Shooting a Moonrise

Photos by Michael Maloney

Once a month, there is one day where the full moon rises at close to the same time as the sun sets. What this means for you the photographer is that you can get a detailed shot of the moon and still have detail in your landscape. You need to shoot quickly however because as the moon rises and we go into twilight, our perfect shooting conditions change at which point we need to decide if we want detail in the moon which is lit by the sun, or detail in the landscape which is now plunged into darkness. Choose to expose for the moon, and your landscape becomes pitch black. Expose for the landscape, the moon will lose all detail and look like a white dot.

The best way to determine when this one day occurs is to use The Photographers Ephemeris (TPE). This app is all you need to determine exactly when and where the sun or moon will rise or set on any day, past, present, or future, from any place in the world. I even use TPE to plan vacations! It is absolutely an essential app for landscape shooters.

Equipment

  • Camera with an assortment of lenses. Longer lenses will show more detail in the moon.
  • A sturdy tripod
  • A remote shutter release or you can use the shutter delay function on your camera.

Camera Settings

  • I recommend shooting in the RAW mode. You can get much more out of your image in RAW – rather than JPEG.
  • Set your white balance to 3200 – 3800 K or Tungsten if you want a blue, colder tone…otherwise use Daylight balance. (If you are shooting in the RAW mode, it doesn’t matter where you set your white balance as it can easily be tweaked in post production)
  • Turn off your image stabilization (IS/VR). This is recommended whenever your camera is locked to a tripod
  • Set your ISO to 100 – 400. Do not use AUTO ISO. Since we are on tripods, and the moon is lit by the sun, we can get by using a lower ISO which will give us a better quality image.
  • Use single point auto focus. Recommended because with single point focus, we will know precisely where our focus will be. Once focus is set, turn auto focus off. Now you can arrange your composition and not worry about focus shift. You need to be very careful however not to move your focus ring. I often use tape to lock the focus ring in place.
  • If you are not comfortable shooting in the manual exposure mode, then use aperture priority (AV on Canon, A on Nikon). Aperture priority is recommended because we want control over our aperture. We want a small aperture (f8, f11, f16) for deep depth of field, especially if you are using a long lens. For those of you comfortable shooting in manual mode, bracket your exposures. (changing your settings for at least 1 stop over and 1 stop under). By bracketing, you are sure to get the perfect exposure.
  • Keep in mind that you will be changing your exposure settings as the moon rises and your scene gets darker. You don’t want exposures that are too long however, because the moon will appear as an elongated blur. You can get away with a 5 second or so exposure with a wide-angle lens, but with a telephoto you need to keep exposure times to no slower than 1 second.
  • Choose a small aperture if using a long lens (200mm +). The depth of field the smaller aperture gives you should allow both your landscape and the moon to be tack sharp. If shooting with a wide angle lens, you can get by with a wider open aperture.
  • A graduated neutral density filter (2-3 stops) will extend your shooting time as twilight turns your foreground dark.
  • Last but not least, to assure tack sharp photos, lock your mirror up if you are using shutter speeds slower than 1/30th of a second, or better yet, use Live View mode.

Tripod Tips

  • Make sure your tripod is set up properly – on sturdy footing, all leg sections firmly tightened, camera secured tightly.
  • Try not to raise the middle column. You will get better stability just extending the legs.
  • Always have one leg of your tripod aimed at your subject. Forget doing this with a long heavy lens in the wind can be a costly mistake!
  • Secure your camera strap so that it is not flapping in the wind. Better yet, take it off your camera.
  • If windy, use your body to protect the camera from the wind.
  • If using long lenses with big lens hoods in the wind, take the hood off. The hood can catch the wind, causing slight vibrations that will ruin your shots.

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