Anatomy of a (Failed) Moonshot

Once a month, if the weather’s good, I play a photographic game with the rising moon and the Transamerica pyramid. Essentially, there’s a moment in time (once a month) where you can see something like this:

I stumbled across the view above in June, and worked the rest of the year to replicate it, not because it’s the world’s best photograph, but because it’s a challenge, and I get to use the Farmer’s Almanac and ask experts to explain to me how the heck a sextant works.

The spot is always moving (as the moon moves), and the tower/moon combo is often hidden by buildings, rooftops, power lines, and trees. The hardish part is finding when and where the spot is accessible to pedestrians; on the street. The view is rare, and it’s obscured more often than not, even on days when the weather’s good.

As the year progresses, the spot moves dramatically, sweeping across North Beach. Each night has its own mini arc as well. I don’t bring an incredible lens or a tripod (because half the time I’m on foot, running to catch up with it – and I don’t own a workable tripod). With better gear, one can get this, which doesn’t excite me. I’m more fascinated in how a photograph can be both still-life and action shot.

These shots can only be made at sunset or at dawn. The light hitting the tower must match the candlepower of the moon. That way, I don’t have to combine or dodge or significantly process the images.

In September, I photographed the failures, where things weren’t lining-up right, just to show the process of the whole thing. Combined with CommunityWalk, I can lay it all out, an anatomy of sorts.

Community Walk - North Beach Moonshot - Sept 2005

I use the Farmer’s Almanac to tell me sun/moon rise/set times, so I can pinpoint the best possible day. When I arrived on this particular day in September, I was on my way home from work (70 miles outside the city) and had my scooter. I circled around the neighborhood, lining things-up from various locations before finding where I could begin. This is the hard part. Two-wheeled transport is key with this kind of thing. Flexible and fast. Once I found the first spot, I set out on foot.

The first location happened to be in a playground. I climbed up the slide to this platform on the upper right and stood on top of the ledge’s railing. I’d “succeeded” in lining things up, but the pictures are only as good as your location. In fact, this whole pursuit is fairly antithetical to street photography, in that it’s all pre-planned; your picture will only be as interesting as your location. I like this roll of the dice, but the playground spot stunk.


The playground was in a topographical dip which meant that if I walked toward the tower (as the moon rose) I’d probably find another spot, and it would be there soon. So I ran a few blocks and came across this blockage.

North Beach Moonshot, Blocked by Trees

Nothing was lining-up right, so I backed-up half a block, waited a few minutes and found a new spot. Compositionally, it wasn’t interesting {7:15}. But I could see that as the moon rose a bit higher, the spot would move right into Washington Square Park, where the view would be clear of trees and I’d have freedom to move.

Sure enough, at 7:25, I had it. Problem was, the light had died. The sun had set eight minutes prior, so the Transamerica pyramid didn’t have enough light on it to match the moon. The optimal night would have been the preceding evening, but I wasn’t able to shoot or it was foggy. Conditionally, I would have had the good light from the playground, with a clear, wide-open spot in the park.

Still, I stuck around for a few minutes. There was a guy playing soccer with his friend, and they kicked the ball really high and I took this.


It’s a bad exposure, but it has spirit. The guy came over and asked what I was doing, and I showed him, and he kicked the ball a few more times to see if I could get a better shot, and it was impossible. The light was gone.

If you use all this to make a few pics of your own, let me know. And if I run into you at a moonshot spot in North Beach when the light’s good, I get first dibs… : )

Link: Moonshots on WhileSeated

3 thoughts on “Anatomy of a (Failed) Moonshot”

  1. I applaud your efforts! I use to drive around NYC in the ’80s waiting to find the moon
    perched perfectly on top of the Empire state building, but it never happened. A couple
    of times if I had been on the case I could have found a vantage point, but the “meter was
    running” and I had to make money. The fact that you were able to use the Farmer’s Almanac
    and a sextant to achieve your goal is what I’m impressed with. You didn’t have the “what ever
    happens” strategy which I subscribe to, you did everything that you possibly could…

  2. Nope, haven’t. The pyramid would be between me and the setting sun, which means my side of the building wouldn’t be lit. It would be a silhouette. Plus, the orientation of the building within San Francisco’s geography means that I’d have to stand somewhere in the Bay. Can’t walk on water. Yet.

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