Moonrise Over the San Rafael Swell
I had been shooting a job for a corporate client at the astounding Aria Hotel in Las Vegas Three long, intense days. I finished at noon, checked out, got my car and headed north on I-15 back home to Colorado.
My goal was that, hopefully, I might just catch the amazing geology of Utahs San Rafael Swell around sunset, some six and a half hours away. Getting closer and going increasingly faster, it became evident that I would miss the sunset itself. But what I found upon pulling into the rest stop overlooking the swell was something even better.
The full moon had risen behind this amazing geological formation and light from the already descended sun was still illuminating the red rocks with a soft, warm glow.
Quickly setting up the tripod, with my new Nikon D800, I established the exposure, making sure to ETTR, Expose To The Right, to gather as much information as possible, and then shot a series to stitch into a panorama. As the light rapidly faded I got the idea to focus more on the center of the formation and do a few thirty second exposures to capture the headlights and taillights of the trucks and cars navigating the elegant curves of I-70 as it descended into the formation and beyond.
After importing the images into Lightroom 4, I realized I needed a shot of the moon, because it would be completely blown out, and that I should have thought about building up some multiple exposures of the headlights in the center frame for the pano. I had them in the other shots though.
After balancing the three exposures in Lightroom, I exported them to Photoshop CS5 to merge as a panorama. I then processed the pano in LR. Because of the ETTR, I had to reduce the exposure, highlights, shadow and blacks, bumping up the contrast, whites, clarity and vibrance. I also adjusted the distort slider, bringing closer the center of the formation and correcting for the wide-angle distortion.
I used the luminance tool to darken the sky but this left me with two problems; the center third of the sky now had a darker, semi-circular section and a 3-4 pixel white fringe appeared across the entire intersection between the formation and the sky.
I exported the processed pano into Niks Viveza 2 knowing I could correct the darkened semi-circle and then balance the rest of the sky to it. I also applied a number of control points to tone up and down various sections of the image just like dodging and burning in the darkroom. I was able to give a better impression of the fading, warm light I saw touching various sections of the formation.
The moon and clouds were simply to tiny, so in PS, I lassoed around them with a big feather and using transform, cmd-t, I pressed the shift key to maintain the ratio and enlarged the moon and cloud slightly but not so much as to appear fake.
The following night at my cabin in Western Colorado, I shot the ever-so-slightly-past full moon. After importing and processing in LR, I took it into PS, copying and pasting it into the pano. Now the challenge was to make it appear natural in the clouds. I had to transform its size and then warp it a bit to regain its circular, full-moon appearance. Reducing the opacity helped blend it better into the clouds but it still looked fake so using the color picker, I selected the color of the clouds and painted over the moon at a low opacity.
This warmed up the moon but it lost to much definition which was solved by using the burn tool to darken the basins of the moon. The edge of the moon was still to defined. This was solved with the eraser tool at low opacity erasing the edge of the moon.
Now the work began. I took the pano and the two headlight images into PS. I lassoed the two interstates, copying and pasting them into the pano as new layers. Of course they didnt match up. All three images were shot at different focal lengths and the headlight images were not only bigger but the angles were off in each.
I set about to transform them, cmd-t, but then had to go to warp to push and prod each of them into conforming to the interstate in the pano.
Now the tedious work of erasing around the lights with the eraser tool in PS. I even had to erase between them so the lights of all three images showed. This is where my Intuos 4 was indispensable in this time consuming task.
The lights were a bit dull. Using the dodge tool on highlights brought the lights up to a more pleasing level.
Somewhere between using the luminance tool and Viveza to bring down the sky caused some artifacting in the sky. Adding a gaussian blur layer with a 3 pixel blur solved this. I added a black layer mask and painted the blur into the sky eliminating the artifacts.
Now for the final problem, the 3-4 pixel white fringe. Talk about tedious. First, hoping to avoid the clone stamp tool, I thought that maybe burning it down with the burn tool would solve it, but it was still there, just a bit darker. Though not as evident, it was still annoying at even 50% magnification.
Relenting, and using the clone tool at a very soft 8 pixels, I began the exceedingly tedious task of cloning along the entire edge of the formation. After two sessions of cloning--my hand hurt from holding the pen and my vision was doing weird things-- I succeeded in losing the fringe.
Finally, I had an image that captured the power and beauty of this ancient landscape and the feelings of watching the full moon rise over one of the wonders of the Western United States.
What was your vision for your finished image?
I want to convey the feelings of grandeur, beauty and power contained within this small slice of the western landscape. As well, the juxtaposition of the formidable, ancient geology with modern technology makes twin statements about the power of man over nature and the apparent insignificance of our footprint within the vast expanses of the American West. An argument could also be made about how mans aesthetic sense can, when applied through the filter of necessity, actually enhance the natural landscape.
I thought that perhaps this should be entered as a composite but to me, a composite is a construct of the imagination. The elements used were all natural to the scene and were only utilized to convey this natural landscape as I saw and experienced it.