Photographing the Moon


Ever gone outside and seen a beautiful full moon dominating the sky?  Or the blood-red moon of a lunar eclipse?  Perhaps you’ve tried to take a picture of it, just to then go inside later with your digital camera and found several black pictures with little white dots.  The moon has been shining especially bright here in Northern Virginia the last few nights, so I thought I’d demonstrate with my own picture, at right, taken on my phone last night.

That’s disappointing, isn’t it?

Stand outside and point your arms straight out, left and right.  The angle formed between your arms is 180 degrees.  Point one of them straight up.  That angle is 90 degrees.  Now, point one hand at the left edge of the moon and another at the right edge.  That’s probably hard, because your arms are so much thicker than the apparent size of the moon.  If you could do it, the angle would only be about half a degree.  Which is 0.28% of that original arms-spread-wide stance.  The field of view on a camera is about 40 degrees, give or take, which means the half-degree of the moon is anywhere from just 1.25% of the width of a picture to 2%.

And yet we look up at the sky, and it appears so massive.

There’s a bit of psychology in play here.  I’m not even talking about the classic optical illusion where the moon appears larger on the horizon, when compared to points of reference of known size, than when alone in the sky.  Even our perceptions of how large the moon is in an otherwise empty sky doesn’t quite match what we see when we photograph the moon.  It all comes down to how we perceive the world in general, and how our senses keep us alive and sane.

Right now you are being bombarded with sensory input you aren’t aware of.  The smell of the air.  The feel of cloth on your skin.  Probably the dull hush of the heater, the hum of your computer.  All of this lives within a realm that your senses write down as a baseline and ignore.  Instead, we focus on the important things, we filter our inputs.  In the case of the moon, we filter it as far more important, and therefore perceive it as far larger than it actually is.  But this breaks down when we introduce an impassioned observer into the mix, when we tell a mechanical device to interpret the scene and show us what’s actually there.

Photography causes this illusion, this misconception, to break down.  So we look at a moon that looms in the sky, then at a blurry dot that disappoints in a picture.  It’s why there are any number of websites devoted to instructions for photographing the moon, which is one of the harder pictures that most people have tried, and failed, to properly take.

What, you’re likely asking, does any of this have to do with writing?

I’m getting to that.  I’ve been thinking about moon photography lately because it strikes me as the perfect analogy to how a mechanical being would interpret the world.  Those filters would be among the hardest bits to program, telling a system what input to disregard and what input is important enough to pay attention to.  Get it too wrong in either direction and you’ve got a being that is either paying attention to almost everything or practically nothing.  In short, the hardest bits of the human experience to reproduce are the ones we’re not even consciously aware of.

Writers are programmers.  Readers are our robots.

Alright, that sounds like a really bizarre analogy, but I stand by it within the context of the previous paragraph.  We, as writers, need to determine what sensory inputs are necessary for the reader and which are extraneous.  Too few inputs (my frequent problem) and readers are left with faceless characters standing in a void.  Too many inputs and they overwhelm the story and do too much to spread out the growing drama or tension of a situation.  It’s not quite a tightrope, there’s wiggle room, but it is one of the bigger challenges that I’m still facing as a writer: how much is enough, and how much would be too much.  I’ve yet to do the latter myself, but I do know it exists, as I have seen it in stories.  Find that balance, and your reader is aware of how spectacular the moon is in the night sky without being aware of how little of the sky it actually takes up.

Meanwhile, I’m going to work a little more on my photography.

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