How I Made It: The Story Behind Zach Cooley’s Moon Shot

Photo of the moon by Zach Cooley

To say that Zach Cooley has an eye for capturing amazing photos of the moon would be an understatement. His series of nature photos featuring low-hanging shots of the moon seemingly interacting with the surrounding landscape, are the sort of images that make you stop on social media and say: “Wow, how did he get that?”

No image has elicited that response more than his photo at the top of this story. Captured as a single exposure at Arches National Park in Utah, the moon appears to be a pupil in an eye-like natural arch. Not surprisingly, the incredible lunar image has since gone viral. We had to find out more about how Cooley made the photo, so he agreed to answer a few questions about his process.

Editor’s Note: This is the third in our new “How I Made It” series where we interview photographers on the story behind one of their images.

Q: Can you give us some background on you as photographer?

Zach Cooley: I’ve always been a nature lover and enjoy hiking and backpacking whenever I can. Before phone cameras were a thing, I had a point-and-shoot but found myself disappointed that my pictures never did justice to the actual scenes. I realized that with better gear and knowledge though, I could better capture these memories and share them with family and friends. Eight years ago, I acquired my first DSLR and along with that began learning and practicing.  

Q: What’s the story behind the image?

Zach Cooley: I had a trip canceled last year because of some travel issues due to the pandemic, so I was in need of a replacement vacation. I’m always searching for interesting landscapes to shoot with the moon, so I began looking for possible alignments with the various arches in the Moab, UT area, since I’ve wanted to go there for several years. I found that if I went at the right time the moon would align with this arch, and even better if I could achieve the right vantage point, it would look like an eye.    

Q: Can you share some technical detail about how this image was shot including gear used, settings etc. Were there any Photoshop or other post-processing enhancements involved?

Zach Cooley: For these types of shots I use three different photography planning apps: PlanIt!, The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE), and PhotoPills. They have modules for figuring out sun and moon positions for any date and time, and several other photography tools. I use the three since each has its advantages, and for precision shots such as the moon eye I like to cross reference my position and timing. I used a Canon EOS R with the Tamron 150-600 G2 lens. I shot continuously for almost the entire time the moon was rising behind the arch and ended up with nearly 300 exposures, but of course only a few of those with the moon well-centered. This shot is at 1/500th of a second, F/9.0, ISO 125, and 428mm. I used Lightroom for post-processing but there is no Photoshop manipulation or anything like that.

Q: What was the biggest challenge with this shot?

Zach Cooley: Even despite the best planning, there’s no guarantee you’ll walk away with the planned shot. For moon alignment photos, a few steps in any direction could mean you miss exactly what you were going for. Though planning apps help to get the alignment, there are many factors that could lead to failure, and of course some of those are out of your control.  I ended up making some compensations from the apps based on some guessing, so I just had to cross my fingers that the moon appeared when and where I had calculated. I also didn’t have the luxury of any trial-and-error attempts so there was just one opportunity. I was as nervous as I ever have been for a shot as the time came, so it was pretty exciting when things worked out.

Q: What inspired you to do this series of photos of the moon and do you have plans for other photo series involving nature?

Zach Cooley: When I found that this alignment would occur, and that it would look an eye, I knew it would likely be one of my best photos if it worked out. I’m always searching for new moon alignments and continue looking for series with the moon every month.

You can see more of Cooley’s work on his Instagram feed, Facebook page, and website.

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