Shoot for the Moon

So lets first discuss why it is so difficult to photograph the moon. The two main issues are: (1) The brightness of the moon, and (2) the size of the moon.

Almost everyone has experienced a “moon-lit night”. This is when a full moon, or nearly full moon, lights up a dark night. You see everything around you fairly well, which is evidence that the small amount of sunlight that the moon reflects is actually quite bright.

Why is this a problem for moon photography? When the moon is so bright and everything itself is much darker, it is impossible to make a photo where¬†both¬†the moon and the subject are clearly visible. Either the moon is very bright and washed out (and everything else is properly exposed), or the moon’s details are well-defined, but everything else is black or very dark. We’ll get to possible solutions in a little bit.

The other problem with moon photography is that it is actually quite small in the sky. Using a normal lens will cause the moon to appear very small in the resulting photo. This will not usually create a compelling image, even if the frame is properly exposed. Of course you can use a zoom lens and take a photo of the moon, but that is usually pretty boring.

So what is a photographer to do? My suggestions are as follows:

  • Plan on photographing a full moon at or near moonrise or moonset, when the moon is very near the horizon
  • Look for interesting subjects that are large (e.g. building or tree size), in a large flat region, and which are visible from a distance of a few hundred feet to a few hundred yards.
  • Research the direction (aka the azimuth) where the moon will rise or set in a given month, and select a subject where the moon will be easily be visible and adjacent to the subject from a distance

OK, you may not be able to easily visualize these ideas, but let me explain what I’m trying to accomplish here. I want you to photograph the full moon near the horizon, from a distance, and with an interesting subject in the frame. The reason I want to photograph the full moon near the horizon is because the light it is emitting nearly matches the ambient light of the rest of the world at that time. That’s because the sun would be directly behind you and it would be illuminating both the moon and your subject equally.

This concept of even lighting only works with the full moon, because during other phases of the moon the moon is either too high in the sky or below the horizon when the sun is behind you.

Now simply photographing the moon near the horizon does not alone make for an interesting image. So now think about making the moon LARGE in the frame, and in combination with an interesting subject. This is the hard part. You obviously will be using a zoom lens for this, so you will be shooting BOTH the moon and the subject from a distance. They need to be very near each other in the frame. This is where a lot of planning is needed. You need a large, unobstructed, flat area for this (i.e. no hills, trees, buildings, etc) so that the rising or setting moon is visible.