It’s such an alluring photo subject and confounds beginning photographer more than it amazes. The problem is, when the moon is high in the night sky, it is contrasting the blackness of space more than most people realize. Our eyes and our brain do a great job of making the moon appear just right. But cameras don’t have it so easy.
One big tip; shoot the full moon as it is raising the night before it is full, or as it is setting the night after it is full. This way it is raising and setting against a brighter sky, making exposure easier.
Second, spot meter off the moon itself to make sure it is exposed correctly. The moon will trip you up with how bright it is. It is just a really big reflector of the sun and needs to be exposed as such. The problem is it tends to be so small in the frame that the metering favors the blackness of space over the moon. Spot metering will be your friend. Don’t have spot metering? Underexpose by 1-2 stops.
Theory Into Practice
For instance, in a situation like the one below, taken at Bryce Canyon National Park as I waited for the sun to rise, the meter wanted to hold the shutter open much longer to bring in the sky and tree. Instead, I chose an evaluative metering pattern and underexposed by 1 2/3 stops to make sure the moon wasn’t too bright. ISO 100, 320mm, f/6.7, 1/350 second
When focusing, don’t swing all the way to infinity and call it good. The moon, believe it or not, is not that far out there. If you choose to manually focus, as a lot of cameras will have a hard time locking focus, bring it back from infinity just a bit.
Also, bring something into the photo. If you’re lucky, that something might be right in front of the moon as in this shot from New South Wales, Australia. ISO 1000, 300mm (and then cropped more), f/5.6, 1/1000 second (This was pure luck as I sat with friends on a deck enjoying conversation and not really thinking of the moon.)
It’s important to note in the photo above, the tree in the foreground is slightly out of focus because the aperture is open all the way. The moon is quite far from the tree and a bit more aperture would have brought the tree into sharper focus. And as the shutter speed was 1/1000, I had room to close the aperture at least two stops and brace the camera.
The Moon With Grounding Elements
Even if something isn’t right in front of the moon, give it a bit of perspective and size. Try to catch it low to the ground or mountains or hills to anchor it just a bit. Wasatch Mountains, American Fork, Utah, USA ISO 800, 400mm, f/6.7, 1/250 second
If you are trying to capture a lot of ground in the image and it is a full moon, be careful with exposure and play a bit. In the image below, I manually exposed for what I thought was a proper setting and then moved the shutter speed around to get it right. Mind you, this image needed a lot of work in post processing to make sure the moon wasn’t too overdone nor the foreground not too dark. Whidbey Island, Washington ISO 500, 300mm, f/5.6, 1/320
When the moon is a couple of days past full, you can expose as if for a normal sunny morning and not worry too much. Nepal ISO 50, 300mm, f/7.1, 1/400 second
Likewise, crescent moons can be easier or harder, depending on whether they are waxing (moving towards half then full) or waning (moving towards new then half). For shots when the sun is out, expose as you would for the normal sky. That’s pretty easy.
When the crescent is coming up or is already up at night, you might need to underexpose by an even greater amount as the moon is reflecting even less light. ISO 640, 135mm, f/5.6, .3 seconds
Histograms Can Help
If you are using the rear display of the camera to check settings, use the Histogram feature (explained here) and make sure the spikes on the right side of the screen drop to the bottom before moving off. If they aren’t at the bottom, you are losing detail in the moon.
For instance, this is the Histogram of the tree and the moon shot far above.
Quick Histogram lesson: Left side is dark, right side is light. If that mountain, representing where light is falling, is not at the bottom before it hits a side, detail is lost. In this case, some black is lost, and that’s ok. The moon is represented by the mountain in the middle.
When the exposure is jacked up 2.25 stops, we get this:
And the image looks like this:
That’s a quick way to use the Histogram to tell if your moon shot is truly exposed properly against a black sky.
Our Atmosphere Has An Impact
A golden moon will, when just popping over the horizon, be as dark as it looks. Meaning, it’s not as bright compared to the scene around it. In this case, such as during a harvest moon, the exposure for the moon is often the same as the scene around the moon, much like a shot a couple of days before a full moon rises. But this effect changes quickly with the color of the moon, once it starts getting away from the colored sunlight striking it (and the horizon) and takes on the full power of the sun going past our atmosphere.
Lastly, scout out a location before the moon comes up if you are looking for an added element. Remember that, month to month, the moon will change positions on the horizon as it raises and sets, so don’t expect it to be in the same spot the next month. Use a tool like the Photographer’s Ephemeris to help you plan ahead.
Oh, one more thing, zoom in as much as you can. You may notice all of these shots start at 200mm and go up. A good zoom lens will be your friend and don’t expect great shots with a point and shoot unless it has more zoom than 4x. 10x is a good place to start with those type of cameras.
And use a tripod!
Speaking of which, only one of those shots up there was taken completely handheld. Knowing what you know about shutter speed and the general 1/focal length rule, can you guess which one?
Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure, and its companion 40 Photography Experiments, are series written by professional photographer Peter West Carey. The series are designed to unravel the mysteries of photography, helping you can take better pictures. Subscribe here to receive all the updates and bonus material. Your comments are always welcome.
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