The Supermoon over Austin and Why You Probably Wouldn't Notice If No One Told You

Unfortunately this month's appearance of the so-called "supermoon" was obscured by overcast, but here's a photo I snapped around this time last year of another supermoon.

A "supermoon" is what the media likes to call a full moon when it's near the perigee of its orbit, i.e. it's at its closest approach to the Earth. The Moon gets this close to the Earth once during each orbit of the Moon around the Earth, so about once every 28 days; thus the Moon appearing this large in and of itself is nothing special, but I suppose it makes for feel-good fodder on slow news days. In actuality the Moon only appears slightly larger; about 14% larger than it appears at apogee (this is when it appears its smallest), or around 6-9% bigger than the average apparent size of the Moon. Because of this small difference, combined with the fact that we only see the moon intermittently over long periods of time, and in different phases, it is highly unlikely that the average person would naturally notice the Moon was larger or smaller from week to week.

There are a few reasons why people "notice" a supermoon being bigger than a regular full moon, and it all comes down to our imperfect human perception.

First, the news reminds us to look at the Moon because it will be bigger than usual. We go out and look, and because a bigger moon is what we're expecting, we agree "well, I guess it does sorta look bigger." This is a form of confirmation bias. In truth, most of us have no intuitive sense for how big the Moon should actually appear, certainly not to an accuracy that would make us notice that the moon was 5%, 10%, or even 14% larger than at some other time we saw it.

Secondly, a full moon rises during sunset because a full moon is always on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun. Most people are out and able to see the Moon around sunset during their evening commute, so when there's a full moon (or a supermoon), most people will see it as it's rising, close to the horizon. When the Moon is close to the horizon it always appears bigger regardless of where it is in its orbit -- this is an optical illusion of sorts because suddenly we see the Moon next to objects on land and its comparative size appears bigger. This problem, sometimes called the "moon illusion" is a long-known issue with human perception and has been discussed by scholars for thousands of years. Click here for more information on the "moon illusion." Typically, doctored photographs (of which there are many on social media after the media hypes a supermoon) fraudulently increase the size of the Moon almost to the point of ridiculousness, most likely because the photographer thought that the Moon "looked really big!" and is confused as to why their photographs don't reflect what the optical illusion had them perceive, regardless of the focal length the photo was captured at. The photograph they took is indeed accurate, but being a flat image, it just doesn't play into the same part of our brain that produces that optical illusion of the Moon looking huge next to the horizon. In actuality, any time you see the sun or the moon rise behind features on land, it will appear very big.

As a consequence of being marginally closer to the Earth, a supermoon also appears slightly brighter, owing to the fact that the flux (or density) of reflected photons from the surface of the Moon is higher when we get closer to it. An analogy for this would be that your shower feels more intense when you move your face closer to the shower head. However, I would argue that most people wouldn't notice this change in apparent brightness any more than they would notice an increase in apparent size. Our eyes involuntarily adjust to low light levels all the time, and it would be impossible to make an assertion that the Moon was brighter one night vs. another without using some additional equipment (a camera with manual exposure controls would suffice). Also, the clarity of the atmosphere (depending on temperature, humidity, particulates, etc) varies frequently, adding yet another variable into the situation that we humans are not well suited for evaluating without special equipment.

To me, supermoons are fun just because they get people interested in and talking about the Moon. The Moon, while not a favorite subject of mine in and of itself, is definitely one of my favorite compositional elements in a photograph, and all the overzealous reporting in the world won't change that.

A Few Shots from July and August

Here are a few photos from the past two months that I haven't shared yet; I very easily get swallowed up in big projects and start to neglect all my social media stuff, which I've been really bad about this summer.

One of my favorite shots in July came when I captured the moon transiting the capitol dome. The clouds were perfect and I managed to get just the image composition I was looking for.

The Moon transiting the Texas State Capitol dome

Earlier this week I was doing some traffic shots in south Austin, from which I noticed the UT tower's lighting was going on and off and had a bizarre non-tungsten color balance.

Evening Mopac traffic

When I got closer I saw that they'd brought in a special lighting system and were running through various test programs on their equipment. I realized this must be preparation for the 2015 Gone to Texas ceremony scheduled for the following night. Gone to Texas is a UT ceremony to welcome incoming freshman to the university and is so named because legend has it families that pulled up roots to move to Texas before it became a republic would write "GTT" on the door of their vacated homes, short for "Gone to Texas."

University staff ran through every color of the rainbow in varying combinations on different sections of the building and were even projecting animations and video onto the south facade of the tower. I have more photos from that night posted on my Instagram page.

Gone to Texas Class of 2019 UT tower lighting test

Sunrise Clouds

Just wanted to share a quick shot I took this morning at sunrise from the Palmer Events Center. I've been chasing a cloudless sunrise for a few mornings now with no luck; at least the cloudy sunrises have a few nice moments!

Austin Nights

It's been just about a year since I released Riding the Light, and, despite shooting a ton of footage in that time, I hadn't gotten around to releasing another short film. I finally set aside some time this month to put together my latest film, Austin Nights, which I'm both excited and proud to present to you now.

The music is courtesy of yng vapor, a most excellent electronic producer and composer out of Baltimore.

Take a voyage from nightfall to daybreak across Austin, Texas.

A Midnight Fog

In a city with over 300 sunny days per year, a pervasive fog shrouding the entire region is quite rare. Such conditions descended upon Austin in the early hours of March 4th, 2015.

Conditions were calm and visibility varied from 200-500 yards depending on local ground moisture.

The Long Center produces a faint glow in the midnight fog.

On a clear night Lou Neff Point in Zilker Park offers one of the best views of the Austin skyline. Move the slider below to compare foggy conditions against a clear night.

fog_before fog_after

The Great Lawn in Zilker Park, still moist from a light evening drizzle, produced a dense and static ground fog.

The Zilker Park Great Lawn shrouded in fog at 3AM.

A giant Zilker Park tree against a backdrop of fog at 3AM.

"Super" Moonset

I managed to stop by campus tonight just in time to catch the Moon setting behind the UT tower.

This is the tail end of what the media has been calling the "black supermoon," but really "supermoon" just means the moon is at the perigee (minimum altitude) of its slightly eccentric orbit when a full or a new moon occurs.

The Green Flash

Usually when photographers talk about the green flash, they mean something entirely different from this:

If you happen to be looking, there's about a 30-40 second window where the rooftop lighting of the Frost Bank Tower is just warming up. This makes the roof panels glow green until their color balance gradually stabilizes and they turn white. I always thought it was cool, and it's one of those things I would never have noticed had I not been a timelapse shooter.

Shooting through the Rain

During one of the rainy weeks in December I made a few attempts at shooting some footage despite the weather. Because of the extra glow in the atmosphere, the lighting, especially as the sun sets, can be an interesting change from a normal cloudless sunset.

This shot is the last frame of a hyperlapse I was shooting:

I particularly like this moment because of the gradient of colors in the sky. The sun had previously set to the left, and the receding scattered blue was moving across the sky, mixing with the orange light from the sodium vapor street lamps that began to dominate the atmospheric glow.

Seconds later I had to abort because my light and pleasant drizzle had turned into a torrential downpour, the likes of which I'd never been caught out in before. My improvised oven-bag-and-tape rain gear would just not do, so I hurriedly packed it all in and made the long 1 mile walk back to where I parked. I definitely discovered the limits of my "water repellant" outer shell and wound up soaked to the bone. This was the first serious rain test of my rucksack, which I'm happy to report did quite well! Aside from the rain that got in during loading, everything inside was dry despite the outer shell being completely soaked.

Fun fact: I recently learned the technical difference between rain and drizzle -- take a look at a puddle; if the water droplets hit with enough energy to create a splash, it's rain. If it just creates a ripple and gets absorbed without ejecting any water, it's drizzle.

-AT

A Bridge through the Clouds

The Quadrantids meteor shower was a total bust here in Austin; the radiant point was below the horizon during the predicted peak and a light cirrus layer to the north and a full moon made sure I wouldn't see any stragglers.

However, the silver lining is that my planned shooting site up at Lake Travis gave me an early warning to a layer of lake/river fog flowing through the Colorado River valley from the north and I was able to make it to the 360/Pennybacker Bridge just in time to capture it.