Shoot for the Moon

In this blog post I’ll continue with the night theme. Here I’ll cover shooting in the moonlight, and photographing the moon as part of the landscape. Most photographers that try photographing the rising full moon, or setting full moon discover that it’s extremely difficult to get any detail in the landscape if you expose for the moon. Conversely if you expose for the landscape then you have an overexposed moon. Many take two, or more, exposures and blend the images together in Photoshop to make an image that represents the scene as observed in the field. I’ll let you in on a little secret that many experienced photographers have noted over the years.

The trick most experienced photographers use is this: 

     If you’re photographing the rising moon shoot the day before the moon is full, 

     If you’re photographing the setting moon shoot the day after the moon is full. 

The reason for this is the day before the full moon the moon is rising while the sun is setting in the opposite direction so all your foreground is lit by some lovely low angle sunset light. Whereas if you want a shot of the moon setting you can shoot on the day after the full moon and get some nice sunrise light on your foreground like the image seen above. To the naked eye the moon still appears full. If you shoot on the day of the full moon you will not have enough light from the sun and will have to resort to a composite image.

In the image above a composite was the only option as the moon was obscured by fog when it got to the point in the photograph. Using a composite image does give you the option of increasing the size of the moon in the image. Though many get carried away, in my opinion, and enlarge the moon to unrealistic proportions. Some of you have no doubt noted that there’s a phenomenon that occurs when the moon is near the horizon and looks larger than it does higher in the sky. This is referred to as the Moon Illusion. The actual cause is still debated by scientists.  Another way to make the moon appear the size that it appears to us when it’s near the horizon is to use a telephoto lens to compress the scene and magnify the moon. The first image was taken using a telephoto to make the moon appear more like we normally view it. Naturally there’s other ways to shoot with a full, or nearly full, moon. 

Another way to shoot a full moon in a scene where it would normally be a blown out white circle is to stop down your lense to a small aperture to create a moonstar. I usually use about f16 if I can get away with it in the light conditions. You’ll have to shoot at a higher ISO to compensate for the loss of light incurred by the smaller aperture to keep some foreground detail. For a moonstar to work the atmosphere has to be reasonably clear or you’ll get too much diffusion of light and just end up with blown out highlights and no star. In the image above I waited for the moon to drop below the cloud to in order to get a better star. The cloud added some interesting wings too.

The image above was shot facing away from the moon to utilize the moonlight to light the scene. Photographing under a full, or nearly full, moon can yield some wonderful soft light and long exaggerated  shadows. The only drawback to shooting night scenes under the moonlight is that the moonlight washes out some of the stars so you won’t get great milky way shots on a moonlit night. To summarize you can really extend your shooting time by utilizing the techniques I have outlined in the night photography blog posts. Please don’t hold me responsible for your lack of sleeping time though and do be careful driving there and back!