Timelapsing the Timekeepers of the Sky

No matter what happens during the night, the sun always returns. Pretty much every human who has ever lived has seen it burst over the horizon.

It’s a strange combination of being common enough to ignore and so incredible there is nothing else like it: the perfect recipe for a cliche.


Bewitched by Totality

Spending time and attention on an incredible thing can transcend the cliche that hides its greatness. I began focusing on the sun and moon after the 2017 total solar eclipse last summer.

We stayed with old friends in the midwest, then drove a short distance to the heart of the eclipse’s “path of totality”. The forecast was partly cloudy.

Wishful thinking: This headline ran in the St. Joseph, Missouri newspaper a few days before we experienced the eclipse under heavy cloud cover. (The forecast was partly cloudy)

But we encountered sudden full cloud coverage, and could only imagine the incredible sight that lay just out of sight as the temperature dropped and the sky darkened at a regular, eerily rapid rate.

I was disappointed. I’d always wanted to see a total eclipse, and it was exciting to take a gamble on the weather–potentially seeing a more interesting sky with partly cloudy conditions– rather than heading to the perpetual sunny (and closer) western deserts.

Clouded solar eclipse. Source: romper.com

In rueful hindsight, I became hyper-aware for months of the sun and the moon in daily life. Their impeccable roundness. Their intensity levels. Their identical size in the sky. The way they move fast enough to see but too slow to notice.

With my iPhone on a tripod mount, and an extended zoom lens attachment, I began taking time-lapse videos of the motion of the sun and moon.

The Sun: Closest To A God

The sunrise’s glow appears and then spreads, shades of blue giving way to the first golden rays. You can look at the sun, or the changing light on the rest of the world, shifting as the sun takes over the sky. The sunset produces a similar offering of gold.

The idea of a god is thought of as mythological or a question of faith. But the sun is literally the center of our orbit, and actually does give us life.

The Moon Rise

I’d never thought to watch the full moon rise each month. It’s a lot easier to do when you can easily find out the exact time and approximate location in advance. Smartphone apps alert you when it will rise (Magic Hour app) and where (SkyView app).

The first night of the full moon each month, it’s still light out, so the sky is blue enough to show the landscape in the photos.

The next day is the “real” full moon, and the moon rises in the eastern sky  just as the sun sets in the western sky.

On this day, the sky is so dark–at least in my area, where there are hills to the east–that the horizon is lit up with a moon glow several minutes before the moon comes up.

The moon cycle is more complicated than the sun’s: while the sun’s time and place changes by small increments each day, the moon jumps by an hour, looks different, and sometimes isn’t even visible.

I’ve become tuned in with the changes in the moon: It’s entered into my visualization of the weeks, months, and years, but still holds mystery.

For example, I have yet to see or film the moon setting, though I know it is sometimes visible. I haven’t found an app so far to tell me this, just this chart:

Something to look forward to.

Repetition and Limitation

Time-lapsing is predictable and the skills it requires are basic. The simplicity of the act, and the clarity of its boundaries, forces interesting things to happen over time, and it’s thus a rewarding artistic exercise.

The sun and moon rises and settings are events that give you only one shot.The light changes quickly. It’s hard to predict exactly where it will come up. There’s no endless re-working: just a single performance, and a lot of variables.

If the exposure is wrong, or you’re still unfolding your tripod when it starts, you can’t correct it until the next day, or the next month. But show up enough times and things will start to get interesting.


Note: the hazy sunsets and sunrises pictured here were filmed in Oakland, CA during wildfires in nearby Napa and Sonoma counties. 15 ways to donate to wildfire relief from the fires depicted here, and ways to help those in the path of to the current fires ravaging Southern California