Tips for Photographing the Moon - Stover Photo

Well. So you want to photograph the moon.

There is good news and their is bad news. The good news is luckily the Moon rises and sets everyday. And lucky for you it is full 13 times a year. The bad news? It is tougher to photograph than you would think. Add the extra layer of complexity of the Super Moon (or super bright moon) and your job gets a little tougher. But not all is lost! The good news is that unlike a solar eclipse, if you don’t get it right the first, third or fifth try the chances are good that you will get another chance in 28 days and not 28 years.

So where do you start? Yes you can just go outside and point your camera (With the right lens set-up) at the moon almost anytime and get a decent shot. But if you want to get a moon rise or moon set that is more challenging and I will say more rewarding but will require more planning and preparation. 

First things first. Get PhotoPills. It is less than $10 and not only will it help you plan the moon shot it will dramatically improve your Milky Way shots with it’s Augmented/Virtual reality feature and give you precise and accurate sunrise and sunset times and locations. The other really awesome thing is they have some amazing free tutorials to show you how to not only use the app but also show real examples of other photography and the settings you will see the best success with.

Here is a screenshot showing the moonset from a location up in the foothills of San Luis Obispo, CA.

Augmented Reality View of Moonset

Next. Figure out if there is a good spot where you would like to capture foreground elements or possibly some horizon elements. For the SuperMoon in December of 2017 I knew that I wanted to try and capture the Moonset over a Central Coast Icon called Morro Rock and was hopeful to get the Moonrise over the ridge over my town San Luis Obispo or over the dunes of Pismo Beach.

With my day set by when the Super moon was going to occur  I went to work on the planning tool which showed me was that the Moonset would align if I found a landmark along this trajectory and Azimuth. Lucky for me there was a perfect hill called Black Hill that provided some nice distance and an incredible view of the main element I wanted in my photo, Morro Rock. You have probably all seen the picture where the moon looks like it is Photoshopped into a picture because it is so large compared to the landscape surrounding that. Well what looks like a trick is actually set in place with optics, the biggest one being your telephoto lens and the distance away from the landmark and the moon. PhotoPills goes into great detail about how to calculate this in their free tutorial so check it out. I had concerns with the weather more than anything but generally early December on the coast of CA is not too bad.

Morro Rock Shot Planning

I made the decision to set up two cameras. One to capture a time-lapse of the Moonset and one to zoom in and hopefully capture the detail of Morro Rock and the moon. A 430 AM wakeup that my wife went along with in part because of her FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). A 20 minute drive. A 30 minute hike and we were in place. All we had to do was hope the clouds would clear and wait.

Waiting for it all come together

Photo credit @Jen Stover

The first shots were a hot mess. As the sun started to rise (and highlight) the moon went from the white we are used to seeing to a bright orb. The foreground was still dark so long exposure was washing out the moon and creating moon streaks and shorter exposure was leaving the foreground too dark to make out any detail. So I did what all good photographers do. Stress.

Bit of a mess

But after I got through with stressing I adjusted my plan. I was planning to bracket the moonset as it got closer to dropping below the horizon but ended up starting my bracketing way earlier. What I also found was the need to only do .5 stops as more than that resulted in a completely blown out moon. And if you went for a longer exposure you got moon trails. Yes, the moon actually moves fast enough at the horizon that it will blur considerably.

The next challenge I tried to figure out was how to focus. I have gotten pretty good on my 14-24MM lens to set the focus on objects for Astro Photography or landscapes. That lens let’s in so much light and has such great optics that you can dial it in pretty quickly. Trying to get focus through a 500MM telephoto lens in the dark was more challenging. It was crazy to see with the 500MM telephoto how much the tiniest adjustment would send the shot way out of focus. It was also tougher to find an element to focus on but I found a streetlight that provided the right element for me and I was good to go. Even through the clouds it was looking pretty good.

Looking better-ISO 160 / 500mm / f 8.0 / 1/10 sec

Then the next thing that happened. I lost focus. Not on what I was trying to do. I literally lost focus on the moon. I am not sure what changed but I am guess I bumped my focus ring ever so slightly This highlights the need to visual inspect where your focus was and either make note or mark it with a pen so you can see exactly where it needs to be. As Ansel Adams famously said "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”. I was obviously dealing with a fuzzy image of what was still a fuzzy concept.

Things got fuzzy

As I neared the moon golden hour when the moon went orange as the sun came up and it started to drop much lower on the horizon another funny thing happened. The moon started to go from it’s normal circular shape to that more of a lemon. As I went to scratching my head and wondering if I was doing something wrong it started to change back to the circular shape again. Only later when I consulted THE Google did I find the answer.

"Air also acts like a lens and bends or refracts the moon, distorting its shape. Because the air at the horizon is thicker and denser than that a fraction of a degree higher up, the bottom half of the moon is refracted more strongly than the top half. The result: the bottom is “pushed up” into the top making the moon look squished or oval.”

Phew. I know now I was not crazy.

Who ordered the lemon?

Right as I got things all dialed in what I suspected might happen did. The marine layer took hold and slowly took the moon away robbing me of my “perfect” shot. You can start to see how big the moon would have been relative to the rock

Losing to nature-ISO 160 / 500mm / f 6.3 / 1/3 sec

Of the 160 pictures I took that morning I might have only 1 that would look good on the wall. But it was worth it and showed the planning I was going for and how it came through in my final shot of the morning.  

The "Shot" ISO 160 / 270mm / f 5.6 / 1/10 sec

The good news is I had another chance. Not the same shot by any means but another chance for the SuperMoon rise later that night. I had hoped to capture it over the sand dunes in Pismo Beach but we had 17MPH winds plus after my morning shots I felt a need to put even more distance the foreground object I was trying to capture and the moon. My hope is being even farther away would give a bigger moon relative to the landscape.

Evening shot

I wanted to shoot over Bishop peak which is an iconic spot on the Central Coast but could not get the trajectories to line up. So I went higher and further a field. A perfect spot. Or was it? I wanted to cross check with Google Earth to verify angles and obstacles and I am sure glad I did. As the little spot that looked so perfect in 2D was not on the ridge I hoped but down in the Valley with absolutely no view.

Not going to work

The moon was set to rise at 525 PM and would have the perfect angle. Yes! So I waited and waited and waited. No moon. 530 PM. Nothing. 535 PM. Not even any light.

At 538 it came up in a different spot than I expected. While I would like to blame the app the reality is it was probably something I did or didn’t do but no time to trouble shoot that now. I knew I had to account for the 3,000 foot Cuesta Ridge, but what I did not account for and the app does not account for is the trajectory of the moon as it rises above the crest of the earth to clear the obstacles in front of it. It wasn’t till later that night did I not take into account that the moon was rising on a southerly trajectory and by the time it cleared the ridge it was going to be much further South. Luckily I was in a good spot to capture it wherever it came up and easily pivoted the tripod.

Then the final surprise of the night. It was not like the moonset. It was like a sunrise. There was no marine layer. There was not a cloud in the sky. The moon was in fact very Super. It was so bright that I struggled to readjust quick enough.  It felt like I was shooting a sunrise.

Sunrise or moon rise?

For the second time in one day bracketing saved me. Somewhat. Remember when I mentioned the wind? Well even huddled down behind the car I was shooting at the ridge that was 9.7 miles away from me. The slightest gust of wind would shake the tripod in the tiniest of ways On a telephoto that was at full extension even the tiniest shake would get some blur.

Remember at the beginning when I said it was a challenge?  The moon moved really quickly. REALLY quickly. For my next time shooting the Super moon rise I will boost my ISO up quite a bit so I can speed my shutter even more. 1/13 SEC on the shutter on a tripod produced blur. Below that and you would not get any detail of the ridge or the tower in the foreground.

This shot is at a focal length of 750 MM at f 5.6 and 1/8 second at an ISO of 100. If I was going to reshoot this or for the future I would boost the ISO to 400 or increase my f to 8 and then increase shutter to get closer to 1/100 of a sec. If I wanted the foreground I would plan to exposure blend later but I think it would be hard to get a match considering how quickly the moon rises.

From 10 miles away

That’s it for now. Lucky for me and you we have more chances coming up. January 1st and January 31st in 2018! With the January 31st being a lunar eclipse which should be a little darker 😃

The next one will not be till January of 2019. So get out there and shoot!  If you are in the SLO area hit me up.  Let's go stress together!


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