When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie—that’s a good photograph! Since the days of the daguerreotype, photographers have been drawn to the moon. It can make even mundane landscapes (and cityscapes) magical. One of the most famous photographs by the most famous photographer in history, Ansel Adams, is called “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” and it features—you know what.
And wonderfully, it’s not particularly difficult to do a good job including the moon in photos, although a little bit of planning and attention to a few technical details can make the difference between a pretty-good image and one that will be unforgettable…
Timing is everything. The moon—in particular, the full moon—appears most dramatic when it appears very large. The best time to get that look is just as it rises (or before it sets)—when it’s still near the horizon.
Why? The moon illusion! It’s a trick of human vision that makes the moon look like it’s on a collision course with Earth. The moon illusion has been observed since the 4th century BC—and scientists are still debating why it happens. But it most certainly does, and it’s fleeting. It takes only about two-and-half minutes for the moon to clear the horizon, and after it does, you rapidly lose the effect. The moon shrinks.
Plan ahead. To take advantage of the moon illusion, you need to know when the moon will rise and set. Just like the sun, the moon rises in the east and sets in the west, but depending on the time of year, the position of the moon rising may be a little bit to the east-northeast or east-southeast—similarly, the setting moon can take place a bit to the west-northwest or west-southwest. Knowing when the moon will rise or set will give you plenty of time to choose the best place to set up. I typically start scouting locations about an hour beforehand. Fortunately, there are lots of good free moon-phase apps for both Android and Apple devices that will tell you the phase, time and location with great accuracy. Example: My Moon Phase is highly rated and free and is available for both Apple and Android.
Compose using a visual anchor. The moon will look even bigger if you include ground references of known size—a saguaro cactus or a moored sailboat, for example. Here’s an example:
Get the right lens. You can get interesting moon shots with nearly any camera, but pay attention to lens focal length. The longer the focal length of the lens, the larger the moon will look. Any reasonably long telephoto lens will increase the apparent size of the moon.
Set exposure right. Getting a good exposure that includes the bright moon can be tricky. That’s because the moon at night is usually brighter than the landscape around you, so the exposure that gives you the best detail of the moon will tend to leave your surrounding landscape too dark…and the exposure that gives you the best detail in the landscape will tend to make the moon too bright. The best exposure for you depends on how you want the shot to turn out. I prefer to have some moon detail in most of my moon shots, but it’s not always my biggest concern, particularly in a broader landscape, and sometimes just a white ball in the sky will do fine.
If moon detail is your primary concern, you are better off selecting either the “center-weighted” or “spot” metering mode (if your camera has them). In these modes, you can aim your lens at the moon and take your light reading directly from it. Once you’ve taken a reading from the moon, you can lock that reading by holding the shutter-release button halfway down (this also locks the focus).
If your camera has a manual-exposure mode, you can simply meter the moon in either center-weighted or spot-metering modes and the camera will retain that reading. Metering in manual prevents the camera from inadvertently “correcting” the exposure setting that you’re trying to establish by using selective readings like center-weighted or spot metering. Left to its own devices, if you were to recompose the scene and were not in manual, the camera would revert back to what it thinks is a good exposure. Here are exposure tips for some specific situations…
- If the moon is rising at twilight while there is still plenty of light on the land and you are including the landscape, you can often take a reading for the overall scene and then slightly underexpose the entire scene—drop down one or two f-stops. By underexposing just a bit, you will darken the terrestrial parts of your scene but you also add detail to the moon itself. And the slight darkness of the landscape itself tends to look more natural for a moon shot.
- If you are shooting after dark, your camera’s light meter will be fooled by the dark sky and turn the sky a dark gray (as opposed to black)—washing away all detail from the moon’s surface. Here’s why: Meters are programmed to set an exposure that will record whatever they are seeing as a medium tone regardless of their actual brightness. Because the moon is much brighter than the dark sky, this will also cause the moon to completely wash out. You’ll end up with a big white ball with no detail in a medium-gray sky. If you see that happening on your camera’s LCD screen, just reduce the exposure by using a shorter shutter speed or by making the aperture smaller…until the shot looks better.
Consider the HDR option. Some cameras have a shooting mode called high dynamic range, or HDR. In this mode, the camera will fire several separate exposures in a quick burst, including separate exposures for highlights and shadows. The camera then automatically merges these individual exposures to create one good one that retains good detail in both dark and light (the moon) areas. If HDR mode works well on your camera, it could be just the trick for moon shots.
Don’t use a slow shutter speed. The moon is always moving (at 2,288 miles an hour!). Long exposures (a slow shutter speed) will capture enough of that motion to slightly but noticeably blur your photos. So keep your shutter speed at 1/60 second or faster.
Edit the shot later. Many moon exposures are improved during editing. If you have an editing program such as Photoshop, you can easily darken the moon and add sharpening to enhance details. (One free, open-source photo editing software that I liked is GIMP.)
For nearly every moon photo that I have shot digitally, I’ve used an editing program to “burn in” (darken) the moon.
The best part of shooting the any phase of the moon? Weather permitting, you’ll have another chance next month. If you happen to like photographing the moon in its full phase and if that month has a blue moon, you’ll have two chances to photograph it within a single month.
All photographs courtesy of Jeff Wignall, used by permission.