It’s just after sunset on a clear evening in May in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. Day gives way to twilight, turning the sandstone and red rock vistas a purplish blue–sweet light. We’re pulled over on the side of the road not far from the park entrance, with moonrise minutes away.
It’s a full moon, so sunset and moonrise are only about 20 minutes apart. Photojournalist Kevin Gilbert taps madly at his phone, trying to refresh an app (LightTrac) that uses GPS to pinpoint the moon’s location. But we’re in the middle of the desert, and he can’t get a cell signal. Gilbert stops tapping. “I’m just going to follow my instincts… I think it’ll come up over there.” He points toward the La Sal Mountains. Like a shot, five of us standing around our rental SUV fan out, scouting the perfect spot to set up our tripods. We have become Moon Hunters, and our night in the desert has just begun.
Over the previous 48 hours, 10 of us have been trekking through well and lesser-known spots in and around Moab, shooting the wild, vast beauty of the desert. Our group includes two long-time professional photographers, several serious amateurs and a couple of beginner enthusiasts like me.
Along the way, we’ve captured sunrise at Mesa Arch and sunset at Delicate Arch. In between, we shoot more famous rock: The Windows, Double Arch and Park Avenue. One morning, we photograph a couple of mountain bikers in action at Slickrock Trail, one of the most popular (and challenging) mountain-biking spots in the world. The sandstone looks shiny, but unless wet, it’s not really slick. We scramble over the petrified sand dunes and shoot the bikers as they head down slopes, and even more impressively, crank back uphill again and again.
But on this night, our last in Moab, we’re anxious to shoot the moonrise and the full moon in all its glory, and to capture the stars and do some light painting. Our group is split between two SUVs. I’m with Gilbert and four others in one vehicle, pro photographer Nick Didlick the other group are chasing the moon in another part of the park. As I’ll soon learn, shooting the moon and the stars under a full moon are challenging for even the most experienced photographer.
While we’re standing around waiting for the moon to reveal itself, a thunderous rumble echoes through the canyons. Dozens of motorcyclists stream past us, revving their engines as they head into the park. Somehow, it seems a fitting, if loud, opening act for the show we’re about to see.
Soon we see the glowing crown of the moon edge up over the mountains. Our group is scattered at various points within about a half-mile radius, and I hear a couple of faint whoops once our group spots the moonglow. The moon is huge, spectacular and humbling. For a minute I forget to press my shutter release—I just stand there, gawking. I quickly recover by taking dozens of mostly artless shots of the moon rising. The moon is very bright, and hard to expose correctly. “The moon is a sun-lit object, expose accordingly,” I tell myself as I struggle to find the right exposure on my new camera. Just like that, the moon is up and over the mountains. Our group shoots until the moon is well up in the sky.
“Shooting the full moon can be tricky. You have to remember that it’s just reflected sunlight and can be very bright,” says Didlick. “Trying to capture stars under a full moon can be even trickier, because the moon lights up the night sky masking all but the brightest stars from view. (See Didlick’s tips about how to shoot under a full moon).
After shooting the moonrise, we’re all a bit lunar-crazed and giddy. Part of the loopiness may be due to the fact that we’ve been up at 4 a.m. and out shooting until 10 p.m. for a couple of days. We meet up with Didlick and the others from our trip at the Park Avenue trailhead. It’s dark now, but to borrow a line from a country song: “the moon is as bright as a reading light.” A few of us try shooting rock formations against the starry night sky using long exposures. After several failed attempts, I finally get a couple of shots that aren’t blurry. Gilbert is shooting shadow portraits and group shots—the shadows are crazy long—like it’s daylight. I hear giggling as another photographer in our group, James, tries light painting, using his headlamp to illuminate a rock formation. Others in the group are using flashlights to create light painting portraits of each other. After awhile, Gilbert has us gather for a group photo near the trailhead overlook. He sets a 30-second exposure, telling us to hold still. A near-eternity passes as we try to stop jostling, talking and laughing long enough to get the shot. We shoot it once, then again. “Stop moving!” Gilbert tells us. Of course, in the resulting shot, a few of us are motion-blurred. But you can clearly see the moonlight on our faces, the stars above us and the magic of the desert night all around.