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Photographing the Moon with landscape using a long focal lengths

Česká verze článku je tady.

collage of Moon shots

To capture a picture of the solitary Moon does not require big planning. It is just necessary to use a lens with long focal length, have a visible Moon and take care of not overexposing it. The Moon by itself looks interesting but you will get tired of it soon. Almost all the pictures of solitary Moon look the same (the only variable is its phase between crescent and full moon and the quality of picture, at least when there is no eclipse or a comet nearby). On the other hand the photo of the Moon within an Earthly landscape can look different every time. Many photographers would rather create a collage of solitary Moon into a landscape picture (tell-tale sign is inappropriately big size relative to wide angle of view or a phase and shadows not matching). It is much harder to take a photo of the Moon within the landscape so it is also a challenge. Moonrise or moonset perhaps over an ancient castle is also a nice experience.

When to shoot?

Around the full moon. On other days the Moon is near the horizon during times when there is too much light or too dark.

It is best when the Moon is big in the sky. That is when it is closer. Its distance from Earth fluctuates between 358 to 406 thousands of kilometers. You can find out the distance here at fourmilab.ch or here at mooncalc.org.

During the year the there will be several full moons when it is bigger and several when it is smaller. It is not essential, but usually you want the Moon to be bigger in the picture rather than smaller so it is nice when it is closer.

You can shoot few days before or few days after the full moon. It is quite important for difference of best Moon exposure and best land exposure. Details will follow.

You can also shoot a thin crescent around the new moon (right after sunset or before sunrise). I do not have experience with that yet so I will cover only full moons.

With artificial lights it is possible to shoot at any part of moon cycle. For example with high rise building which has its own lighting. Similarly a silhouette can be shot in any part of cycle.

What to shoot?

Preferably some prominent feature in the landscape that stands above horizon. It can be a castle on a hill, hill itself, look out tower on a hill, transmitter tower on a hill, a bigger tree on the hill. Generally, something on a hill or a hill itself.

From where to shoot?

In a way that the Moon will rise (during sunset) or set (during moonrise) behind the prominent feature on the hill. At the same time we need to be far from that prominent feature so that we can use a long focal length. If we would be close to the feature we could fit it with only a wide angle lens that makes the Moon small. For example a good distance for shooting a castle could be 2 to 4 kilometers. It would be also a problem to shoot something small from closer distance because depth of field would be small with long focal length (focus stacking would increase difficulty). I plan my Moon shots with web version of mooncalc.org (there is an Android app but it is too limited) but there are sure many more pages and apps.

Example: photographing moonrise over Hazmburk castle (Czech Republic) on 15th May 2022.

  1. Place the center over the castle and pick a time of the moonrise.
  2. The Hazumburk hill has 418m above sea level (the hill, the tower is higher).
  3. We will find a Moon location during the moonrise. Our location will be at opposite side through the hill. In the example it looks like between Dlažkovice village and Lkáň village, north-west from the castle. We can choose a distance. But then calculating from that, we may find out it is in a bad place or might be visible from height that is not available. The mooncalc web site helps with the start of planning. It can cast a shadow from an object for a specific height, however it does not compute that height from the terrain. We will do some computation to validate height.
  4. The place we will be shooting from is at 239m above sea level. So the castle is about 179m higher than that place. The distance is 4267m. We can find out both numbers using distance measurement tools in mapy.cz
  5. The angle is: atan(179/4267) = 2.4°.
  6. In the mooncalc we will set a "Moon altitude" angle to 2,4° by using day time slider at the top of the page and set a "Shadow length at an object level" to 179m. Outcome is here in the screenshot below. It confirm the position (beware that if you magnify the shadow bar will get clipped, unzoom to verify):

mooncalc.org screenshot

If the shadow bar would point to a place where altitude is different we would have to make a new guess and recompute it all.

If you would move the slider for a day time the shadow will move. It will be shorter when the Moon is higher. If you would want to capture more pictures (I assume so) it will be useful to have ability to move in the land around the path of this shadow bar tail. A meadow might be a good location for moving around (if it is not too overgrown). During the year the position of the Moon during the full moon changes and that changes the places from which to shoot so particular composition can be shot only in some months.

It is also useful to check the place before actual Moon shoot to see if there is clear view on the hill (no electric lines, trees, buildings or other hills).

Exposure

You can shoot a few days before or a few days after a full moon. The days before full moon are better for evening moonrise. The days after moonrise are better for morning moonset. It is because you will get some overlap of time the both the Moon and the Sun will be above the horizon. You can get exact times of rise and set for both from suncalc.org and mooncalc.org web sites. The difference between sunset and moonrise (or moonset and sunrise) will determine exposure difference for land and the Moon.

Examples for moonrises:

  1. Sunset 20:34, moonrise 20:40 - it was difficult to expose. The Moon was too bright compared to land which was too dark so it was necessary to use exposure bracketing (exposure for the Moon was 1/8s f/6.3 ISO 200, and for the land it was 1/2s f/6.3 ISO 200). Processed photos are here.
  2. Sunset 16:49, moonrise Měsíce 15:06 - exposure 1/160s f/8 ISO 100 for the land, but the Moon was almost invisible and disappearing after its rise because the sky was too bright. Processed photos are here.
  3. Sunset 20:45, moonrise 20:05, 15th May 2022 - again Hazmburk castle, from the similar place as in the number 1. I I wrote most of the article before this shoot so it was interesting to make a plan according to advices here and compare with results. My estimation was that exposure bracketing will not be needed which turned out to be true. However I did not anticipate that sky would be still quite bright at the time of moonrise. A bit later when the Moon was over the castle at the top of the hill, that is the altitude 2.4° above horizon, it was ok, but some darkening of the sky in the post-processing was still useful to make the Moon stand out more. Processed picture is here.

    Exposure was 1/30s f/5.6 ISO 100 400mm. Processing is from several raw files shot in series within a few seconds. A single non-processed and non-cropped raw looks like this:


    non-processed raw with histogram

Examples for moonsets:

  1. Sunrise 8:02, moonset 8:29. Exposure 1/25s f/6.3 ISO 100 for both. Ideal exposure. Zpracované fotky tady.
  2. Sunrise 7:58, moonset 8:27. Exposure 1/80s f/6.3 ISO 320 for both. Moon was not sharp due to atmospheric haze. Exposure was ok, without need to bracket. I have chosen a higher shutter speed to reduce effect of air waves and vibration from wind. The exposure is otherwise an equivalent to 1/25s f/6.3 ISO 100 like above. Processed pictures here.

So out of the all my tries I think that bets overlap time of the Sun above the horizon and Moon above the horizon is around half an hour. When the overlap is short or negative (e.g. the Moon rises few minutes after sunset), that causes big difference for land and the Moon exposure so it requires exposure bracketing. When the overlap time is too long, it causes the Moon to disappear in the bright sky. Clouds might have some role in exposure too when they obscure Sun and the land gets darker.

Weather

You will need a cloudless line in the direction of shooting. But clouds can be elsewhere without much problems. You do not want a strong wind that will shake your long lens easily. Often, during a sunset or a sunrise there is a change in temperature associated with temporary increased wind speed. Air haze (waves of air of different temperature) can impact image quality especially for the Moon which you will be shooting through a big amount of air. Example (shot with same gear): affected by air quality here a not affected here

Photography gear

You will need following gear to get optimal results:

Shooting technique

During a shoot you will realize that the Moon moves so fast that long lens. Therefore it is important to avoid spending time on distractions like searching for a camera setting. When the Moon passes it is the end for that day. You may try next day, but shooting location will move and exposure will move significantly. Next month the location will be different too. So it would be bad to find out that something was not set up properly.

Learn in advance

Prepare gear before shoot

It is easier to shoot moonset than moonrise because you will know Moon location before shoot and you can estimate where it will set. For moonrise you will have only few minutes before learning an exact Moon location to move to optimize composition.

Tips for other Moon photographers

If the article helped you share your best pictures. Write me an email at email

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