Author: Bill Snead

A picture is worth: Baldwin’s Supermoon

On January 31st, 2018 we experienced a “Blue Moon” – the second of two full moons in one calendar month – that was also at a super-close apogee making it appear really large (supermoon), which also happened to be passing through the Earth’s umbra at Moonrise giving it a ruddy glow (bloodmoon). This “Super-Blue-Blood Moon” event was too good to pass up, but what to do with it? I had a couple of photos in mind, one of which entailed capturing this “Super-Blue-Blood Moon” over Duke somehow. But how?

I eventually made two photos that day – one of the Moonset early in the morning out at the Outer Banks, and another that evening of the subsequent Moonrise over Duke. Here’s how I did it.

Using an app called PhotoPills (, I was able to determine just where and when each moonrise and moonset would be relative to locations I wanted to photograph with it in. The moon, like the sun, rises in the east and sets in the west, but unlike the sun, the moon can rise and set at various times of the day through the seasons. On this day, the “Super-Blue-Blood Moon” would set early that morning, and rise again that evening. This gave me two chances to photograph it against the horizon, which is where I’d need it for the images I had planned. The idea? To get a familiar object small enough to fit near or inside the moon itself, like this example from Photopills:

This isn’t a post-production or photoshop trick. It’s merely one of perspective. Since the moon is approximately 225,000 miles away, you can’t really effectively change your distance from it in any meaningful way visually. But, you can effectively and easily change your distance from earth-bound objects. And objects far away tend to appear smaller to us versus objects that are closer. So, if the moon stays effectively the same size no matter what, but you get far enough away from something to make it appear smaller, say a mile or two, and place it against the moonscape, then the moon effectively appears very, very large. That’s the basic technique.

I initially wanted to get Duke Chapel in or against the moon somehow, but the Chapel actually sits in a depression lower than its surrounding area and I was unable to find a location East of (for moonset) or West of (for moonrise) the Chapel that would let me photograph it against the horizon. But, I discovered in my experimentation, that from the perspective of the Chapel Tower, the “Super-Blue-Blood Moon” would be rising very near to Baldwin Auditorium on east Campus. But Baldwin is much bigger than a person, so to have it “fit” inside the circumference of the moon would necessitate me being many miles away. As it is, Baldwin is only about 2 miles from the Chapel as the crow flies, so this would just have to be a “be there and see how it goes” kinda thing.

With the height, angle and time set for my attempt to capture moonrise over Baldwin, I worked on my calculations for moonset due earlier that morning. North Carolina is thankfully still a state with very many trees. While this is great from a conservation perspective, its less so if you’re trying to get a clear shot of the moon AND an object together on the horizon from very far away. You either have to get very high (chapel tower) or look for a very wide open area. One of the largest areas with an open westerly view that I could think of was our very own Outer Banks, so a friend and I headed out to Jockey’s Ridge the night before to scout and setup my second idea, which ended up being the first photo that day as the Super-Blue-Blood Moon set just before sunrise. Since we were in the vicinity of Kitty Hawk, I wanted to capture her flying a kite against the supermoon. But it was barely in the teens out on the dunes, so we’re both quite bundled up, so the scene is a bit of a non-sequitur (women all bundled up, flying a kite against a full-moon? What’s that about?), but it was a fun and challenging experiment, and that’s half the point. I was about a half-mile away from her position – here’s the photo we captured:

Super-Blue-Blood Moon at Jockey’s Ridge. 420mm, 200iso, f/4, 1/8 sec

Super-Blue-Blood Moon at Jockey’s Ridge. 420mm, 200iso, f/4, 1/8 sec

After we warmed up over a nice OBX breakfast, I headed back onto campus in time for the evening photo of the same super-moon rising over East campus after sunset almost 12 hours later. Joni Harris, program Director at the Chapel, was nice enough to arrange access for us as she joined me on the climb up the 10,000 239 steps up to the Chapel Tower. Toting my camera, tripod, and longest lens up those stairs, I’m glad I use Micro-four thirds gear, as its size and weight is a fraction of full-frame gear. After setting up and framing Baldwin in my sights, it wasn’t long before the moon made its appearance and I got my photo:

Super-Blue-Blood Moon rising over Baldwin Auditorium. 420mm, 200iso, f/5.6, 1/5 sec

Super-Blue-Blood Moon rising over Baldwin Auditorium. 420mm, 200iso, f/5.6, 1/5 sec

Neither photo is perfect: atmospheric haze and too-slow shutter speeds prevent them from being as tack sharp as I would have liked. To do them over again, I would use a higher iso and faster shutter speeds. There are also now even longer focal length lenses available for my system, so I’d likely rent one of those for even better magnification. Still, for a first time experiment, I’m happy with these for what they are. And, post-production/photoshop work is minimal other than cropping, and I did remove one distracting twig in the sand of the OBX photo.

I hope this gives you a sense of what can go into the making of a photo, and that it might inspire you to get out and make some of your own.

A picture’s worth: Duke’s South Clinic and North Hospital

Last spring, I set out to capture the “busy-ness” of activity around some of Duke’s Health facilities. I was also looking for a way to connect the health system with the University, and so I was looking for viewpoints that would show some of both Medical and University campuses.

My goal was to tell a story of University/Medical connections, locate the photos as being of Duke, hint at the role of technology and expansion of capabilities, and portray the hive of human activity and care the Medical campus can be. All in one photo.

In scouting locations and times of day for this project, I considered a daytime timelapse portraying the human foot traffic in and out of Duke North and South Clinic. But I did not think daytime lighting would be dynamic enough for what I wanted to portray. No, this would be a nighttime photo, but from where?

I’ve always been intrigued with the aerial perspective, as it unmoors us from the usual convention of seeing things from head-height, but a drone flight after civil-twilight was out of the question at this time. Luckily, both South Clinic and Duke North Hospital have parking decks located nearby.

To show an idea of activity and busyness, I decided I would need a long exposure – to capture accumulating light trails of vehicle traffic. This would necessitate the use of a tripod, a remote release (however softly, the action of manually pressing a shutter release will introduce enough vibration to prevent the photo from being as sharp as it could be), and a lot of patience waiting for the right conditions as the temperatures dipped after sunset.

Duke North Hospital

Duke North Hospital

For this photo of Duke North Hospital, I chose a vantage point atop the Duke Hospital parking garage across Erwin Rd from the Hospital (always alert the proper authorities when you’re going to be skulking around on rooftops with tripods – just sayin’). I had to choose a moment when the fading light of the twilight sky would allow the lights from the hospital and traffic to show up distinctly, yet still show an illuminated sky not in complete blackness (while a black sky can be dramatic, in the city it is rarely so, and usually lit up by the green-orange glow of sodium vapor lamps and not what I was wanting here). What I was after was a blue sky, to contrast against the warmer colors of incandescent lighting I was hoping to capture.

To keep the fading twilight of the sky, and yet capture the light trails of many vehicles going by, I would need a very long exposure – many minutes, not just seconds, long. The problem with very long exposures in digital photography is that the sensors get very warm and generate a lot of “noise”, sometimes to the point of rendering the image unusable. Fortunately, the camera system I use allows for a feature they call “Live Composite”, which allows for combining many short exposures (say, just 0.5, 1, or 2 seconds long) into one long minutes or hours long exposure. Without getting into too much nitty gritty details, this blend of optical and computational photography can provide the ISO and noise results from a much shorter exposure, but “stacks” or “adds” these together over a much longer exposure time. In the case of the Duke North photo, my initial exposure was half a second for the main exposure, but accumulated any new objects (such as new approaching vehicles) onto the base image over a 6 minute time span, producing the results of a 6-minute long exposure but with the noise and exposure of a half-second exposure. As both darkness and temperatures began to fall, I headed over to the Duke Medicine Circle garage for a go at the South Clinic:

Duke South Clinic

Duke South Clinic

While not as dramatic as the North Hospital results, I was eventually able to find a viewpoint to show parts of the clinic, the main walkway, some construction cranes and of course, our iconic Duke Chapel in the distance. I became intrigued by the bus stop activity, and set out to try to capture that in some way.

After some captures of single busses at each stop, I changed settings to allow for an even longer overall exposure (8 minutes I think), and managed to capture a bus at each stop, which I thought was a much more satisfactory photo. As it is, it’s the same bus – stopping just long enough at each stop to register in the exposure. I really liked this two-bus composition better than any of the other shots I made from this location, but there were only a few other cars that had driven through the frame and I just didn’t have as many light trails as I wanted. And I could see from my rooftop vantage point, that there wasn’t much more traffic coming soon. So, I hopped into my car, hurried down the garage ramps and drove back and forth several times to add my own light trails. As it happened, several other vehicles did drive by about the same time, giving me the diversity I needed to pull it all together. I’m not really happy about the dead space near the lower third of the photo, but c’est la vie.

The nice thing though, essential really, in creating long-exposure work like this is the ability for digital cameras to show you the photo as it “develops” on the back of the camera. In the old days, it would be an educated guess as to what results you’d get (or not get). In this case, I could “see” that I had the busses where I wanted, but not enough light trails, so I could paint the light as I went along in real time. In another example, I was at first using a much “wider” aperture to benefit the exposure. But the artificial lights just didn’t “pop”, so I stopped down to a smaller aperture, which often has the effect of creating the little “star-bursts” that you can see around the specular highlights, which I could preview in real time, choosing the aperture that gave me the desired results.

By the way, both of these photos are, as they say, “Out of Camera”. No elements were added or removed in post-production.

I hope this gives you a sense of what can go into the making of a photo, and that it might inspire you to get out at night and make some of your own.

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