Thursday, January 12, 2012

MoonScapes - Photographing a full moon with an evening landscape

Here's a photo I took earlier this week: a big yellow moon as it passes through a cloud, surrounded by a cold, blue winter sky. Only five minutes later the same full moon begins to set behind the Oquirrh Mountains, near Salt Lake City, Utah.

My "Nightscape" Moon Photography Tips: If you want to record good detail in the clouds and landscape near the moon, you need to know two important re-occurring facts: 1. The night before the full moon, the sun sets just as the moon is rising; and 2. the morning of the full moon, the moon sets just as the sun is starting to rise. During these two periods, there is just enough ambient light from the setting and rising sun to give detail to the surrounding landscape -- otherwise, it is too dark, and the contrast range is too great to record anything but blackness around the moon -- like you see in these two photos:

You can't have it both ways: either you get a washed out (overexposed moon) in order to see the clouds and surrounding landscape detail -- or you get a correctly exposed moon, and lose all the surrounding detail -- that is, unless you follow these "Nightscape" tips.

Moon Charts: I use the Old Farmer's Almanac moon phase, rise, and set charts to plan my shoots. (All times are based on sea level, so they must be adjusted slightly for mountainous terrain -- the moon will set sooner because of mountains, and the sunrise will be delayed because of mountains, and etc.) Using these charts, I can often get at least one moon rise and one moon set per month (weather permitting) that allow for good, full moon photography.

An example of how I did it: Based on my Zip Code, the full moon was to take place on January 9, 2012 at 12:32 AM. The sun was suppose to rise on this day at 7:51 AM, and the moon was scheduled to set at 7:54 AM. Because the eastern mountains around Salt Lake City are about 6,000 feet higher than the valley floor, I figured (by experience) the sunrise would be delayed about 30 minutes. And because the western mountains are about 3,000 feet higher than the valley floor, I estimated the moon would set about 15 minutes early. I figured right on both accounts. This photo was taken at 7:30 AM, with just enough predawn twilight behind me to add detail to the western sky (change it from black to a dark blue) and western mountains.

Mirror Lock-up. One other important thing: Even with a sturdy tripod and a remote release, the vibration from your mirror going up just before your shutter release can blur or degrade your shot. That's because the magnifications are so great (12X in this shot) and the shutter speeds are so slow (about 1/4 second in this case). Read your manual on how to do this for your camera. Once it is set through your menu, the first press of the shutter release will lock up the mirror, and the second press will release the shutter, and return the mirror. Even with a remote release, you should wait about three seconds for the vibrations to dampen before pressing the release the second time. So many things to remember! I also find I have to manually focus, and set all my exposures manually for best results. (For super accurate focus, I switch to Live View through my LCD screen, and magnify it to 10X. Once set, I switch back to regular view to conserve battery power.)

Technical info on top two photos: Canon EOS 7D with EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens @ 400mm (35mm equivalent is 12X)
f8 @ 1/4 sec ISO 100

You can also view my "Most Interesting" images on Flickr to see more of "My Vision".


  1. I have a question! I would LOVE to purchase a copy of the picture you took of The Milky Way over Jackson Lake and Tetons at Grand Teton National Park on August 23, 2011 in Wyoming. Is there a place I can purchase a copy of that one? My e-mail is

  2. Royce, Thanks for sharing all this great information! Awesome tips!

  3. I just found your work--great photography! I, too, like to shoot nightscapes and I noticed that several times in your explanations you've mentioned using the Farmer's Almanac. Have you tried any ephemeris programs? They are available for all the platforms (PC, Android phones, iPhones, etc.) and are extremely useful. Not only do they provide sunset/rise and moonset/rise times, but they also show you graphically where they occur on a map. You can "scroll" backwards and forwards in time to find when and where they will line up with a landscape feature.