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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Photography Techniques  >  Photographing the Moon

Photographing the Moon

Table of Contents

Chapter Word Count: 2601
1 Introducton  (281)
2 Optical Perspectives  (320)
3 Proper Exposures  (283)
4 Film  (146)
5 Putting It All Together  (1033)
6 A few notes on day-shooting  (426)
7 More to see (112)

This page has 23 images dated from
Jan 31, 2005 to May 8, 2008
Markers indicate locations for photos on this page. Accuracy responsibility of Google Maps
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1 Introducton

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Crescent Moon at Dusk
(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, cities, horizontal, moon, nite, san francisco, west coast, western usa, photograph
Taking pictures with the moon in the scene can add a great quality to the picture. Depending on how you compose your shots, the placement and size of a moon in a picture can evoke romance, wonderment, fantasy, mystery, or an "other-worldly" feeling. The technique may appear complicated, but once you get the hang of it, it's really simple. During the day, it's more about artistic composition than overcoming any technical trickery, but at night, it becomes more challenging.

Most have had the experience of photographing what appears to be a beautiful night scene with a full moon hovering over a city, but after they get their photos back, the moon is but an overly bright "spec" in the sky. What happened? There are two problems that must be overcome. First, there is a problem of proportion—the moon appears much smaller than it does to your eye. And the second problem is that of exposure—the moon is overexposed because it's so much brighter than the rest of the scene.

This article will address these subjects and a few others. But it should be pointed out that this only applies to shooting with film. Digital cameras don't do double-exposures, which are necessary for the methods described here. I'll address the digital aspect later, but it needs to be pointed out up front so you don't go off trying this with your digital camera only to find you can't. (And, there are better/easier ways to do this digitally anyway.) There are two aspects to the task, however, which are shared by digital and film: optical perspective compensation, and and exposure settings. So, let's get started.

St. Basil Cathedral and Moon
(Moscow, Russia)
asia, buildings, churches, colorful, colors, landmarks, moon, moscow, nature, onion dome, pedestrians, people, religious, russia, sky, st basil, st basil cathedral, structures, sun, sunsets, vertical, photograph
The the problem with optical perspective occurs because the moon's distance from you is considerably more so than the distance between you and the other objects in your scene (e.g., a foregound subject, or even a moderately distant cityscape). The difference between the moon and the other elements in the scene can cause the camera's lens to make the moon's size appear disproportionately smaller if the lens is too short. This isn't what your eye sees, and it throws people off quite a bit when they first start their attempts at moon photographh. The shorter the lens, the more dramatic this effect, and most people use wide angle lenses to shoot landscapes. Conversely, the longer the lens lens, the closer together objects appear to one another (along with their relative sizes), as you can tell by this photo on the left. Using a very long telephoto lens tends to compress things unrealistically close together, so you can go too far in the other direction too. You don't often see this phenomenon because you normally use a telephoto lens for portraits, wildlife or to shoot closeups. (This optical illusion is called "compression" in photography lingo.)

All this suggests that there should be a "middle length" lens where the aspect ratio of all the objects matches what you see when you look at the scene with the nake eye. Well, the problem is what you think you see has been manipulated by your brain to adjust for the anomolies and other light refraction that the lens in your eye causes. Thus, the challenge for making a scene appear "real" in a photograph requires applying the same sort of technical manipulations that your brain does. The technical solution to this problem conveniently solves the second challenge of shooting the moon at night. Namely, setting the proper exposure. So, we'll kill two birds with one stone.

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Brooklyn Bridge
(New York City, New York, USA)
america, bridge, brooklyn, brooklyn bridge, horizontal, moon, new york, new york city, north america, united states, photograph
Remember that overly bright spec in the sky? The reason the moon didn't come out with any detail is that the moon is considerably brighter than the rest of a night scene, and that range of light is too broad for film to capture. As discussed in Techniques on Metering Light with your Camera, your eye doesn't have this problem because your brain can sense a broader range of light brightness than film (or digital sensors). You can photograph very bright and dark light subjects, but not in the same picture. You either sacrafice brighter objects (that burn out to white) for the sake of getting the darkers areas (see photo of Calgary at right), or you can get the bright areas well, only to find your dark shadows turn black.

So, how can you solve both problems at the same time? That is, how can you get the dark night scene to expose propertly and get the bright moon as well? And all in the same photo? For film, this is accomplished by shooting a double exposure. That is, two pictures in the same frame of film. One exposure captures the scene with the appropriate lens (for composition) at the appropriate exposure settings, and the other exposure captures the moon itself (with possibly a different lens) at its appropriate exposure setting. What isn't obvious is that, in each exposure, you don't want to capture any part of the other. That is, when you shoot the "scene", you don't want the moon in it at all, and when you shoot the moon, you don't want anything else in it but the the dark sky.

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Big Blue Moon over Golden Gate
(San Francisco, California, USA)
bridge, california, golden gate, golden gate bridge, horizontal, moon, national landmarks, san francisco, west coast, western usa, photograph
The type of film you choose isn't particularly important—feel free to use your favorite film brand. But, since this will be a tightly controlled picture using a tripod, the slower films will yield much better results, since they have finer grain, which makes for sharper pictures and better color balance. I prefer Fuji Velvia 50 or 100, but negative (print) film also works well. Just keep in mind that if you process print film at a local photo lab, be sure to tell them you're shooting night pictures, so they don't over-expose the prints to make them appear unrealistically bright. (Photo lab personnel may think you simply underexposed a normal day scene.) Over-exposed prints from normally exposed negatives yields foggy prints. For this tutorial, assume 100-ASA. (For a discussion on film in general, see Film Talk.)

A Classic Moon Shot
(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, cities, horizontal, moon, nite, san francisco, west coast, western usa, photograph
Here's how to do it. First, determine when the moon rises and sets in your area. A web site good for this is www.stardate.org/nightsky/moon/.

Once you know when to go, now you need to get your equipment together. Start with a camera that can do double exposures, which most SLR cameras can do. Point-n-shoot cameras, disposables, digital cameras, and other "automatic" cameras usually can't do this. Check your camera's user's guide if you're not sure. (If you're shooting digital, you can do this digitally by placing a photo of the moon inside another photo, but my experience has been that this doesn't look as "authentic" as a real double exposure, which makes for more consistent lighting.)

Next, you should have the following things besides your camera—a flashlight (always overlooked by the beginner); a tripod, preferably one with a quick-release since you will be putting the camera on and off of the tripod a lot; a cable release, or a camera that can expose on a self-timer for up to 30 seconds without your having to keep your finger on the shutter release; and either a zoom lens that can go from 28-105, or two separate lenses that span at least those focal ranges. For best results, you may want a telephoto lens up to 300mm, in case you want to put a really big moon into your scene. Once you've got these organized, wait till the sky it pitch black around where the moon is (assuming there are no clouds immediately around it), then it won't affect the first exposure. (We'll discuss dawn/dusk moon photography later.)

Your first exposure will be on the tripod using a "wider" lens to get the scene. The second exposure will be a quick hand-held shot with a telephoto lens where there is nothing in it but the moon. (This is why you need to zoom in.) Remember, the aspect ratio of the moon in a wide angle shot is such that it will appear unrealistically small if you use the same focal length for the moon as you used for the "scene" picture. Of course, you can go to the other exreme and zoom in too far, but that's a creative choice you may want to experiment with. (You've got a whole roll, experiment!)

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Moon-ument Valley
(Monument Valley, Arizona, USA)
america, arizona, desert southwest, horizontal, monument, monument valley, moon, north america, united states, valley, western usa, photograph
So, here are the detailed steps: Start by setting your camera's multiple-exposure setting to "2". Mount the camera on the tripod with your wide-angle lens set to a wide-enough setting that your scene is a reasonable landscape. When you compose the scene, make sure the moon is not visible in the viewfinder. Let's say it's a cityscape, as the image shows for the city of San Francisco. Cities are good because they are well-lit on their own. Exposures tend to be about 30-seconds to a minute. You can also use your house, a lake, or pretty much anything, as long as it's lit well enough to expose properly. If you want to try natural landscapes, you may want to choose a nite with a full moon so you can get enough natural light on the subject. Exposing for landscapes lit by a full moon tend to be about 5-8 minutes for f3.5-4.5. If it's a crescent moon out, you may not get enough light on the subject from the moon itself. (In this case, you may want to shoot the first exposure while there is still some ambient light, but then wait an hour or so till it's dark enough to shoot the moon alone with a pitch-black sky behind it.)

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Moonlit Cafe
(Punta Chivato, Mexico)
arches, horizontal, latin america, mexico, moon, punta chivato, photograph
Try advanced stuff later; for your first shoot, use something well-lit to get the general idea. Whatever you choose, keep in mind your end goal: you will eventually place the moon somewhere in the picture, so make sure you leave enough dark sky in the composition for that second shot.

Once your composition ready, take the first exposure. The duration will vary on the lighting as discussed above, but you will probably want to use your cable release to keep the shutter open, unless your camera has an automatic timer. Many SLR's go up to 30 seconds, which is usually sufficient for a city scene, like those shown on this page.

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Excessively Large Moon
(Yosemite, California, USA)
black and white, california, horizontal, moon, nature, nite, plants, sky, star field, trees, west coast, western usa, yosemite, photograph
After the first exposure is done, your camera will not wind the film to the next frame, so it's ready for you to shoot the second exposure (the moon) on the same frame of film. For this exposure, you may want to change to your telephoto lens, or zoom "in" to get a closer view of the moon itself with whatever lens you care to use. Whatever you do, compose this frame so that you only see the moon in the viewfinder, while being sure to place it in the frame where that "dark area" was in your first exposure. This is important because whatever you shoot in this exposure will interleave with whatever you shot first. This is why the dark night sky is critical as the backdrop—dark against dark is still dark. The goal, of course, is to make it appear the moon is actually in the scene.

For various creative effects, you can change the size of the moon with your lens by zooming in or out, depending on the look you want to give, but the most common mistake it putting the moon in a part of the frame that overlaps with the other stuff you've already shot, so be careful. The exposure setting on this image is usually around 1/250 second at f4.5, or f5.6. It often varies on certain atmospheric conditions and your film speed. The faster the exposure, the more detail in the moon you'll see, but it'll also be darker.

By the way, notice the difference in exposure between the 1/250 second and 8 minutes! Each of these are the proper exposures for capturing detail in their respective scenes, so it should be clear now why you can't shoot both the moon and the scene in the same shot when it's dark.

Full Moon Rising
(Punta Chivato, Mexico)
beaches, horizontal, latin america, mexico, moon, punta chivato, sunsets, photograph
Many people think the moon is out during the night only, but if you look up in the sky during the day, you'll find it's out just as often. Shooting the moon during the day is particularly easy, of course, because its brightness balances with the sky naturally. But, those pictures tend to be rather uninteresting (with random exceptions). On the other hand, a full moon rising or setting at dawn or dusk, is another story all together. Again, like any day picture, you can get a really good photo just by taking a picture normally. Here, you cannot do a double exposure because a single exposure value is sufficient to capture both the scene and the moon at the same time. If you were to try double-exposing, you'd get a "hazy" effect over the scene and the moon
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Radio Towers
(California, USA)
california, marin, marin county, moon, nite, north bay, northern california, san francisco bay area, vertical, west coast, western usa, photograph
because the light would exposure "over" the film emulsion that was previously shot. Because you have to take a single picture, you don't have the option of varying the moon's size using two separate lenses. So, the best thing to do is position yourself far enough away from your scene that you get the size of the moon that you want. This can be a considerable distance, so you may need a car. As the dusk turns into night, or the dawn turns into day, you'll find that the light ratio between the moon and the rest of the scene varies very quickly, so the timeframe for getting the best picture is limited. Be at your target destination in plenty of time and ready to go.

The techniques discussed here require a little practice because of the propensity to overlook a step, as noted before, so expect to go through various rolls of film when you get started. You should also experiment by varying the exposure and zoom level on the moon itself, till you get a feel for what you like. I happen to like an overly enlarged moon because I think it's so over-the-top silly and ridiculous, which appeals to my sense of humor. For some, it can to their sense of wonderment, especilly children. It's admittedly rather tacky, but again, it's fun to experiment. You may also try multiple exposures, like 3 or 4, and see how many moons you can get in the same shot. here, you can also vary the size of each of the moons to make it look like the Earth has many in orbit.

For a complete list of all moon photos on this site, go here.

Below are some random samples
Full Moon Setting in Western Sky at Dawn
(Punta Chivato, Mexico)
horizontal, latin america, mexico, moon, panoramic, punta chivato, set, photograph

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Golden Gate Bridge at Nite
(San Francisco, California, USA)
bridge, california, golden gate, golden gate bridge, horizontal, moon, national landmarks, san francisco, west coast, western usa, photograph
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End of Lunar Eclipse
(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, cities, horizontal, moon, nite, san francisco, west coast, western usa, photograph

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Victorians at Nite
(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, cities, horizontal, moon, nite, san francisco, west coast, western usa, photograph
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Full Moon Rise in San Francisco
(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, cities, horizontal, moon, nite, san francisco, west coast, western usa, photograph

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Seattle w/Crescent Moon
(Seattle, Washington, USA)
america, buildings, cityscapes, horizontal, moon, nite, north america, pacific northwest, seattle, space needle, structures, united states, washington, western usa, photograph

Moon Over Excalibur, Las Vegas
(Las Vegas, Nevada, USA)
america, casino, excalibur, hotels, las vegas, moon, nevada, north america, the strip, united states, vertical, western usa, photograph
Liberty Moon
Las Vegas, Nevada
(Las Vegas, Nevada, USA)
america, casino, hotels, las vegas, moon, nevada, new york, north america, the strip, united states, vertical, western usa, photograph

Moon Chairlift
black and white, chairlift, europe, horizontal, moon, switzerland, photograph
Moon Plane
black and white, europe, horizontal, moon, planes, switzerland, photograph

Full Moon Set over Canadian Rockies
(Calgary, Canada)
calgary, canada, canadian, moon, rockies, vertical, photograph
Glacier and Moon (b&w) (2)
black and white, close ups, glaciers, latin america, moon, moreno glacier, patagonia, vertical, photograph
Glacier and Moon (b&w) (3)
black and white, close ups, glaciers, latin america, moon, moreno glacier, patagonia, vertical, photograph

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