Monday, March 3, 2014

MoonScapes - Photographing a Full Moon with Landscape Detail

Moonrise with last sun light on Wasatch Range, Salt Lake City, UT ~ © Royce Bair
Little Known Trick to Photographing the Full Moon: Here is how you can get detail on both the landscape and the moon. The above photo of the full moon was taken just as the sun was setting, the day before the full moon, and the next two photos were taken just before sunrise, the day of the full moon.

Big yellow moon as it passes through a cloud, surrounded by a cold, blue winter sky ~ © Royce Bair
Canon EOS 7D with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens @ 400mm
(35mm equivalent is 12X) f/8 • 1/4 sec • ISO 100
5 minutes later the same moon begins to set behind the Oquirrh Mountains, near SLC, UT ~ © Royce Bair
Canon EOS 7D with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens @ 400mm
(35mm equivalent is 12X) f/8 • 1/4 sec • ISO 100
Here is my "NightScape" Moon Photography Tip: If you want to record good detail in the clouds and landscape near the moon, you need to know two important re-occurring facts: 1. The night before the full moon, the moon rises just a few minutes before the sun sets; and 2. the morning of the full moon, the moon sets just before the sun is starting to rise. During these two periods, there is just enough ambient light from the setting and rising sun to give detail to the surrounding landscape -- otherwise, it is too dark, and the contrast range is too great to record anything but blackness around the moon -- like you see in these two photos:

Middle of the night: Left image exposed for cloud detail. Right image exposed for moon detail.
You can't have it both ways: either you get a washed out (overexposed moon) in order to see the clouds and surrounding landscape detail -- or you get a correctly exposed moon, and lose all the surrounding detail -- that is, unless you follow my little known trick and these "Nightscape" tips.

Moon Charts: I use the Old Farmer's Almanac moon phase calendar and the USNO moorise/moonset charts to plan my shoots. (All times are based on sea level, so they must be adjusted slightly for mountainous terrain -- the moon will set sooner because of mountains, and the sunrise will be delayed because of mountains, and etc.) Using these charts, I can often get at least one moon rise and one moon set per month (weather permitting) that allow for good, full moon photography.

An example of how I did it: Based on my Zip Code, the full moon was to take place on January 9, 2012 at 12:32 AM. The sun was suppose to rise on this day at 7:51 AM, and the moon was scheduled to set at 7:54 AM. Because the eastern mountains around Salt Lake City are about 6,000 feet higher than the valley floor, I figured (by experience) the sunrise would be delayed about 30 minutes. And because the western mountains are about 3,000 feet higher than the valley floor, I estimated the moon would set about 15 minutes early. I figured right on both accounts. The middle two photos were taken at 7:30 and 7:35 AM, with just enough predawn twilight behind me to add detail to the western sky and western mountains ("blue hour" light).

Mirror Lock-up. One other important thing: Even with a sturdy tripod and a remote release, the vibration from your mirror going up just before your shutter release can blur or degrade your shot. That's because the magnifications are so great (12X in this shot) and the shutter speeds are so slow (about 1/4 second in this case). Read your manual on how to do this for your camera. Once it is set through your menu, the first press of the shutter release will lock up the mirror, and the second press will release the shutter, and return the mirror. Even with a remote release, you should wait about three seconds for the vibrations to dampen before pressing the release the second time. So many things to remember! I also find I have to manually focus, and set all my exposures manually for best results. (For super accurate focus, I switch to Live View through my LCD screen, and magnify it to 10X. Once set, I switch back to regular view to conserve battery power.)

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  1. So I used The Photographer's Ephemeris app for my calculations. I'm pretty new to shooting at night so this blog entry really opened my eyes. It was just like you say, expose for the moon and your foreground is bleh, or expose for the foreground and get a huge burning disc of white in the sky.

    So for me (I live in Central Florida):

    15 March Moonrise: 6:54pm
    15 March Sunset: 7:35pm

    16 March Moonset: 7:19am
    16 March Sunrise: 7:35am

    Now I just need to decide on a couple locations!

    Thanks Royce!

  2. Moon over Voronezh