearly full moon rising into and through Gunsight Notch in Seneca Rocks, West Virginia. Seneca Rocks is part of the resistant Tuscarora quartzite formation that has been folded vertically and exposed at several places along the River Knobs which run along the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. The rocks are very thin fins that rise dramatically about 300 feet above the surrounding slopes and 900 feet above the river valley.

Extensive planning

The image was the result of about three months of planning. It was originally conceived by a small group of photographers and a group of highliners from Pittsburgh to show the moon high in the notch silhouetting a highliner as he traversed the notch on one-inch webbing.

There are only a few opportunities during a year to view the moon rising through the notch, and the exact viewpoint is different each time. But this shot required even more precise conditions: The moon needed to be full or nearly full; the timing needed to be close to sunset to provide balanced lighting on the rocks; and the moon needed to enter the notch at a specific location so that its trajectory would take it to the upper right section of the notch, where the highliner would be. The viewpoint for shooting needed to be as far away from the rocks as possible so the moon would appear large in comparison with the rocks. But, if too far away, the ridgeline of North Fork Mountain behind the rocks would appear in the notch and block the view of the moon. The time (within seconds) and the exact shooting location (within feet) when these circumstances would come together needed to be identified.

There are only a few occasions in the next few years when such a shot is possible. The opportunities are further limited by the land below and to the west of the rocks. Trees blocking the view of the rocks from many locations, private property and inaccessible terrain limit the shooting locations. I used Google Earth to identify possible locations, and The Photographers Ephemeris (TPE) to determine if and when the moon would rise within the notch from those locations. But even the maps included in these tools are not high enough in resolution to enable identification of the elevation, latitude and longitude of the features in the notch that are required to have the moon rise on the precise trajectory needed for the shot.

So, on a couple of clear nights in September I went out to the potential shooting locations and shot series of pictures of the stars adjacent to the rock features along the edge of the notch. I then used a program called Stellarium to identify the stars and determine their exact altitude and azimuth at the time of the shot. I created a spreadsheet to crunch the data and do the trigonometry needed to determine the exact location of the critical points in the notch, and their altitude and azimuth from the shooting location. With the target location information in hand I went back to The Photographers Ephemeris and was able to identify, within seconds and feet, when and where we needed to be to catch the moon at the right point in the notch.

The shooting location was in a private pasture adjacent to a private campground. We secured the cooperation of both landowners (though the cows were curious, and less cooperative). We coordinated the timing and positioning with the highliners, who would need to spend the better part of an afternoon climbing and hauling gear up the rocks and stringing the line. Unfortunately, the appointed day arrived completely cloudy, with no chance of clearing up by moon rise. We went ahead with the plans, with the highliners executing their breathtaking traverse while we shot from below, against the clouds. But without the moon, it was anticlimactic.


However, the next opportunity for moonrise in the notch occurred about a month later. We used TPE and the data from the previous survey to give us a new location and timing for the event. This location was less favorable than the original, and required us stand on the front lawn of a store and shoot over a stop sign at the intersection of the two main roads in the area.

The day was cloudy again, but with some promise of breaks in the clouds at sunset. The odds weren’t good enough to justify the effort needed to set up the highlining, but we decided to take a chance it would clear enough for a glimpse of the moon. And as it happened, a gap in the clouds passed behind Rocks just as the moon rose into the lower left edge of the notch, as predicted, and allowed several shots as the moon rose through the notch. The clouds ended up adding to the drama and impact of the scene. And we entertained the travelers approaching the intersection with our celebration of (almost) everything finally coming together!

With a short list of potential times and locations for favorable circumstances over the next few years, we plan on trying for the original silhouette of the highliners for a future shot.

Why this works

This photo generated a large amount of engagement on social media, particularly among the 21,000 members of NANPA’s Facebook Group. I was asked to reflect on why this particular photo seemed to catch people’s eyes and move them to comment or share.

Photos of the moon are always engaging, for both photographers and the general public, especially when combined with a terrestrial foreground. I suspect that a key element is the strong contrasting colors of the moon, sky, and rock walls. Even though this was shot right at sunset, the moon was by far the brightest object in the scene and I had to expose for that. I brought up the tones of the cloudy sky but left the natural blue color, and partially blended a second, longer exposure for the rocks, which were illuminated by the slightly warmer light of the sky to the west. I think the result evokes the drama of a dusky moonrise that has always fascinated humankind.

What drives me

Ever since I was introduced to photography by my father many years ago, I have been fascinated by the ability of the medium to not only record a scene, but provide for unlimited interpretation and expression. I have pursued nature photography, with an emphasis on both close-ups and landscapes, with the goal of highlighting the places, details, nuances and emotional responses that most people don’t have the opportunity to see or experience. This has led me to remote and difficult locations and environments at challenging times and weather conditions, but I have also found fascinating and intriguing subjects in my own back yard. Now retired, I have moved to West Virginia, always one of my favorite venues, where I look forward to continuing to record and interpret the natural beauty of the Mountain State.

See more of Johnston’s work:
On the web:
Facebook: @David.S.Johnston.92/photos_albums