Photographing the moon

I am not an astrophotographer, but I do enjoy photographing the moon.  Key considerations for photography include location, gear, composition and exposure.

Locations

When hiking, I am on the lookout for locations that could be a good place to view the rising moon.  The moon appears largest when it first rises above the horizon (an optical illusion), which is what I am after.   You will also need some software to help you determine where (and when) the moon will appear on the horizon.  The two programs that I use on my iPhone are TPE and LightTrac.

I have tried two different locations in Boulder: Dakota Ridge and the NCAR Mesa.

Dakota Ridge

The Dakota Ridge can be accessed by foot from multiple locations in Boulder.  One good option near Central Boulder is the Dakota Ridge Trail that lies East of Mt. Sanitas.  Another option in North Boulder is the top of the ridge overlooking Wonderland Lake.  I chose this second location as it is closer to our home.  The view from this location is shown below in a  photo I took in October 2017 (looking East).  ISO 200, f11, 1.7 sec at 60mm.

The problem with the Dakota Ridge as a location is that the walk home (after the shoot) will be in the dark, so you will have to pack along headlamps and be on the lookout for wildlife.  When we went to take pictures of the moon last October, a mountain lion had been spotted several times in the foothills of North Boulder.  With active imaginations, our walk home was interesting!

NCAR Mesa

I already discussed NCAR as a location for architectural photography in my last post (NCAR: Photographing grand architecture).  The mesa on which it was built offers an excellent vantage point for Boulder and the front range.  This location (1850 Table Mesa Drive, Boulder, Colorado 80305) also has the advantage of being accessible by car.  The view from this  location is shown below in the photo I took in December 2017 (Looking North).  ISO 200, f11, 1/4 sec at 142mm.

If you walk closer to the edge of the mesa there are views of Boulder that are not obstructed by trees.

Gear

There are three essentials for photographing the moon: a tripod, manual camera control and a long lens.  A tripod is essential for holding the camera steady given the need for longer exposures in low light.  You can dial up ISO to reduce the exposure time, but the image will become too grainy.  It is better to have a sturdy tripod and go for a longer exposure.

You also need to be able to manually dial in the shutter speed to get the correct exposure.  This can be a bit trial-and-error, but pictures are cheap with a digital camera!  Also, if the camera is set on automatic it can interpret the full moon as the sun, which will result in a brighter landscape, but no detail in the moon.

If you use a normal (50mm) lens, the size of the moon will appear small relative to the landscape in the finished image.  Due to the optical illusion mentioned above, you may not notice this while you are taking the picture with a normal lens.

I think the more successful shots emphasize the size of the moon relative to the background.  This can be accomplished by using a long (telephoto) lens.  A sturdy tripod is a must when using a telephoto lens in low light.  However, when using a longer lens you can get blurry images from shutter vibration in DSLR cameras.  The way to minimize this is to use either the mirror-up setting on a DSLR.  Even if your camera is a mirrorless model, you may get better results using the built-in self-timer.

Also, many cameras are equipped with some sort of vibration reduction feature that is intended for hand-held use.  When using a tripod, it is usually best to disable this feature.

A good source of additional technical information on photographing the moon is on B&H Explora.

Composition

You may chose to photograph just the moon itself, like this image I took in September 2015 (highly cropped) of a so-called blood moon.  ISO 400, f16, 2 sec at 200mm.

An astronomer would like that, but as a photographer it may be interesting to try something different.  I took this photo in March 2012 in White Plains, New York, which uses the branches of tree to frame the moon.  ISO 400, f16, 2 sec at 200mm.

Clouds can also add some interesting perspective when photographing the moon.  When we went out on Dakota Ridge in October 2017, the clouds only allowed a brief window of the moon rise.  ISO 800, f8, 2.3 sec at 210mm.

Another trick is to use an object of known size and a telephoto lens in order to emphasize the apparent size of the full moon.  I took this picture in August 2014 from our (then) Manhattan apartment of the moon rising above the East side of Central Park.  ISO 100, f11, 1/2 sec at 300mm.

While this full moon was not technically a “Super Moon”, it sure looks like one!

The Super Moon phenomena

There has been a lot of media interest in Super Moons lately.  I am of a certain age and don’t recall this being a thing when I was younger.  Technically, a super moon is a full moon that is near the closest point in its orbit of the earth.  The super moon appears larger to the eye than a normal moon.  In the Wikipedia article, the image of the super moon is 6% larger than the average moon.  (When I printed this image, the average moon diameter is 87mm and the super moon diameter is 92mm).

For the remainder of the year, there are three more super moons: January 31, June 13 and August 11.  The full list for the 21st century is on this link.  I think it is telling that this list is on an astrological link, not an astronomical one!

Exposure

We went to the NCAR mesa in December to photograph the last super moon rise of 2017.  In order to capture the detail of the moon and the night landscape, I had to take two different exposures.  In the first image the moon is over-exposed, but there is a decent amount of detail of Boulder.  ISO 400, f8, 1/2 sec at 75mm.

In the second image, I increased the shutter speed (by 5 stops) to get the detail in the moon itself.  ISO 400, f8, 1/60 sec at 75mm.

I later combined the two images in Photoshop in order to produce a composite that had the best aspects of the two exposures.  While you would never capture something like this with a camera, it is very similar to how your brain interprets the scene.

Of course, you may want to have an over-exposed image of the moon!  Image of the author (December 2017).  ISO 1600, f2.8, 1.3 sec at 75mm.

I hope this series inspires you to try your hand at photographing the moon.  Until the next post!

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One thought on “Photographing the moon”

  1. Jon Watson

    A lot of thought put into photographing the moon! I like your approach to making this just as much about sharing the technical knowledge as much as the actual photographs.

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