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The Photographers Epemeris (opens new window)
The moon is the brightest object in our night skies and has always held a fascination for mankind.
This article gives moon photography tips to help you take great photographs of the moon – whether the moon is the primary subject or used to add interest and enigma to your composition.
The moon is not always visible in the night sky.
The moon orbits around the Earth over a “lunar cycle” of approx. 29 days. Half the moon surface is always permanently illuminated by the sun but the amount of this surface that is visible from the night skies of Earth varies as the position of the moon, Earth and sun, change relative to one another.
When the moon is between the sun and Earth, no part of the illuminated surface of the moon is visible in the night sky – this called a “new moon”
When the Earth is between the moon and the sun, the full illuminated face of the moon is visible. This is when we have “full moon” and the moon is at its brightest in the sky.
Between new moon and full moon, the moon will appear as a crescent that “grows” each night (known as a “waxing” moon). Between full moon and new moon, the visible moon will “shrink” each night (known as a “waning” moon)
Knowing when and where the moon will be visible and in what phase is essential to planning your moon photography.
To assist with this, there is a great application called The Photographers Ephemeris which may be downloaded free for PC and Mac from by clicking on this link
http://photoephemeris.com/ (opens in new window)
Also don’t forget to check the weather. Whilst some clouds can add interest and drama to your composition, you will want to avoid completely overcast skies.
The moon appears largest at is rises on the evening of full moon which will always coincide (more or less) with sunset. The presence of significant residual ambient light does not make this the ideal time to capture the actual moonrise.
I often find the following times are best suited for full moon photography.
Moonset on the day before full moon.
This can be the perfect time to capture the moonset – which will take place just before dawn. The moon will appear very large and the predawn ambient light will reduce the brightness of the moon relative to its surroundings making it easier to expose for other elements within the total composition with a single exposure.
Moonrise the day after full moon.
This can be the best day to photograph the actual moonrise. The moon will appear very large and red as it first rises and will not be so bright compared to the rest of the image making it possible to retain some details in the foreground.
See also Supermoon
Moonrise on the day before full moon.
Whilst not the best time for photographing the actual moonrise (as there will be too much daylight at this time for the moon to be clearly defined) around half an hour after sunset it will have risen sufficiently high in the sky to include as a complimentary feature of the composition in addition to a main foreground subject. There will be enough residual light to reduce the luminance contrast between the moon and the subject, enabling both to be exposed in a single shot
The moon may of course be photographed on other days within the visible part of the lunar cycle – and the inclusion of the crescent shaped moon can really add interest to land and cityscape images. However the moon will often be much brighter than other elements of the composition. This means either accepting the moon to appear as an overexposed object without detail – or requires that more than one exposure be taken, one for the moon and one for the other elements of the composition which may then be merged in post production afterwards.
In the shot above, the moon was slightly higher in the sky and out of frame. The moon also required different exposure settings than used for the Acropolis. I decided to add the moon to the final shot to enhance the compostion.
The type of equipment you need depends on the type of moon photography you are planning.
However if you are intending to capture detailed shots of the moon then you will need the following.
Plan ahead. Know when and where and what phase the moon will be in. Pre-plan your shot to include interesting foreground elements. Set up in location early and have the basic camera set up in advance.
Primary exposure and camera settings.
Shoot in RAW format for maximum control over final development of the photograph.
If using a tripod, you may need to deactivate the lens’s anti-vibration/image stabilisation system.
Set focus to manual and be ready to focus using the live view function.
Make sure exposure simulation in live view is set to “on”.
Select Av priority exposure mode, enabling exposure bracketing of +1 and -1 stop and set drive mode to 2 second self-timer.
Begin with ISO setting at 200
Other secondary options are
Cover the viewfinder eye piece to prevent stray ambient light.
Set long exposure noise reduction function.
If the camera has a “silent mode” for live view, then activate it to further reduce any camera vibrations from shutter activation.
Taking the shot
Use live view zoom facility to manually focus on the primary subject. If you wish the moon to be rendered in sharp detail as well as other elements of the composition, you will need to ensure that everything required in focus is beyond the hyperfocal distance of the lens.
To correctly expose the moon – with exposure simulation set to “on” check the image on the screen and adjust exposure compensation until the moon appears suitably bright, retaining details.
Check the shutter speed – if longer than 1 second, try increasing the aperture (smaller f number) until the shutter speed is reduced back to a maximum of 1 second. If you are constrained by the maximum aperture available of the lens or wish to maintain a particular aperture to ensure adequate depth of field, then in this case increase the ISO until the shutter speed is increased.
By taking bracketed shots you will have greater flexibility to select the exposure that gives the best result when reviewing your images later, plus you will have the opportunity to merge images if a single exposure doesn’t have the dynamic range that you desire to cover all the elements within your shot.
Other moon photography tips to consider
Moonlight reflection, as well as the moon itself can be used to good effect to create interesting images. Especially moonbeams reflected from the sea or a lake – it isn’t necessary to include the moon itself in the composition.
Moon magnification. If you do not have a super telephoto lens capable of magnifying the moon to a larger degree, then you can achieve a similar effect by cropping in post production. This can work especially well with high resolution dslr cameras (e.g. 18mp) when the final photograph is to be displayed “on-line”. Typically even a HD monitor is only 1920 x 1080 pixels. So cropping the image to these dimensions to “magnify” a portion of the image can be done with little loss in quality to the viewer.
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Go to Supermoon for tips on photographing the perigee moon
Click here for link to The Photographers Ephemeris (opens in new window)
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