Shooting for the Moon

by Tim Grey | December 29, 2014

&copy Tim GreyI think it is fair to say that most people have been—at one time or another—fascinated with the moon in the sky above. And of course, as a photographer there’s a good chance you’ve considered including the moon in a photograph from time to time. Along the way, perhaps you’ve experienced some frustrations when you’ve attempted to include the moon in a photographic image. Presented here are some tips on making the most of photography that includes the moon in the scene.

Moon and building at night © Tim Grey

Phase and Location

Sometimes we might plan to photograph a specific subject under particular conditions, and at other times we might take a photo simply because the circumstances were presented to us. When it comes to photographs that include the moon, I suspect most of the time the images arise out of a surprise opportunity, rather than being the product of planning.

While it can be a wonderful surprise to see the full moon rising over a scene you were planning to photograph anyway, it also is possible to plan in advance for a photo that includes the moon.

In many cases I’ll actually take a hybrid approach between being surprised by the moon being in a good position and making a plan for a photograph that includes the moon. From one day to the next, the position of the moon, as well as the time the moon rises and sets, doesn’t change too dramatically. As such, you can make a reasonably accurate estimation of where you’ll want to be the following day based on an observation of the moon in the sky.

Just having some basic knowledge of the behavior of the moon can be tremendously helpful. For example, knowing that a full moon occurs when the moon is directly opposite the sun from the perspective of Earth makes it easy to realize that if there is a full moon, it will rise or set shortly before or after the sun rises or sets.

More planning, however, can increase the chances of a successful photograph. And fortunately, more than a few resources are available for determining where you can expect to find the moon in the sky.

Various websites provide information about the time the moon will rise and set, as well as the position of the moon in the sky as viewed from a particular location for a particular time. This will generally include the direction you will need to look to see the moon, as well as how far above the horizon the moon will appear.

For example, you might find that the moon will rise at 11:09 a.m. on a given day, and that from the location you plan to be you can see the moon by looking at a heading of 107 degrees, or just a little south of due east.

In addition, it can be helpful to know what phase the moon will be at the time you plan to photograph, or to plan your photography around the phases of the moon. If you are going to include the moon in the frame, for example, almost without exception you would want to be sure there was not going to be a new moon, which offers virtually no illumination at all.

There are numerous sources of information about the moon phase, timing, and location in the sky. For the most part, I tend to use websites for advance planning, and smartphone applications when I’m in the field.

For basic timing of the moon rise and set, as well as the phase of the moon, you can use just about any website that provides weather information. For example, the website for The Weather Channel provides a detailed graph with information about the time the moon will rise and set, as well as the current phase of the moon.

Moon set and moon rise chart

For more detailed information about the position of the moon, I use a couple of other websites. One is TimeAndDate.com, which allows you to view detailed information about the phase of the moon, what time the moon will rise and set each day, and which direction you need to look to view the moon. This information is based on a location you specify, and you can review data going a number of years into the future. The result is an excellent resource for basic information that can enable you to plan to include the moon in your photographs.

Time and date screenshot

For more detailed information about the movement of the moon across the sky, I will often reference a resource available through the U.S. Naval Observatory website. The site allows you to specify a date, location, and time interval, so that you can view detailed information about the position of the moon throughout the day. For example, I often use the calculator to generate information about the position of the moon in ten-minute increments, providing a relatively clear picture of the path of the moon during the time I plan to photograph. You can get started with this online calculator.

Astronomical applications department screenshot

When I’m out in the field, I tend to use applications for my smartphone to determine the path of the moon, along with other detailed information. I happen to use an iPhone for this purpose, but the same (or similar) applications are available for other types of smartphones as well.

I have written about the Planets application in an article that appeared in a previous issue of Pixology magazine. This application is incredibly useful for determining the position and movement of a variety of celestial objects, including the sun, moon, the Milky Way galaxy, and more. I especially appreciate the 3D view that allows you to hold your smartphone up in front of you and use it as a virtual “window” to indicate the position of the moon and other celestial objects.

The Visibility option in the Planets application also allows you to see at a glance the specific times that celestial objects will come into view at your current location, which includes the time the moon will rise and set. You can find information about the Planets application on iTunes.

Planets and Sky 3D app

Planets visibility in app

Another helpful application is Focalware, which provides a nice graphical representation of the position of the moon (or the sun), which you can pan through to see what position the moon will be in at different times. This includes both directional information, as well as the elevation (azimuth) of the moon relative to the horizon. You can find the Focalware application in the iTunes store.

Moon focalware screenshot

Another very popular tool for determining where you might want to be to capture a particular image is Google Earth. With Google Earth you can take a virtual tour of any location on the planet, and determine the angles and vantage points that might be most helpful for the photograph you have in mind. This is obviously helpful for many types of photography, even when you don’t intend to include the moon in the frame. You can get more information about Google Earth through the Google Earth website.

Know the Exposure

For daytime photography, the moon generally won’t represent any difficulty in terms of exposure, as it will be about as luminous as the general landscape before you. At night, however, including the moon in the frame can be a particular challenge that can lead to a degree of frustration.

When the moon appears in the sky at night, the portion of the moon that is illuminated essentially represents daylight, while the scene around you might be entirely shrouded in darkness. That is because the illumination of the moon is coming directly from the sun, of course. In general, you can set your exposure for the moon to about one stop darker than the settings you would otherwise use for a normal daytime photograph. That can obviously produce a result that is considerably darker than you would achieve with proper exposure settings for a typical night photograph.

In other words, a night scene that includes the moon represents a scene with a tremendously high dynamic range. As a result, you need to make a decision about your exposure. For a single capture, you will often need to choose whether you want to retain detail in the moon, even though that means the reset of the scene will appear very dark (and possibly without any visible detail at all), or whether you want to have good visible detail for the overall scene with the moon appearing partially (or completely) blown out.

Another alternative is to capture more than one exposure, and then blend the two (or more) exposures together using high dynamic range (HDR) software, or through the use of compositing, such as by employing layer masks in Photoshop.

Ultimately, the most important thing to keep in mind in terms of photographing the moon in the context of a night scene is that the moon represents an object being illuminated by sunlight even though the landscape in front of you may be completely dark.

Go Long

A common frustration I hear from photographers who have included the moon in a photograph is that the moon appears incredibly small in the frame. As you might expect, achieving a better result in terms of the size of the moon involves using a lens with a longer focal length.

If you were photographing the moon as the only subject of your photograph, and thus wanted to nearly fill the frame with the moon, you would need to use a lens with a focal length of about 600mm (assuming a 35mm format camera). In my mind, in order to achieve a photo where the moon is large enough to be perceived as a key component of the composition, you need to use a lens with a focal length (again based on a 35mm format) of at least 200mm, and ideally 300mm or more.

In other words, I think it is important to think of the moon as a key subject that will guide your decisions about the specific equipment you will use to capture a photograph, rather than simply including the moon in the frame of a scene you have already selected in the landscape before you.

Moon near Monument Valley, cropped © Tim Grey

Set the Scene

No matter what subject you are photographing, framing the scene in a compelling way can make all the difference. The moon certainly qualifies as a subject within a photograph, and thus if you are using the moon as a key element of the scene it makes sense to carefully compose the image. That can involve having a scene that provides context for the moon, or having the moon provide context for the larger scene, for example.

It is sometimes surprising just how fast the moon moves across the sky, so creating a composition that includes the moon often requires fast work or considerable research in advance. As you frame up the scene, however, give some thought to how you want to position the moon in the scene relative to other objects within the frame, where you would like the moon to appear in terms of the height above the horizon, and other considerations that will impact the final photo.

While the moon does move relatively fast across the sky, that movement is also predictable. With some advance planning you will improve the quality of your final results, and by getting familiar with the behavior of the moon you’ll be better able to anticipate the movement of the moon. And, of course, by photographing the moon under a wide variety of circumstances, you’ll gain a better sense of what works and what doesn’t based on your own personal preferences as a photographer.

Avoiding the Moon

While the focus of this article is including the moon in the frame, at times it is worth noting that making sure there is no moon at all can be important. For example, when I am photographing the night sky, I avoid the moon almost without exception. Otherwise there will be too much light, overpowering the stars and other celestial objects I may want to include in my photographs.

For this reason, anytime I set out to photograph the Milky Way, for example, I make a point of photographing during the new moon, when very little light is being reflected by the moon, or while the moon is well below the horizon. The point is to keep in mind that the moon reflects considerable light from the sun, and thus is not always a welcome part of your composition. Gathering information about the moon phases and the time the moon will rise and set is obviously very helpful for situations where you want to exclude the moon from the frame as well as those times when you want to include the moon in the frame.

Milkyway © Tim Grey

Have Fun

I think the most important thing is to have fun when photographing the moon—or with any type of photography. If you truly enjoy including the moon in the frame, you’ll naturally tend to photograph the moon somewhat frequently. The result will be knowledge that will help you achieve ever-better results, and an ability to compose scenes with the moon in mind to produce remarkable images.

About the Author

Tim Grey is an educator in digital photography and imaging, offering clear guidance on complex subjects through his writing and speaking.

Tim has written more than a dozen books on digital imaging for photographers, has published dozens of video training courses, has had hundreds of articles published in magazines such as Digital Photo Pro and Outdoor Photographer, among others. For more than a dozen years he has been publishing the daily Ask Tim Grey eNewsletter, answering questions from photographers, and produces the related Ask Tim Grey Podcast. He also publishes the monthly Pixology electronic magazine, and publishes video training courses through GreyLearning.com. Tim teaches through workshops, seminars, and appearances at major events around the country and around the world.

Tim can be reached via email at tim@timgrey.com.

2 thoughts on “Shooting for the Moon

  1. I stumbled across this site while looking for something different but stopped to read your post. I found a site a while back about photographing the moon and times.
    Includes map locations so one can get that perfect shot of the mooning peaking out between buildings, or mountain tops.
    Will probably be back here to read more.


  2. For some situations, another approach may be to Photoshop a moon image of any size to any location in your image that you choose. It’s not as if all photographs aren’t constructed versions of truth to start with.
    Pixology looks great, I signed up. Thanks for that and this article.

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