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Photography

The Basics of Better Moon Photography

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It controls the tides and even some people's moods. It watches over us at night and sometimes makes a guest appearance during the day. It's our only non-man-made satellite and some people still think it is made of cheese.

It's the Moon. And to many photographers it is a giant reflecting dish in the sky. If you have ever tried to photograph this celestial disc, I have some tips that just might help unlock a path to better images without all the trial and error I've experienced over 20 years of attempts.


Phase Basics

Let's start with some basics. How you photograph the moon and where it is in the sky is determined by the phase the moon is in. Real basic: Half the moon is always lit by the sun, but we see different proportions of lit and unlit surface depending on the moon's position in orbit. There is no 'right' time to photograph the moon, there is only the desired phase you may wish for for the best artistic impact.

Full – A full moon is what most people think of when the they think of the moon. A bright, round disc floating in the sky. But this is often hard to photograph when already high above the horizon. The moon is full when we see the full lit side and only that. A key element of the full moon is it rises when the sun is setting and sets when the sun is rising. This happens about once a month.

Waning – After the moon is full it goes into a state known as 'waning.' This simply means it is moving away from full. Each day and night less and less of the moon appears illuminated to us, making it less and less bright. It will go through a phase known as 'quarter' which most of us think of as 'half' because we see that half the moon is in shadow and half is lit.

New – A new moon occurs when the moon is basically not at all illuminated and appears in the middle of the day, so it is extremely hard to see. This is an excellent time to photograph stars as there is no glare from the moon at night.

Waxing – This phase is the reverse of waning. Here the moon moves out of 'new' and more of it is bright until it reaches another 'quarter' and finally 'full' again.


Other Moon Terms

Blue Moon – This is simply a trick of the Gregorian calendar where there are more than three full moons in a season, there can only be four at most, but the third one is called 'blue.' Also if there is more than one full moon in a month, it might be called 'blue.' Thing of it as one of those months where you get an extra pay check because there are five Fridays. Blue moons happen every two to three years.

Harvest Moon – The full moon rising in the Fall which is closest to the autumnal equinox. Often because of atmospheric conditions, this moon can seem more orange than others, but is otherwise not too special.

Lunar Eclipse – A lunar eclipse is highlighted by a red/orange glow to the moon. This happens when the moon passes through the shadow, or umbra, of the earth, in part or in whole.

Solar Eclipse – Solar eclipses are a very dynamic event and remind us of how powerful the moon can be. For a few minutes during a total solar eclipse, the moon completely covers the disc of the sun, bringing darkness to the Earth. But then it quickly moves past and light returns. In the case of both eclipses, they are only visible on certain parts of the earth when they happen.


Timing is key

Knowing what you want to shoot is very important to the timing of a shoot. If it is a full moon rising, you will want to likely show up the day before the full moon to take your shot. This is because, but not always, the date and time of the full moon is typically just past midnight.

In other words, if the calendar says the full moon is on July 12 make sure to check the time. If it states a time in the wee hours of the night, such as 1:12AM, then you will want to head out on July 11th to take your photo. The time is listed this way because the moon is at its fullest at 1:12AM, typically half way from its rise to fall.

Also remember the moon rises 49-50 minutes later each day, so heading out two days before a full moon (July 10 in the example above) can also net good results. If you want to catch the moon setting, shooting the day of the full moon works well.

Waiting until the moon is higher in the sky when near a full event can be problematic. In this shot of the moon over Ama Dablam in Nepal, the conditions were less than ideal because the sun had set 40 minutes before and the moon was already too bright. What would have helped in this case is to use a graduated neutral density filter to tone down the moon, but preserve the mountain.

If you are looking to capture anything other than a full moon, you will need to check a site such as the US Naval Observatory for a full list of moon rise and set times. Shooting the moon when it is high in the sky does work, especially if you want a full image, but why do I keep pointing to the rise and set times?


Add Something In The Foreground

The thing with the moon is it always has the same face toward the Earth. Once you take a picture of that face, close up without any other objects in the frame, all your other pictures of the moon in that fashion will essentially look the same. It's then time to place some foreground objects in your frame to jazz things up and give the moon either a supporting or dominant role.

Using a tool such as the Photographers Ephemeris, photographers can find the direction and time of moon based activities (and sun activities as well). This will help in the placement of foreground objects, such as cities and mountains.

It will also help with scouting locations. But also don't forget to look up even when you're not hunting for the moon. For instance, this shot below was simply lucky timing and being in the right spot in Alberta, Canada after dropping off a friend in the early hours of the morning. If I had looked up 10 minutes later, I would have missed the moon. As it was, I had to walk through a field and wait until the moon was in just the right spot, so don't be afraid to adjust the moon placement when needed.

The foreground need not be immediate and dominant. Basically everything except planets and stars count as foreground for the moon. Sometimes the moon can even be a bit player if there is nothing going on in its immediate vicinity.

Such as in this panoramic of Edmonds, Washington, USA. It's just a blip in the sky and because it is already so high (shot the day after a full moon) it is already very bright against the background. Zooming in would not have helped this image and sometimes that is just the case. I let it be a supporting actor in this image instead of the star (pun intended).

Another example of letting the moon take a supporting role: this shot in Bahlil, Morocco, I realized the nearly full moon was already too bright for the scene to be seen as a clear disc. I was not with my normal set of filters at the time and so I metered for the foreground town and let the moon take a supporting role instead of being the dominant factor. I feel it works as the moon gives a glow to the clouds and need not be tack sharp.


Get A Zoom

Zooming in to a scene is a technique that will greatly aid your moon photos. No matter how big the moon may look to your naked eye, a zoom will helps place it in the same perspective. While you may perceive the moon to be quite large, that 50mm lens you might be using will show it as a small dot and you'll be disappointed. Start thinking of 100mm at least. A 100-400mm lens would be idea for really highlighting the moon in the frame.

For instance, this shot was taken at around 36mm in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

And it looks tiny! Now let's zoom in to the Wasatch Range in Utah with a 400mm lens.

Much larger in the field of view and a much larger impact.


Metering

Remember, that metering for the moon depends on where it is in its cycle and how the foreground is lit. Spot metering works best to ensure the moon itself is not blown out, but you will want to take a few readings around the scene to look for hot or dark areas that might be problematic.

When shooting the moon the day before a full moon, metering is pretty simple. Almost always the metering can be taken off the foreground before the moon even shows up. Because the foreground will be lit about the same as the moon, photos at this time are fairly straight forward, metering-wise.

The moon becomes harder to photograph as the contrast between it and the darkness of space becomes greater. A moon in a well lit sky is easy. A moon against black is harder because the moon is a lot brighter than the human eye perceives and your camera knows this.

It's why you can see the moon being bright, see the city lights in the foreground being what you perceive to be equally as bright, but take a photo with a very blown out moon.

In this example below, I had to to far underexpose the image compared to what my camera wished me to do. This meant the tree became a silhouette, but the moon is the main subject in this case.


Processing

Most moon photos need a little bit of touchup in the computer after being shot. The best ones need little more than level adjustments and a setting of white and black points if desired. A graduated neutral gradient filter can be a huge help in toning down the moon if it was too bright in the sky. Also, in programs like Abode Lightroom 4, there is an Adjustment Brush that allows for very selective burning and dodging of just the moon disc.

This image needed a lot of help because I didn't heed my own warnings (and I had to work late when the moon was full the day before). Shot on the day of a full moon and metered for the moon itself, a lot of work had to be done to the foreground to bring up the details in what was a quickly darkening scene. I spent more time editing the image than I did going out to shoot it and that doesn't make photography enjoyable for me if I have to do it often.


Putting It All Together

One of the best examples I've seen of preparation and timing is the image above from Michael Riffle. He used the Photographer's Ephemeris to plot out a moonrise behind the city of Seattle and found a likely location across the bay at Alki Beach. He scouted the location and had to make a slight guess where the moon would come up.

Before the moon was around, he metered a number of times to make sure the foreground would not be blown out or too dark. When the moon did make an appearance, it was slightly off of where he had planned (life's not perfect, it seems!) and so, adjusting, he was still able to frame the moon as a dominant player in a scene on a cold, winter day.

Editing was minimal because of the great light and framing already preconceived.

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