Hidden Gems: The Christmas Angel

Knowing where to be and when to be there is often the key to a special image.  Most of the time the “when” is hard to know in advance.  But one opportunity that occurs like clockwork every year is the phenomenon known as “The Christmas Angel” at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.

At the back of the Cathedral (opposite end from the entrance, known as the apse), high on a wall, there is a row of statues of angels spaced at regular intervals.  The statues are not particularly remarkable because they are in the shadows and one would not normally notice them.  But there is one statue that becomes a major attraction for a few minutes each day in the months of November and December.  A stained glass window high on the opposite wall is perfectly located to allow a shaft of light strike the back wall of the nave at midmorning.

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Photographed at 10:41 AM

The image above shows the light striking the wall to the (photographer’s) left of the statue, which is hardly visible.

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Photographed at 11:21 AM

Thirty minutes later, the light has moved to the right and begins to illuminate the statue.  By 11:20 AM the statue is fully illuminated and will remain that way for about five minutes.

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Close-up photographed at 11:22 AM

After a few minutes the light begins to disappear as the sun moves out of position.  See the image below.

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Photographed at 11:43 AM

By 11:40 AM, the light was essentially gone.

Keep shooting….

Crescent Moon and Jefferson Memorial

Last night was Friday the 13th, and I was hoping to get lucky with the crescent moon as it was going down in the western sky.  Catching a crescent moon at twilight is kind of tricky, because you have several factors to consider.  For example, if you want to capture the rising crescent, you will be shooting at dawn a couple days before the New Moon. If you want a moonset, then it will be at sunset a couple days after the New Moon. Other factors include the location of the moon on the horizon, size of the crescent, and the time of the setting or rising sun.  All of these can be determined with one of the various smartphone or tablet apps such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE).

Most of the factors looked promising for the crescent after sunset on the 13th.  It was two days past the New Moon and, according to TPE, it would be lined up fairly well with the Jefferson Memorial with the Tidal Basin in the foreground.  The size would be a little smaller (<5% illumination) than I would have liked and a bit higher in the sky (9 degrees), but otherwise there seemed to be a lot of potential.  So I headed down to the Tidal Basin to see what would happen.


(Technical Data: Nikon D800E on tripod with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens extended to 125mm. Five separate exposures at varying speeds (0.3 to 0.8 sec) @f/8, ISO 400; Images merged in Photoshop during post processing)

I started shooting about 10 minutes after sunset and stopped about 55 minutes after sunset.  The best results were at about the 35 minute mark, seen above.  Those looking closely will see the three spires of the USAF Memorial on the right side of the image.


Keep Shooting….

Veterans Day 2015

Today is Veterans Day, originally established for commemorating the armistice that ended the hostilities of World War I, which ended the shooting on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.  Originally called “the Great War,” the conflict then became known as “the war to end all wars,” but now is merely called World War I.”  Rather than join the crowds and politicians at Arlington Cemetery, or partake of a free meal for veterans at one of the many chain restaurants, or buy a green LED light at Walmart, I thought I would visit the U.S. Institute of Peace, located at the intersection of Constitution Avenue and 23rd Street NW.

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Twilight, United States Institute of Peace

(Technical Data: Nikon D-800E, on tripod with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, set at 24mm, 10 seconds @f/16, f/16, ISO 400; photographed 25 minutes after sunset)

Those interested in knowing more about the U.S. Institute of Peace can check the organization’s website here.

Keep shooting…(but only with a camera)

Moonrise over Washington, DC

When you are trying for the classic moonrise over the city of Washington, DC, everything has to go perfectly.  Several of us made the effort on October 26th, knowing the weather would be bad on the following night, the night of the full moon.

We also knew before we arrived that conditions would not be perfect because the moon was coming up 15 minutes before sunset and it likely would be too high in the sky by the time the twilight blue was at its peak and the illumination of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and US Capitol were in balance with the ambient light still in the sky.  We also knew that the clouds could pose problems.

But, when we arrived, there was an additional problem.  The Marine Corps Marathon had been held on the previous day and our chosen location (near the Marine Corps Memorial) was also the location of the finish line for the race.  A massive disassembly effort was underway.

Moonrise 01

Unexpected Obstructions, 20 Minutes before Moonrise

Moonrise 02Another Surprise

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Passing Truck, 4 Minutes after Moonrise (not visible yet)

But, aside from the occasional passing vehicle, there was nothing that was directly obstructing the view.   By 6:15, the official time for the sunset, the moon was already pretty high and it was still too bright to see the illumination on any of the buildings below us.

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Clouds obscuring the moon at Sunset (6:15 PM)

At 6:30, the twilight was a nice blue color, the clouds had abated, but the moon was too high.

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Ideal Twilight, 15 Minutes after Sunset (6:30 PM)

So the only solution was to back off the focal length, and take the full scene and then do some post processing cheating.  The image above was taken with the telephoto zoom extended to 200 mm and the moon in its actuual location at the time.  The image below, taken a few seconds later with a 145 mm focal length, shows the moon in a decent location.  But it was just “moved” down during the postproceesing from where it was at the time the image was taken.  Not a bad result, but not something I will post on my website or offer for sale.

Oct 26 Moon

“Manufactured” Moonrise over Washington

Lessons Learned:

  1. If one wants to capture an image of the moon rising over the “Big Three” (Lincoln, Washington, and US Capitol), the specific location is right in front of the Netherlands Carillon a short distance south of the Iwo Jima Memorial.
  2. Using the well-known app “The Photographer’s Ephemeris,” the moon should be rising at an Azimuth reading of about 85 degrees.
  3. For ideal twilight conditions along with the lighting of the “Big Three,” the moonrise time should be about 15 minutes after sunset.

Keep Shooting….

Iceland Part 4 (Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!)

It’s been a busy time since the eclipse on 27 September, primarily because I am running around trying to get ready for my Open Studio Event in 7 days. But that is a subject for another post.  Today, it’s time to bring out some more images from Iceland.

Readers may have noticed that Icelandic place names tend to be extremely complicated and hard to pronounce.  But there is at least one exception, the small town of Vik located on the south coast.  Perhaps the most notable feature here is its black sand beach, characteristic of a country populated by active volcanoes.  Not far away are the cliffs of DyrhÓlaey where we spent the good part of the afternoon.  One doesn’t have to walk far from the parking lot to get a good view.

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Cliffs of DyrhÓlaey

The classic vista here, however, is from a promontory that looks back toward the cliffs.  It is only about a 10 minute walk from the location shown above.  This is a perfect example of how the scenery can radically change in a very short distance.

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View from the Promontory, Looking West

And after a 20-second stroll to the opposite edge of the promontory one is treated to this view.

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View from the Promontory, Looking East

That evening, the group visited the Reynisfjara Beach, best known for its sea stacks.  One thing to remember about photographing on a beach close to the water is the need to pay close attention to the waves.  I have always observed that precaution, except for approximately 3 seconds on that evening when I turned to respond to a question from another member of the group. In that brief moment an unusually large wave pounded ashore with surprising speed and water was suddenly rushing past me above my knees. I turned to rescue my camera and tripod but it was too late.  My camera was down, I followed, and I saw another member of our group being dragged into the ocean while he desperately held his camera and tripod above the water surging around him. One of the tour leaders reacted quickly and grabbed that camera before the water claimed it.  With his hands free, the downed member was able to get back up about the same time I did.  I retrieved my camera but it was ruined, as was the lens.  The photographs on the card, however, were unharmed.  The image below was taken just a few minutes before this happened.

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Fortunately, I had a back-up camera body and lens and managed to capture the sunset about 40 minutes later.

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Sunset, Reynisfjara Beach

Keep Shooting (but watch those waves)…….

Lunar Eclipse: Not!

September 27, 2015 was the last chance to see a total lunar eclipse in the eastern United States until 2019 according to the cognoscenti.  So even though the skies had been overcast for several contiguous days I didn’t want to wake up this morning and learn that there was a miraculous parting of the clouds for the entire event.

I had a place all picked out for the moonrise, but the clouds close to the horizon blocked the view.  But the next time moon rises at about 90 degrees east (due east), this wouldn’t be a bad place to be. Without the clouds, it would have been right next to the base of the Washington Monument.

WW II Memorial 01

Then, as the time approached for the actual eclipse to begin, I moved over to my chosen location near the German-American Friendship Garden along Constitution Avenue.  The location itself looked like it had potential for a night shot, so I tried a test exposure with my wide angle lens.

Washington Monument 01

But the eclipse was due and the clouds seemed to be breaking up so I set up a few yards away with the hope of getting a series of exposures as the moon tracked across the sky into the earth’s shadow.  These would then be combined into a single image in post-processing.  This, of course, requires a wide angle lens and, because of the timing, a tall building to add some interest to the exposure and the Washington Monument certainly qualifies.  But the skies didn’t really clear and I suspect the substantial amount of clouds in each image will make for a prolonged post-processing effort that may lead nowhere.  However, here is a cropped version of one of the images during the totality phase.

Lunar Eclipse 01 (lighter)

Imagine, if you will, a wider (uncropped) image with a sequence of moons in various stages of the eclipse crossing over the top. My first attempt at this, last year, can be seen here with the Lincoln Memorial

Keep Shooting…..

Iceland: Part 3

Iceland is a land shaped by fire, ice, and water.   It sits astride two major tectonic plates which are being gradually forced apart by the pressure of molten rock deep within the earth.  At the surface glaciers inexorably move through the mountains, slowly carving new landscape formations.  The melting ice from the warming climate and heavy rainfall in the mountains generates innumerable waterfalls, some tumbling over cliffs 200 feet and higher.

As a result, there are spectacular opportunities for the landscape photographer when weather conditions cooperate.  During our time in Iceland, we were treated to a few special moments but more often found ourselves in fairly challenging conditions.  But the challenges are part of what motivates us to take our cameras outdoors whenever we can.  Because sooner or later persistence will be rewarded with a magical ephemeral moment.  A moment you never forget.

One of the favorite spots for photographers in Iceland is the small blue glacial waterfall called Brúarfoss. Although well known to visitors, it can be extremely hard to find.  Fortunately, we were on a photo workshop led by Ian Plant, ably assisted by Alex Mody, and Ian unerringly directed our driver through a maze of unsigned dirt roads to a trail head.  After a short hike we were there and it was immediately obvious why everyone wants to see it, even in poor weather conditions.

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Brúarfoss from the Pedestrian Bridge (wide angle photomerge)

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Brúarfoss, from the Shallows (wide angle photomerge)

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Brúarfoss, from the Pedestrian Bridge (telephoto photomerge)

The next day we arrived at Gullfoss (Golden Falls, located in the canyon of the Hvítá River) for a sunrise shoot, but my efforts to capture the grandeur of the monster cataract were mostly unsatisfactory.  However, a few attempts were OK and are shown below.

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Early Morning at Gullfoss, View to the West

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Workshop Participants, Gullfoss

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Brief (5 seconds) Rainbow, Gullfoss

At midday, we got a break in the weather just as we arrived at Seljalandsfoss, located close to the Ring Road (Route 1).

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Seljalandsfoss at Midday

Seljalandsfoss is a waterfall approximately 200 feet high.  It has a cavern to the sides and rear that allow people to walk behind the falls.  This image is a side view from within the cavern.

To be continued…….