One of the most visually compelling nights sky elements is the full moon. While most astrophotographers and night-time landscape photographers often avoid shooting the moon when aiming to photograph the constellations, it can also be a very impactful visual element in nighttime photos, especially in landscape photography.
Whether you are in a natural location where the moon is the only source of light, or in a bright and colorful city, there are many ways to capture it and the environment beneath it. Many times, when shooting night-time landscapes, an empty sky from a clear night might be too uneventful, however with proper planning and timing, having the moon in a frame can spice up your photographs.
Many challenges arise in trying to photograph this bright ball especially when you aim to include a beautiful foreground element. For most of the time that the moon is visible, it is often too bright to be photographed in detail with your foreground element.
To photograph the moon itself in detail often requires a lot of technicalities especially if you want to maximize the visible details of the very bright lunar surface. Of course, another challenge is being able to zoom into the moon enough to capture the details.
However, it isn’t entirely impossible to photograph a lunar phenomenon without a long telephoto lens. There are various ways to photograph the moon to come up with an aesthetically satisfying image.
There are at least 3 different ways to photograph the moon depending on what you aim to achieve and what tools you have. You can either simply capture the moon in detail, photograph it with a silhouette or a foreground element, or photograph it as part of a wider landscape scene.
Documenting the Moon
One of the easiest to achieve in photographing the moon is to simply capture the face of the moon without any other elements in the frame. With a telephoto lens or a high-resolution camera (requiring tremendous cropping in the post), it would only require a single exposure.
However, it is admittedly dull to look at to simply see a bright moon with nothing else but darkness in the frame. Such an image would be very common and easily replicable for other photographers.
An easy way to do this is to shoot during twilight. Depending on the time of the month and the current moon phase, it is possible to easily photograph the moon during the blue hour. Because daylight hasn’t entirely diminished, the sky would still be bright enough even with the illuminated moon in the frame.
If this happens during or a little after sunset, it is possible to capture the moon with clouds illuminated by the warm setting sun. This can result in a colorful, detail-rich, and undoubtedly visually appealing image.
Shooting it with a relatively darker sky, it would be wise to use a tripod and shoot multiple exposures in exposure bracketing. Through this, it is possible to combine the images to be able to extract the best detail from the face of the moon and recover details that were initially hidden in the highlights and shadows.
Capturing a Lunar Phenomenon
One of the best times to photograph this celestial body is during a special lunar phenomenon. This is either during a supermoon where it is relatively bigger because of closer proximity or during a lunar eclipse when the moon turns pink or blood red.
There are also instances when both kinds happen at the same time and those are worth preparing for. The tricky part about documenting these is that the moon’s size is not quite apparent and definitely varies depending on what lens was used to capture it.
That is why the best way to capture the size of the moon is to have a foreground element or even a silhouette of a person or an interesting object. While the size of the moon is still variable depending on the lens used and the distance of the silhouette or foreground element, this gives a better sense of scale that the image captured was actually during a lunar phenomenon.
In the city, it is also possible to capture the moon with an illuminated foreground element, most commonly a building with its lights on. During the moonrise or moonset, the glow of the moon is relatively dim due to the abundance of atmospheric factors in between which is why it is more possible to get a balanced exposure out of it with an illuminated foreground element even without the need to shoot multiple exposures.
The Moon and a Wider Landscape
The moon doesn’t always have to be captured in full detail. When photographed alone, it is better to make sure that the moon’s craters are visible but when captured as part of a wider landscape, the glow of the moon is enough to speak for itself.
Whether in a bright and lively city or out in a rural location, the glow of the moon and how illuminates the landscape can make quite the impact. Using a tripod to shoot adequately long exposures, you can capture a moonlit landscape with a clean and immensely detailed quality.
While it will generally be a glowing orb in the sky, it is bound to cast light on other visual elements in the landscape or even the clouds in the sky. With a long enough exposure, the movement of the clouds can render seemingly brushed textures to add infuse depth into the moody nighttime landscape.
While the process generally requires more advanced skills in post-processing, creating composite images with the moon can be extensively rewarding. This process is the combination of the three above-mentioned methods. Photographing the face of the world's only orbit and blending it into a well-composed landscape image, the possibilities in producing a visually enticing and impactful image are endless.
By capturing the moon up close with a long telephoto zoom lens, you can extract the superb detail out of the bright moon that can, later on, be used to supplement a beautifully executed landscape image. This doesn’t only bring together the best of two or more different captures, this method gives the artist full freedom of the image’s visual design.
Creating composites with images of the moon does not start with the aim of documenting an actual phenomenon but instead, it is done with the simple goal of creating a beautiful image with the use of a camera, a computer, and a process guided entirely by the photographer’s artistic intent.
How to Shoot a Lunar Eclipse
Photographing a lunar eclipse has only one crucial difference from photographing a bright full moon and that is the fact that as the surface of it turns a different color, it is also very dim. Moonlight is just the light of the sun reflecting on the surface of the moon.
Lunar eclipses happen when the earth gets directly on the path of the sunlight going to the moon and casts a shadow on the moon itself. As a result, there is exponentially less light coming from the surface of the moon and that has technical implications on how we can photograph it. A darker moon simply means the need to compensate for that darkness.
The easiest way to do so is by using a tripod and capturing relatively long exposures to get the red moon bright enough. It is however important to note that there is a limit to how long you can make the exposure without the moon blurring in the frame.
With a wide-angle or standard zoom lens, it is generally possible to capture the moon with a 25 to 30-second exposure without getting any blur. However, as you use longer lenses to get clearer images of the red moon, this limit gets shorter and might have to require you to use higher ISOs. To exceed the said limit and shoot cleaner images of the moon with longer exposures, it is also possible to make use of a tracker.
Either by capturing the red moon individually, shooting with a significant foreground, or blending it with a landscape image, photographing the one-of-a-kind lunar phenomenon can give you interesting images.
Helpful Tools for Photographing the Moon
1) High-Resolution Camera and Lens
Whether just shooting the face of the moon or using it later on as an element for a composite image, it is best to use a high-resolution camera for better detail and generally bigger output. Using a long telephoto lens is most suitable for capturing the moon in detail, however still generally achievable (though with more limitations) with even a kit lens.
2) A Reliable Tripod
Most of the time, a sturdy tripod is crucial especially when shooting deep into the night. Even the slightest shake of the camera can lead to a blurred image especially when shooting with very long focal lengths that are also usually very heavy lenses. Long exposure is often necessary as well to keep the image as detailed and as clean as possible.
3) Camera Remote Trigger and Timer
Many of the obstacles of shooting it at night can be overcome by using a good and reliable remote camera trigger. Most simply, it eliminates the possibility of camera shake when you don’t have to press on the camera itself. It can also trigger and control the shutter for long exposures.
The MIOPS Smart+ is capable of a multitude of modes that are well fit for the different workflows of photographing this heavenly body. This smartphone-triggered device allows for no-contact operation of the camera when set on a tripod. It can also set and control specific long exposure parameters through the app or on the onboard menu.
The Smart+ can also automate exposure bracketing settings with the press of a button for a more efficient shooting process. At the same time, it is also possible to capture the entirety of the lunar phenomenon and the movement of the moon by shooting on timelapse mode.
Blog and Image Credits: Nicco Valenzuela
Nicco started his photographic journey in 2007 practicing the craft as a hobby. Currently, he shoots for various local and international architectural firms and construction companies. Out of his love for sharing his knowledge, Nicco began writing about photography and various pieces of gear.