Photographing the moon by itself can be quite challenging, but photographing the moon with earthbound elements presents a new set of challenges.  The lunar soil itself is essentially a colorless off-white/gray and therefore serves as an excellent reflector of sunlight, which is why the moon appears so bright to us.  Shutter exposures at night are typically long and high ISO’s are used to increase the camera sensitivity to light in these low light situations.  However, since the moon is a moving object and reflects sunlight, the settings required to get the correct exposure of the moon are essentially the same settings used for direct sunlight; fast shutter, low ISO and narrow apertures.  Take, for example, the image created below.  An isolated shot of the moon like this one can be obtained using a long focal length and cropping the RAW file.

Close up and detailed shot of the full moon.
Close up and detailed shot of the full moon.

The camera settings used here were ISO 100, f/13 and a 1/60s shutter on a tripod with a remote shutter release triggered in mirror lockup mode to minimize vibrations.  When photographing at night, neither stars nor earth will be exposed correctly at these settings unless a similarly strong light is used during the exposure, from the sun or man made sources.

The next shot was taken with a wide angle lens, wide aperture and long enough to get the landscape and some stars in view (ISO 400, f/3.5, 20 secs @ 18mm).  Now, we have a bright, overexposed moon that could be mistakenly identified as the sun.  Additionally, a wide angle lens makes everything distant appear smaller and a properly exposed moon will appear dwarfed in comparison to the way it appeared to you in the moment.

The moon rises above a bare tree silhouette.
The moon rises above a bare tree silhouette.

There are several approaches we can use to overcome some of these barriers to produce better moon photos.  This is where digital photography and compositing techniques in software can make up for the limitations of traditional cameras.  First, I’ll talk about effectively combining exposures to achieve the desired result and I’ll conclude by giving examples using single exposures.  Both are not easy and require lots of patience, planning and sometimes a little improvisation to master but that will only make the end result more rewarding!  This will not cover the aspects of planning, but I can point you in the right direction.  All of my shots were planned using The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) on mobile and desktop.  It’s not the most user friendly tool at first, but there are tutorials on the TPE website that are well worth learning, and TPE is invaluable for calculated sunsets and sunrises as well.  I can’t recommend it enough.  I’m also going to assume a basic working knowledge of manual camera settings, Adobe Lightroom, and layers and masks in Photoshop, again my hope with this article is to inspire new thoughts and ideas to fuel the learning process.

A Simple 2 Exposure Approach

Moon rise over the silhouette of a bare, skeletal tree line.
Moon rise over the silhouette of a bare, skeletal tree line.

This first method is fairly simple and best employed with a long lens.  The goal here is to have objects silhouetted against both the night sky and moon.  It’s great for moon rises in particular; think moon coming up over a mountain top, a far off man-made structure, or in this case, an interesting tree in the distance.

The first shot requires all the timing and planning as you want to capture the moon against the object you have chosen to use.  Know the path and timing of the moon in advanced (use TPE), with camera and tripod ready.  You should practice photographing the moon before the planned shot to discover what exposure settings work best – it should all be done quickly, the moon will be moving fast and you don’t want to be fumbling around with camera settings while you miss the shot. In my example here at 300mm, I use ISO 400, f/13 and 1/125s.  Unfortunately, I’ve lost the original shot used for this composite, the one shown in this example was taken just moments after the original but still serves to illustrate the point.  The details of the tree branches are visible through the moon but nothing else outside of the moon is discernible in this frame.

Moon sculpture

With a longer exposure, any detail in the tree limbs would be lost to the overpowering highlights of the moon.  In order to extract the detail from the silhouettes, wait for the moon to move out of frame and expose longer.  I waited approximately 20 minutes to get the second shot in my composite using the settings: ISO 400, f/8.0, 15 secs – in fact, you can still see the moon was not far out of frame by the bright highlights present in the upper right corner.  I shot the foreground using a wider aperture to allow more light in and I’m not too concerned with depth of field.

imgp1497

To complete the composite, place the foreground layer on top of the moon layer and enable “lighten” blending mode.  Sometimes manually masking in the moon is necessary if you have two light exposures.  Finally, a dark vignette was added using the radial adjustment tool in Lightroom in order to conceal those bright highlights off frame and to focus attention toward the center.

A Complicated Multiple Exposure Approach

I wanted to make something special out of last year’s blue moon.  I planned this shot months ahead of the moon rise and considered many different locations but ultimately settled on this one because it’s difficult to find landscapes like this that lend itself so well to this kind of photography in West Virginia.  I might approach this shot a little differently today but this image combines multiple techniques: focus stacking, focal length stacking and other compositing techniques.

First, I shot the moon with my telephoto lens at 300mm, ISO 100, f/8.0, 1/20s.  If I had shot the moon using a wide angle only, the moon would appear too small in frame and I really wanted everything to look in proportion to what I saw that night.

imgp0303

Then, once again, I waited for the moon to get out of frame, swapped lenses and shot at 18mm.  I took 2 shots; one focused on the rock ledge and the other on the distant landscape using the same settings ISO 400, f/2.8, 30 secs.  They look different because I gave them different treatments in Lightroom.

imgp0337 imgp0338

These three shots were combined in Photoshop.  I manually masked in the sharp rock ledge (in hindsight I could have done a better job blending this).  The moon itself was added using a layer mask to paint it in.  Further, the moon was resized to appear more proportional to the way it would look in person.  The sky was an issue, as you can see it is bright and blue during a full moon at longer exposures.  To deal with this, I simply created a new transparent layer over the two landscape layers and added a dark gradient from top to bottom, while still retaining some of that orange glow on the horizon.  Minor tweaks were made to complete the scene: like a dodge and burn layer and some curves adjustments.

The full, new moon rising over the New River Gorge as viewed from the Diamond Point overlook of the Endless Wall Trail, West Virginia.
The full, new moon rising over the New River Gorge as viewed from the Diamond Point overlook of the Endless Wall Trail, West Virginia.

The Single Exposure Approach

The easiest method requires the same amount of planning leading up to the shot but none of the compositing steps.  As mentioned in the introduction, if you want to get the landscape and moon properly exposed together; shoot during daylight or early twilight hours. Simply use the same exposure settings that you would use to shoot the landscape but maintain a shutter speed no slower than 1/30s.  I’ll leave off with some examples, good luck shooting!  Feel free to leave a comment below if you have anything to add!

During the day, a waxing gibbous moon rises along a hillside of Spring green grass and dandelion.
During the day, a waxing gibbous moon rises along a hillside of Spring green grass and dandelion. 300mm, ISO 100, f/16, 1/160s
The full moon appears to be cradled by the sheer rock cliff walls of Seneca Rocks as it rises amidts the gathering night time clouds. Pendleton County, West Virginia, USA.
The full moon appears to be cradled by the sheer rock cliff walls of Seneca Rocks as it rises amidst the gathering night time clouds. Pendleton County, West Virginia, USA. 210mm, ISO 800, f/16, 1/15s
Crescent moon over one of the ridge back's of Red Rock Canyon.
Crescent moon over one of the ridge back’s of Red Rock Canyon. 26mm, ISO 100, f/8, 1/25s
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