Photographing the Full Moon
Three days prior to the full moon of each month, an alarm goes off on my iPhone as a reminder. It’s really cute. The app plays the sound byte from the Apollo moon landing back in 1968… you know the one… “one small step for man…one giant leap for mankind.” [jwplayer mediaid=”3430″]
It still gives me chills. In case you want this free app, it’s called “Moon.
That iPhone reminder each month starts me thinking about where I might want to be to shoot the full moon. I usually have some general ideas and then I go to another app, The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE). This is the coolest app to help pre-visualize where on the horizon the moon will rise. TPE does so much more than just telling you when the moon will rise. It IS free to use on your computer, but if you want to carry the app with you, which is highly recommended, it’ll cost $9. I bought it a couple years ago and use it often when I’m in the field.
All of this pre-planning and preparation pay off sometimes. But, like so often happens in photography, synchronicity brings together all the elements that make the best shot. That’s how I got last week’s full moon photograph featured today. The TPE app lets me lay the trajectory of the rising moon over a map so I can place myself in the right spot.
I did just that. I zoomed in on the Crow Canyon Country Club golf course where I live, to see which holes might have the best potential for a great composition at moonrise. Studying that a couple of minutes helped me narrow it down to three places that might payoff. What TPE can’t tell me, of course, are what other elements I might encounter which could help or hurt my chances. This month I got some help.
About an hour before moonrise, I grabbed Mai and we went for a walk. We checked out all three likely places, taking some photos along the way. But nothing was standing out as the shot I was after. Furthermore, I was very disappointed that there weren’t any clouds in the sky, the moon was rising fast, and I was quickly losing daylight. It was looking like I wasn’t going to get a good shot that night.
We circled back to the first location… just in case. About 200 yards from where I wanted to be, I saw a group of golfers playing the 13th hole. The shot I had pre-visualized was from the 14th tee. So I was hoping they would continue playing and tee off on #14 in just a few minutes. How lucky would that be?
This is where synchronicity comes in to play. I mean it was too dark to be golfing so why was there a group playing so late anyway? And when I was complaining about there not being any clouds, Mai told me to ask the Universe to bring in some clouds. Who cares, the golfers were there and I instantly wanted to incorporate them into my full moon photo. It was getting too dark to see the ball. I thought, “they’ll probably quit after finishing #13.” But they didn’t.
When I saw them head over to the 14th tee I knew this was a great opportunity to capture the full moon with them teeing off in the perfect spot. Then, a little voice inside my head started talking to me and trying it’s best to sabotage me. It made me question whether I could get there in time, if it was even light enough to get a clean shot… Lots of “what-if’s” passed through my head and I almost talked myself out of trying. Good thing, Mai knows how to spot it when synchronicity comes together as a giant gift from the Universe. She never lets rational thoughts like mine, slow her down.
Mai was all-in. She grabbed my hand and gleefully ran toward the shot. Hand-in-hand we bounced across the fairway to set up my tripod about 75 yards in back of the tee box. All but one of the group had already hit by the time we were ready to shoot. I had one opportunity to get the shot when the final golfer stepped up to hit. I worked my camera like Tiger Wood in those moments where he had one chance to make his money shot, and he does it flawlessly. Synchronicity and skills all came together. And did you notice the whispery clouds around the moon. How cool is that, Eh??!!!
What I learned from Trey Ratcliff…
Back at that moment when I knew it was my opportunity for a great shot, I had to think fast. It was dark so I knew my shutter speed would be slow. That would blur any movement so I decided that I would shoot after the golfer hit the ball and the club is rested at the finish position of his follow-through. An additional complication was that I was shooting HDR and bracketing my photos. So that meant I wanted the middle exposure to be the one where the golf club was stopped. In order to do that, I snapped the first frame (the underexposed one), and then waited to take the second frame (the normal exposure), at exactly the right time to capture the golfer in that perfect position. Then I took the final frame (the overexposed one), after the final golfer had hit his drive and they were done.
I had seen Trey Ratcliff of StuckInCustoms.com do this when I was photographing with him in Monterey, CA last year on a photowalk. He was photographing a tree along the waterfront with a jogging path in front of it. He setup his shot and took the first frame with no people on the path then waited until people came into position on the jogging path in the exact composition he had pre-visualized and took that shot, like I did of the golfer. In post processing, it’s easy to mask in the people in the correct frame and end up with exactly the photo you want! Thank you Trey!
Other Full Moon Photography Tips & Considerations
Full moon photography requires some thought. First thing to realize is that you just can’t use a wide angle lens. The moon ends up way too small and insignificant as a distracting bright spot in the scene. So my Tokina 11-16mm comes off the camera on full moon night. I slip on my 18-105mm. You need at least a small telephoto action going for you to get the moon a respectable size in the frame. Your only other option is to mask a large moon into whatever scene you take. Many photographers do that and it usually looks too fake because they always seem to make the moon a bit too large. Anyway, I had my lens zoomed in all the way to 105mm on a my crop sensor Nikon D-90 so the equivalent lens focal length was around 160mm. That seems to work well. The moon ends up a really nice size and there is still enough field of view to include something in the foreground to add interest.
Tripod. There is no hand holding your camera allowed when you shoot the full moon. The moon itself is bright enough for a hand held shot, but the rest of the scene is going to be too dark to capture without blurring from camera movement. I remember learning from reading Ansel Adams book on The Zone System, that the moon is always the same brightness. He used the brightness of the moon to set his exposure and then developed his negatives to bring out the rest of the scene. Today we have HDR photography to simulate what he masterfully was able to accomplish in his chemical darkroom.
Camera Settings for Full Moon Photography
Exposure. This is tough. I missed a stunningly gorgeous shot of moonrise over half dome and the high Sierra in Yosemite when Mai and I were up at Glacier Point on the full moon for her birthday a couple years ago. I didn’t expose property and ended up with no detail in the moon, just a big bright blown-out disk of light. Boooooooo. Fail.
This is where HDR helps so much to get the shot. Bracket your exposures enough so that the shortest exposure results in getting great detail of the moon. Then make sure you bracket the longer exposures above that enough to get detail in the rest of the scene. This usually requires at least a 6 stop swing in exposure, which I can’t get on my Nikon without using the exposure compensation dial. So I take one series of shots to get the frame of the moon I want, then adjust the exposure compensation dial to increase exposure by 4 f-stops from that and take another series of shots. That’s an easy way to get a six shot bracket and I use that method often when the dynamic range of the scene I’m photographing is very high. You need to be on a tripod to do this. You also need to be looking at your histogram to make sure that you’ve captured the entire dynamic range of the scene.
Noise. Noise is always a problem with HDR photography. When you’re shooting in low light, it gets bad really fast. So I recommend that you raise you ISO just a little. Not too drastic. For instance, my D-90 is pretty good with noise up to about 800 ISO so I’ll go with that as a maximum I’ll tolerate in low light. The shot above was at ISO 400. To deal with the noise, I run all RAW images through NIK D-fine as my very first step in post processing. I might even have to use D-fine again later on depending on how the noise builds up during the HDR process. Noise is most noticeable in the sky so I will sometimes use my Lightroom adjustment brush set at a negative sharpening value to smooth out noise only in the sky and leave the rest of the frame alone. You’ll find that when details predominate the scene that does a lot to disguise noise. Getting rid of noise is a constant balance between retaining detail and having a smooth image.
Okay, that’s it. Maybe you’ll plan (ahead) to do a full moon shot this month. It’s happing on March 27th. Here’s another tip. Plan to go out on the 26th. The day before the full moon is often the best opportunity to get the shot you want. The sky and landscape will be a lot lighter so the dynamic range of the scene will be much easier to capture. Most of all though, don’t be attached to the outcome, have fun with it, follow your gut, never listen to that voice of doubt in your head, and be open to synchronicity to help you out.