Supermoon 09 Aug. '14

  2016 Sept.    Weather & Sky


The moon has fascinated mankind for thousands of years.  The USA actually sent men to walk on the moon's surface.  And now, we can photograph the moon with film or digital, from the comfort of our own planet.

A Harvest Moon and "Supermoon" appear larger and brighter than the typical full moon.  Photographing them is not as straightforward as it might seem, because there are some special technical challenges.  However, I think we can handle it.  Let's see what we've got here.

A Quick Note

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In This Article

The Challenge

Gearing Up

Photographing The Moon

Couple More Hints

Silhouettes Against The Moon


The Challenge

The moon does not always have the same luminance when viewed from Earth.

As the moon rises, the apparent brightness actually increases.  Meanwhile, sky brightness decreases.

So, you have a moon that's getting brighter and a sky that's getting darker:  a bit of a challenge for light meters and photographers. 

Also, the moon does not rise at the same time each night.  Even full moons do not always rise exactly at sunset.  That might even be the greater challenge. 

Gearing Up

First you're probably thinking "camera" and "lens", and you'd be right.  How big do you want the moon to look in the photo?  No cheating with Photoshop;  we're going to try for "in camera" compositions. 

If you want the moon to fill the entire field of view, or even close to it, just get a superzoom that can do 50x or better.

Many times, though, you'll want the landscape in the picture as well.  Often the landscape makes the picture.  This calls for an SLR or a DSLR, probably with a telephoto lens.

I would use at least a 100mm lens to photograph the moon;  much smaller than that, and the moon is too small a percentage of the scene. 

Many photographers like the 100 to 400mm zoom lenses.  In the affordable price range, a 70-210 or a 70-300 would work OK.  (For a Nikon D5300, D7100, etc., I'd get the 55-300 DX;  read my review of it here.)  This is one of those times when it pays to have APS-C instead of full-frame, if you're using digital.  Zoomed to 300 millimeters, a DX / APS-C sensor gives the same effect as having a 450 mm lens on a 35mm camera... very good if you're shooting the moon.

For 4x5 film, long telephoto equivalents are unusual and have some limitations.  You'd probably want a 380 or 400 millimeter lens;  380 is about equivalent to a 135mm on a 35mm camera.  These lenses do exist, but they're not common;  you might be able to find a 400mm through this link.

Long focal lengths require a tripod.  Image stabilization only goes so far.

If you're shooting film, use a tripod no matter what.  f/5.6 and a 60th of a second might sound easy, but at 100mm you can blur the image slightly.  That will de-sharpen the moon.  At 200mm, forget it;  a tripod becomes 100% necessary.

Fujichrome Velvia is probably the best thing on the planet for landscapes with the moon.  It will enhance the slight yellow-orange-red coloration of the rising moon.  It will also enhance any blue-purple-pink coloration of the sky.  The colors of a rising full moon during the "alpenglow" are simply amazing when photographed with Velvia 50 or 100. 

I would get the 100 speed;  that extra stop is helpful in the evening.

Photographing The Moon

It's very easy to have a moonrise that happens too early or too late for proper light-metering.  Either the moon will look OK and the rest of the scene will be too dark, or the scene may look OK but the moon will be a white circle with no features. 

Actually, the second situation might be OK if you like the whole "ghostly moon" type of effect.  Maybe like this: 

Ghostly Moon

Kodak Tri-X 400 @ 1600
Minolta X-700 with "Focal" 135mm lens
Tiffen Yellow filter
Whole-scene metered with the camera
EV Dial was probably +1/2 stop to compensate for the filter

Metering for scenes like this is actually difficult, unless the moon's luminance is within one stop of the sky.  There is a time window for this, and not all moonrises will be in this time window. 

If your camera does 1/3 stop increments, try -1/3 and -2/3 of a stop during this time.  Generally it's when the sun has just gone over the horizon, and you can see the alpenglow rising in the east.  Here's one that I whole-scene metered (Matrix metering, actually). 

Moonrise With Alpenglow

Kodak Elite Chrome 100 (today, get Velvia 100 instead).
Nikon 6006 with Nikkor 35-135mm zoom lens at 135mm.
Matrix-metered with the camera

Couple More Hints

The full moon doesn't always rise exactly at sunset;  sometimes it's quite a bit afterward.  I think the October 2016 full moon will rise almost an hour (50 minutes) after sunset, Eastern time. 

The harvest moon of 9/16/16 rose about twelve minutes after sunset.  Problem is, if it's rising behind some landscape feature such as a building or some hills, it's not visible until much later than that.  I was all set to photograph the 9/16 harvest moon, but by the time I could actually see the moon, the sky was dark. 

You'll have to check the moonrise calendars against the sunrise calendars.  Pick a day when the full moon rises at sunset, or maybe no later than ten minutes.  The Naval Observatory website has moonrise data.

With a moonrise at sunset or just a few minutes after, you should be able to whole-scene meter.  There are full-moon rises that don't happen until a good 30 to 60 minutes after sunset, which is going to be no good for landscape photography... unless your landscape is brightly-lit (such as a city street).

For some reason, September is a good month to photograph full or almost-full moonrises.  Again I think this has to do with the autumn equinox. 

This photo was matrix-metered, but I think I had it set for -1/3 EV.  If you haven't practiced a lot with film, you could always take several quick photos with a DSLR and use the best settings on your film camera.

September Full Moon

Fujichrome Velvia 100
Nikon 6006 with Nikkor 35-135mm zoom lens at 135mm.
Matrix-metered with the camera

Silhouettes Against The Moon

Without using Photoshop, you can still get the effect of a giant full moon.  You can even have people or objects silhouetted against the full moon.  Simply use a telephoto lens and a tripod, and line up the picture so the rising moon is behind the people.  Sounds easy, doesn't it?

That's actually the trickiest part.  Often there will be power lines or something else that gets in the way of your nice composition.  I remember an incredible moonrise a couple years ago, where the moon was orange colored and gigantic behind a bunch of people on the crest of a hill... but I didn't take the picture.  There was a utility wire silhouetted against the moon!

This might be why some of the best moon-silhouette photos are in open country that has none of the so-called improvements that we humans like to add.  Areas like these are a bit scarce in the eastern half of the USA.  Actually, though, utility wires and poles can become part of a good composition.  The trick is to make them look like an intended part of the landscape photo.

If you happen to be in the right time and place for a good moonrise, or you can get there... try to pick out landscape features that will either improve the composition, or at least not clutter it.

The key with all this is preparation.  Here I am, posting an article on the harvest moon on the same evening as the harvest moon.  You'll be smarter than that... get your camera, lens, film, tripod, and comfortable fold-up chair ready ahead of time, and keep them handy for the next full moon.


Photographing the moon is one of my favorite things, and I know that many other photographers enjoy it, as well.  Even after all this time, the moon still has a powerful mystique.

Digital cameras and post-processing can give you perfect-looking photos with maximum detail in the moon and landscape.  Even so, film has incredible colors that can offset the less-than-perfect detail you might capture on the disc of the moon.  That's especially true with slide film.

Either way it's all good, because you're out there photographing the moon, having fun, and improving your technique.

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