Capital Photography Center | Photography Classes in Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia

How To Shoot The Moon

September 19, 2012 by Marie Joabar
DC Skyline with the Harvest Moon
Photo by E. David Luria

 Around the time of the fall equinox we can look forward to two of the most photographic moons of the year, the Harvest Moon at the end of September and the Hunter Moon at the end of October.

These moons are special for a couple of reasons. Normally, the moon rises about 50 minutes later each day, but the Harvest and Hunter moons rise only about 30 minutes later due to the moon orbiting the earth at a narrower angle at this time of year. This is fortunate for photographers because we’re given the opportunity to shoot a round full-looking moon for several days around the actual full moon date.Also, because of this shorter than normal period of time between the sun setting and the moon rising, there is no long period of darkness and we can capture the moon at the edge of twilight and frame it with some interesting foreground.

Folklore tells of the names originating from farmers being able to continue the work of harvesting their crops by moonlight and hunters likewise, hunting into the night to prepare food reserves for the winter.

When the moon is low in the sky, it appears quite orange. This is because we’re seeing it through the earth’s atmosphere which scatters the bluish particles while the reddish ones remain visible.  It also appears larger than normal when it first rises because we perceive a low-hanging moon to be larger than one that’s high overhead.

Techniques For Shooting The Moon

  • For best results, use your camera’s manual settings and avoid the Auto mode.
  • The full moon is fully lit by the sun and brighter than you might think. Expose for it just as you would for other sun-lit objects. Even though it’s in the night sky, don’t be fooled into thinking you need a long exposure.  The moon is moving across the night sky, a long exposure will render it blurry and cause it to be over exposed and lacking detail.
  • A high ISO setting will cause digital noise in the dark sky. A low ISO setting will help keep it to a minimum. 100 or 200 ISO should work fine.
  • To make the moon appear large and not just a white speck in the sky, use a telephoto lens of at least 200mm.
  • A tripod and a shutter release or self-timer are highly recommended.
  • Manually pre-set the focus on the moon and leave Auto-Focus off.
  • When the moon is low, and before the sky is totally dark, include some foreground for a more interesting photo; a monument, a cityscape, trees silhouetted, etc. A normal to wide lens might work well for this depending on how much landscape you want to include in the frame.
  • Use the camera’s histogram (set to flashing highlights) to ensure you haven’t overexposed the moon.
  • It’s a good idea to bracket* your exposures by one or two stops on both sides of the “starting exposure” for a total of 3 or 5 photos per shot. One of these will surely render a properly exposed moon.

Exposure Settings

Below are some exposure values to start with. Bracketing with either of these as your starting point should give you a good photo of the Harvest Moon.

  • Aperture f5.6   Shutter 1/250   ISO 400
  • Aperture f8      Shutter 1/125     ISO 200

Note that these are just suggested settings, there is no one correct exposure setting for shooting the Moon as there are too many variables

Multiple Exposures

Sometimes the only way to capture a good exposure of both the moon and the foreground landscape, is with a multiple exposure set to two; two photos on the same frame.

  • Take one with the exposure set for the detail of the moon. Take another longer exposure to capture the night scene.  (A tripod is a must for this.)
  • The option to capture a multiple exposure is available on many but not all SLR cameras.
  • If you can’t capture a multiple exposure in your camera, you could merge two photos together with photo editing software.

In addition to shooting the full moons, experiment with other moons. The crescent moon is beautiful to photograph and adds just a little extra to an already beautiful image. Photo credit: Travis Brown

* Bracketing is useful when there are tricky lighting situations and you want to ensure you’ll capture at least one shot that is correctly exposed. It consists of taking one or two photos on both sides of the ‘recommended exposure’, each with a different exposure value. For example, take one photo with the aperture and shutter set at what you believe is the correct exposure, then another with the aperture and shutter set to over-expose by one stop and another with the aperture and shutter set to under-expose by one stop.