Shooting The Moon

Shooting the moon is fun!  

Over the past year, in particular, I’ve had a go at this about half a dozen times, learning something (I hope) each time.  

According to Brenda Tharp in her excellent new book extraordinary Everyday Photography, the best time to shoot the rising moon is the night before a full moon because there is a period of about twenty minutes when the balance of light is such that it is possible to capture detail both in the moon and in the landscape.  

I discovered the truth of this by happy accident this week.  On Monday I drove to Ballintoy to try to capture the sunset through the sea stacks and especially through the well-known arch and through elephant rock.  

It was a beautiful evening and I eventually made some decent shots.  Having packed up I was driving back up the twisty road from the harbour when my peripheral vision caught sight of something that brought me screeching (almost) to a halt.

It was an amazing reddish orange moon.  I quickly unpacked, set up my tripod and grabbed a few shots before the moon rose too far and the twilight disappeared.

When I showed the shots back home a question immediately arose: is that really the colour of the moon?  Yes!  But how could I prove that I hadn't been messing around with Photoshop to produce impossible colours?  Science came to the rescue.  

When we look at the moon we are seeing it through the earth's atmosphere.  When it is low over the horizon the angle of view means we are seeing its light go through the most atmosphere which in turn means that while the light at the blue end of the spectrum is scattered the light at the red end is not.

So the closer the moon is to the horizon the redder it seems to us.  

As it rises in the sky there is less atmosphere for the light to travel through so red turns to yellow and then towards white.  A similar thing happens to the sun.

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Capturing the moon like this generally requires a combination of good planning and good weather.  Planning is possible thanks to a variety of apps that will indicate the times of moonrise and moonset and what kind of moon it will be.  

In addition, an app like The Photographer's Ephemeris will indicate the angle of the moon (and the sun) at whatever point we choose.  

This helps avoid turning up at a location hoping to photograph moonrise only to discover that it is hidden behind a headland or group of hills.  It also helps in trying to select a location where there is an interesting foreground to add interest.  

I was again fortunate to be at a point on the coast where I was able to include some landmarks although had I been prepared I would have tried to choose an even more interesting location, such as an old ruin.

Another advantage of shooting the moon close to the horizon is that it will appear larger.  This is simply an optical illusion known as 'moon illusion' and the reason for it is still debated.

Getting the right settings in camera for this kind of shot was also a challenge.  

As often it is a trade-off between trying to keep the ISO reasonable to avoid noise, having an aperture that allows for acceptable sharpness for the foreground while maintaining the moon in focus and a shutter speed that minimises blur.  

For the above shot, I chose 50 at f16 which meant a shutter speed of 3 seconds.  If I was doing it again I would try for a faster shutter speed by raising the ISO a couple of stops and increasing the aperture to f11.  

The problem is the moon moves!  Every two minutes it changes position by its own diameter, so basically, any shutter speed slower than one second will show blur.  

As the moon rises the dynamic range increases and an exposure long enough to retain detail in the landscape results in the moon becoming a white disc, as in the photo below.  I don't mind that much as the point of the photo was to photograph by moonlight rather than photograph the moon.

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Sometimes if there is cloud around it is possible to retain a little detail in the moon as in the shot below, taken in an apple orchard in Co Armagh, with the Mourne mountains on the horizon.

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Where the focus is particularly on the moon itself, then objects will only appear in silhouette.

I took the photo below on the hill called the Collin, just outside Ballyclareusing the wind turbines as silhouettes. Here the yellow is still very apparent.  It was a hand held shot so I needed to use a high shutter speed.

Still thinking about the colour of the moon, when seen in close up on a very sharp and clear winter's night it looks rather grey.  Apparently, the grey colour comes from the makeup of the moon's surface: mostly calcium, iron, silicon, oxygen, magnesium and aluminium.

To shoot the moon in close-up like this I used a 70-200 zoom plus a 1.7 teleconverter.  I also cropped in post-processing.  

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A 300mm lens would have been even better.  

The basic setting for this shot was ISO  200, at f8 or f11 with a shutter speed of 250.  You can increase aperture to allow for faster shutter speed if hand-holding the camera wouldproduce blur, otherwise, use a tripod.  

A couple of other tips I have picked up from others and have found useful.  

Try to get out into the countryside so that there is less light pollution.  

The higher above sea level you are the better - unless you want to shoot the moon low to the horizon over the sea.  And make sure you can see your way home or back to the car.  

You may start out in beautiful evening sunshine but find yourself plunged into darkness.  Carry a torch and wrap up warm.  

A flask of warm tea or coffee is also very helpful, as is a fully charged mobile phone. 

Matthew Thompson