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Moonrise Over Cholla Cactus Gardens, Joshua Tree National Park, California Sony a7RIV, Sony 24-105mm, f/16, 3.2 seconds, ISO 100, Singh-Ray Neutral Polarizer, Singh-Ray 2-Stop Hard-Edge Graduated Neutral Density Filter

Successful landscape photography for me requires three variables working in harmony: Planning, Scouting and Execution.

It’s rare that I can just “show up” and hope for the best, but at times I do.

This image was captured yesterday evening at dusk in Joshua Tree National Park. Beri and I had planned in advance to come down this week as I knew we were in the full moon cycle; however, the Governor’s lock-down of the State meant hotels were open to essential personnel only. Yeah – landscape photographers didn’t qualify as essential…

Then, out-of-the blue Monday morning, the Stay-at-Home orders were lifted, and the hotels reopened. I had spent the previous week researching the Park as this was to be our first visit. With a hotel room secured (campgrounds were closed also), we bee-lined down 101 to LA then headed east. Both Tehachapi Pass and the Grapevine (shorter routes) were closed.

We made it in time for sunset then came across this amazing area known as the Cholla Cactus Gardens. The type of Cholla (pronounced Choy-ya) growing here is termed “Teddy Bear Cactus.” I assume because it looks warm and fuzzy. But this character is anything but and let’s just say, be very careful when working around it as it is easy to be ensnared with parts of it that attach like tiny fishhooks to skin and clothing.

PLANNING

I was able to start planning for this image before leaving by just doing a simple Google Search. Combined with Google Maps, I was able to get a good idea of the terrain and how it lies between two mountain ranges.

Next step before leaving was to calculate the best night to see the full moon above the mountain range to the east (Pinto Mountain). The Photographer’s Ephemeris is my go-to program for plotting moon shoots as it allows me to factor in elevation gains (and drops) from my shooting location.

The software told me that indeed, Wednesday evening would be the best time.

SCOUTING

With the pre-planning finished, it’s time to get actual eyes on the location the evening before the shoot. This allowed me a visual of just where the moon would rise so I could fine-tune my location to place the foreground of Cactus.

As a bonus, the temps were near freezing at sunset. Experience has taught me that cold temps allow for a more vivid Twilight Wedge. These wedges are created due to light scatter when the sun is just below the horizon and continuing to sink lower. All other colors in the visible light spectrum are filtered-out and the warm light rays bend up and over the horizon. The elevation where I was shooting was 3200 feet.

If one is lucky enough, and I was on this evening, you will also be able to see the Earth’s shadow build in under the wedge – this is always a treat to witness!

EXECUTION

While awaiting this gorgeous light, I moved around looking for some lush Cactus to place as my foreground element. I then calculated my hyperfocal focusing distance with a few tests and it was go-time!

This was one of the last frames of the shoot before the warm light started to fade – and it did rapidly. I used a Singh-Ray 2-Stop GND to allow for extra exposure on the Cholla and to hold back the exposure on the moon and sky.

DON’T FORGET TO CONSTANTLY MONITOR WEATHER CONDITIONS

As I first mentioned: Planning, Scouting and Execution are the three keys. But we have to also have that fourth element present and that is having the Weather Conditions cooperate. The Cholla Gardens are located in the Central part of the Park and there was a distinct cloud cover just to the north of me, so in essence, I had some luck – a photographer’s best friend!

I hope that by walking you through the steps it took to create this image I have helped. You can do this – it’s not hard – and when it all works out, it is such a gratifying feeling.

Keep creating everyone and keep chasing that light!

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