The making of: ‘Selenehelion’ and ‘Pendle mist’

This pair of images are most notable, to me at least, for being radically different in colour, yet taken from precisely the same place within minutes of each other, albeit in different directions. They also amuse me in retrospect since neither includes the primary object I intended to capture when I started walking up to White Scar on the morning of the winter solstice; namely, the eclipsed Moon.

After considerable effort in generating self-motivation on the previous day, I managed to get up at some hour which should have been the end of a very late night, not an early morning, and walked over rough moorland and scrub grass for getting on for an hour to reach the prominent tree on White Scar, only to find that I had walked too quickly, or at least that I’d given myself too much contingency. As a result, I was up on the limestone pavement for ninety minutes in total, which would have been fine had the temperature not been approaching minus 20C that morning. I’m used to low temperatures, but standing around doing nothing but fiddle with camera equipment is not the optimal way of keeping warm and I certainly did get very cold before I headed back down again.

I should perhaps describe why I was there on that obviously inhospitable morning. I had gone up to photograph the selenehelion, thinking that the tree would make a good foreground for the hills of the Lake District. Wikipedia defines a selenehelion as follows:

A selenelion or selenehelion occurs when both the Sun and the eclipsed Moon can be observed at the same time. This can only happen just before sunset or just after sunrise, and both bodies will appear just above the horizon at nearly opposite points in the sky. This arrangement has led to the phenomenon being referred to as a horizontal eclipse. It happens during every lunar eclipse at all those places on the Earth where it is sunrise or sunset at the time. Indeed, the reddened light that reaches the Moon comes from all the simultaneous sunrises and sunsets on the Earth. Although the Moon is in the Earth’s geometrical shadow, the Sun and the eclipsed Moon can appear in the sky at the same time because the refraction of light through the Earth’s atmosphere causes objects near the horizon to appear higher in the sky than their true geometric position.

To summarise its relevance to making an image: it’s a specialised lunar eclipse during which the Moon should be an interesting colour, and there should briefly be sunlight reaching the ground whilst the Moon is still both visible above the horizon and discoloured. To me, it sounded like a good opportunity for a White Scar photograph with a difference.

All of those things were accurate, with the exception of the ‘Moon is still visible‘ aspect. Oops. I’d used the remarkably useful (and free!) piece of software called The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) to determine where the Moon would be when it set, where the Sun would be at the same time, and hence exactly where and when to stand on the White Scar pavement. What I had not done was check with sufficient thoroughness as to the relative height of the Lakeland hills – something which would have been very simple to do with TPE – I’d just assumed that the scar would be high enough. As it turned out, I had an excellent view of the Moon becoming progressively more eclipsed as I approached my chosen area, only to watch it disappear behind the very distant hills just before the Sun came up. Somewhat irritating!

Nonetheless, the whole ‘gathering light from all the simultaneous sunrises and sunsets on the earth‘ aspect worked very well indeed, so much so that the colours in the RAW files I captured needed to be desaturated to complete the two images; not doing so just looked ridiculous and false.

'Selenehelion'

The pink image, the one I’ve called ‘Selenehelion’, is looking towards the Lakes; it’s the image I’d planned, though with a singular lack of the Moon of course. I’d been hoping to get far enough from the tree to make the hills larger, but backing off further than I did meant that the hills themselves started to disappear over the horizon as the ground I was standing on dropped away. The resulting image is a compromised version of the composition I was aiming for: it trades off making the hills as large as I could in favour of aligning them against the tree.

'Pendle mist'

The orange image, ‘Pendle mist’, was an unanticipated bonus! The extreme cold that morning meant that the air was very clear and distant Pendle Hill was remarkably prominent on the southern horizon. It also had a thin, low layer of mist surrounding it. I occupied myself and tried to keep warm as I waited for the few minutes of the actual selenehelion by rotating the camera away from my composed shot of the hawthorn tree and making a series of captures of this famous, Lancashire feature. I deliberately blurred the foreground slightly as I was expecting an ethereal ‘hill floating on mist’ shot. As this turned out, it’s not floating quite as much as I’d hoped, but it’s certainly not a view of Pendle Hill which I’ve seen often. Comparing the two photos, the contrast between the vivid pink of the westward shot and the warm orange of ‘Pendle mist’, to the south and just a few minutes before the Sun rose to the left of it, is ….. ‘somewhat marked’.

Both these images have been dodged and burned slightly to focus the composition on those parts I felt important, but the colours are rendered very much as I saw them, with a slight reduction in the pink if anything.

I found this exercise to be a good learning experience, quite apart from being fun to do and producing a couple of reasonable images. Even dressed in ice climbing clothing, I was still slightly chilled through standing still, but it convinced me that getting up horribly early is worth it. And it also showed me, through my failure to do so properly, that I should use TPE more thoroughly in future when planning compositions, and that I must make sure that marginal aspects – in this case a ten minute window in which to make the shot – should be checked carefully for the relative heights of the shot’s various components! That said, had I known that the eclipsed Moon would be hidden, I might easily have failed to convince myself to get up, and I’d then have missed what turned out to be an amazing light show for twenty minutes or so.

There are larger versions of each of these images on my Flickr ‘stream.

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