The Sun, The Moon, and the Mittens

Finally home after teaching photography workshops for most of March in Southern Colorado I was looking forward to some down time.  Rest, catching up on things, and playing with the vizslas.  Ahh…it felt great to be back at home in Santa Fe.

Now I had time to plan my next photography adventures.  The transition seasons, Spring and Fall, always offer dramatic light to a photographer or artist.  Looking over my notes I noticed the shadow of West Mitten Butte would fall on East Mitten in Monument Valley, Utah the next day.  At first I opted to let this opportunity pass.  I was tired of being on the road, and had already photographed this “Shadow Handshake” between the Mitten Buttes two years earlier. Then I realized the moon would also be aligned with the shadow.  That was a rare moment that I wanted to see and photograph!

Right away I started doing geometric calculations to assess how the moonrise would align with the buttes at the time the shadow occurred.  It was looking promising.

Normally I photograph alone.  I like to follow my own pace and concentrate on being in the right place at the right time.  I find it hard to do this with others along.  To devote 100% of my focus to photography when friends come along feels selfish.  It is also hard to be in sync with another photographer.  Every photographer has a different style and moves at a different pace.  Levels of patience and interests vary across individuals.  Sometimes, however, I do enjoy the company of another photographer, especially when were are compatible in our approach to creating photographs.

On a whim I called my friend Stephen Lefkovits and asked him to join me in photographing this rare event. This was quite a proposition as Steve is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.  We had to be in Monument Valley the next day for sunset.  Steve rose to the occasion by hiring a charter aircraft to fly from Santa Barbara, California to Monument Valley. I would drive 6 hours from Santa Fe, New Mexico and meet him at a remote airstrip.  The weather forecast was for clear skies.  We decided to go for it!

The shadow of West Mitten Butte on East Mitten Butte aligned with the moonrise.  Monument Valley, Utah.

I drove across the Jemez Mountains and then the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, eventually crossing though Arizona and into Utah. I kept an eye on the skies.  Some wispy cirrus clouds began to form.  Some clouds, just enough to spice up the sunset skies, were welcome. A cloud layer could ruin if for us though.  The risk was that a thin cloud layer on the eastern horizon could block the moon.

Steve’s plane was rerouted from Monument Valley, Utah to Kayenta, Arizona due to winds.  I arrived at the Kayenta airstrip early.  As I waited for the sound of the charter plane I got some exercise after driving non-stop for 6 hours.  The small prop airplane landed softly in the red rock desert.  Together we drove to Monument Valley and discussed our photography plans, double-checking the angles and times of the Sun, Moon, and the Mitten Buttes.

The sky started to cloud up. I was getting nervous that the photograph we were after might escape us due to clouds.

About 10 minutes before prime time we were shocked to see the moon rising next to East Mitten Butte.   The shadow had not started to form yet.  We ran through the deep and soft sand to get in the right position.  The shadow started to appear on East Mitten Butte.  Meanwhile the moon was going in and out of thin cloud layers.  Clouds on western horizon concerned me.

I was starting to get a queasy feeling that our efforts and journey might end up being a “dud”.  The excitement was high as we ran fast to get shots of the moon situated in between the thumb of East Mitten Butte while keeping an eye on shadow.  I remember at one point running full speed uphill in deep sand holding two tripods and sensitive photography equipment while wearing a full sized pack full of lenses.  I was exhausted, however glad I put in the extra effort!

As the moon roses in elevation it also sweeps out a southward arc in azimuth.  We kept moving to keep in sync with it.  We jogged back and forth between the tripods while fine tuning the composition and firing the shutters of the cameras. We had to think quickly at this point, the shadow was starting to fade due to the clouds on the western horizon.

Looking west we could see things would get worst in this regard.  To the east the moon was shining brightly over East Mitten Butte against a deep blue sky.  At this point we devoted our photography to capturing the moon as the shadow was fading fast.

There was no time for talking.  I knew though that Steve was in just as much awe as I was watching the Sun, Moon, and the Mittens in the last light of the day.


East Mitten Butte and the Blue Moon.  For a sense of scale Steve can barely be seen standing centered below the butte.  Monument Valley, Utah.

Steve had opted to get closer to East Mitten Butte and I chose to traverse to the north to capture some images of the moon in the slot formed by the thumb and the fingers of the mitten.  We were now separated by a few hundred yards.  The shadow eventually faded out and the moon climbed high in the sky as sunset morphed into the blue hour.

As I watched blue twilight engulf the scene in front of me I had a hunch to look behind me, to the west, where the sun had set.  A good rule of thumb is that when you are watching an incredible sunrise or sunset, turn around and look the opposite way.  Frequently you will also find interesting light in that opposite direction.  This was true this time.  For there I saw the profile of a Great Horned Owl perched on a small desert plant looking at the view to the east.  Together we watched in silence as the moon rose into the deep blue sky above the giant red mittens towering above the desert floor.

A Great Horned Owl was silently watching the alignment show behind me when I was photographing.

We took a big gamble, especially Steve, by traveling so far to photograph this one event. It worked out very well for us.  We were able to photograph the shadow of West Mitten on East Mitten with the moon aligned over the top of East Mitten.  That alignment is rare.  A “back of the envelope” calculation on just how rare this alignment is follows.

The shadow occurs two days per year, with odds of 2 / 365 and the odds of a full moon lining up over East Mitten is once per month (1 /30).  The probability of both occurring at the same time is (2/365) multiplied by ( 1/30).  This equates to 0.0002 (2 days out of every 10,000 days or once every 13.7 years on average).  So, about once every 14 years on average.

The moonlight scatters easily by the thinnest layer of clouds.  Here the moon has risen above the elevation of the Mitten Buttes in the “Blue Hour” of twilight.  The Mitten Buttes can be seen on the left, Merrick Butte is on the right.

It is exciting to venture out on these photography challenges.  Traveling fast and far trying to see a special alignment.  The risk of being “skunked” is always present, especially when clouds enter the equation.  I was happy it worked out so well for us all.

The next morning we ventured out before sunrise hoping to photograph the moonset.  Clouds diffused the moonset, however the pre-dawn sky to the east was lit up with the most amazing layers of color.

We took this as a perfect grand finale to our photographic journey.

Pre-dawn light over Monument Valley, Utah.

Take risks. If you win, you will be happy. If you lose, you will be wise.

— Anonymous

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