Thursday, January 20, 2011

Photography Tip: Shoot For The Moon

With the current full moon cycle now at its peak, I thought it would be a good time to discuss my various strategies and thoughts about incorporating the moon into landscape photography. Surprisingly, it's something I only do very occasionally because, to really do it right, it usually takes a good deal of planning (more on this in a bit) and I often have other things going on that interfere with that. Sure, sometimes you simply luck into something decent, but that doesn't happen very often. To up your odds of success you really need to research when and where the moon will be rising (or setting) and then determine what type of subject can be included with it in your composition. Let's face it, nearly everyone has gotten their longest telephoto lens and shot only the moon, but really making an interesting photograph requires other subjects in your composition. The moon, when incorporated into a landscape image, is most effective when used as an accent to an already interesting scene.

Below is an image I took a number of years back (in my formative days as a photographer) when I first visited the Sedona area. I was photographing Cathedral Rock at Red Rock Crossing at a time when the moon happened to be passing over the monolith. I did not know it was going to be there as I didn't do any research on it. All I knew is that I had to try to incorporate it into a composition.

Moon Over Cathedral Rock - Sedona, Arizona

This attempt failed, in my mind, for a number of reasons. First all, the composition seems very forced. The moon is way too high above the formation which results in too much negative space (in the form of the clear blue sky) to make for an effective composition. Also, the moon is too small to really make much of an impact anyway.

This leads me to my next point...wide angle focal lengths aren't the best choice if you want the moon to make much of an impact in your composition. I've found it much more effective to search out distant compositions where you can utilize more telephoto focal lengths. In this situation, the moon appears much larger in relation to the subject your shooting, which can increase its impact dramatically. For example, the image below almost looks fake because of the abnormally large size of the moon in comparison to the Mitten Ridge formation (I shot this just the other day here in Sedona). However, I was actually quite a distance away from the formation and shot the scene at a 250mm focal length to create this effect.

Moonrise Over Mitten Ridge - Sedona, Arizona

As I mentioned earlier, images like the one above, involve a bit of research to get done right. I didn't just drive around to some location, set up my tripod and luck into the full moon rising in the middle of the formation. Nope! I made use of four different tools to get myself into the approximate area at the appropriate time (although I'll admit I had to do a little running about on foot to fine tune the moon's positioning). They are 1) a compass, 2) a watch, 3) a free software package called The Photographer's Ephemeris and 4) a funky homemade tool called an astrolabe.

I'll start off by discussing what's probably the most important of the four tools mentioned above...The Photographer's Ephemeris (which from now on, I'll refer to as TPE). While I won't go into specifics on how to use this nifty little program (it's pretty straightforward), I'll describe its purpose which is to calculate the sun and moon position for any given time of any given day. At a quick glance, one can determine what time the moon will rise/set and at what azimuth (i.e. the position along the horizon with 0 degrees denoting north, 90 degrees east, 180 degrees south, and 270 degrees west). One can also dig further to figure out the moon's azimuth and latitude for any given time it is visible. Latitude can be defined as an object's angle of inclination (in degrees) from the horizon. In other words, how high it is in the sky. This is a very important piece of information for those of us living in areas where the true horizon is obscured by hills, mountains, buildings, etc. TPE also comes integrated with slick google-based mapping graphics that allow you to click on specific locations and see the sun and moon rise/set angles in relation to the terrain at a glance. Very cool!! And did I mention it is free?? Kudos to Stephen Trainor (the developer and a photographer himself) for creating such a useful tool specifically targeted for photographers.

To look at a real life application of these tools, let's have a look at the research I put into obtaining the image below (which was again, shot during the January full moon cycle here in Sedona).

Moonrise Over Munds Mountain and the Two Nuns - Sedona, Arizona
My goal was to get a shot of the moon rising near the Two Nun formation...the twin spires in the lower right. First, I fired up TPE to determine what day the full moon fell on. Photography on the actual day of the full moon is pretty futile here in Sedona because the towering red rock formations require that the moon rise significantly before it will be seen. Since the moon rises fairly close to sunset when it's officially full, it is way too dark by the time it's visible and its brightness in relation to the landscape makes it problematic to photograph (to say the least). Usually the two days before are more productive as the moon becomes visible an hour or two before the sun sets.

With this in mind, I looked up the moonrise time two days prior to the full moon and determined it would rise approximately two hours before sunset. Also, utilizing the handy map in TPE, I determined I could get the moon rising in close proximity to the nuns if I shot it from the saddle of Cathedral Rock (which can be accessed via a short, but steep trail). The one thing I didn't know was what time the moon would actually be visible over massive Munds Mountain (the hulking rock formation behind the nuns) and what its azimuth would be at that point. Enter the need for the astrolabe. This is my simple tool of choice when it comes to measuring altitude. To figure this all out, I first hiked up to my shooting location the day prior to my shoot and measured the altitude that the moon would have to achieve to be visible. To do this I aimed the astrolabe's sighting mechanism (in my case a straw!) just above the cliff and got a reading of approximately 5 degrees. When I got home and fired up TPE again, I saw that the moon would achieve an altitude of 5 degrees about a half hour after moonrise and its azimuth would put it even close to the nuns. Perfect!

The next day, I returned to my location about two hours before sunset (thus the need for a watch) and spent the next half hour setting up for the shot and basking in the near 70 degree Sedona sunshine while I waited. Lo and behold, a half hour later, the moon peaked out from behind Munds Mountain very close to where TPE showed it would...thus affording me the shot above. Gotta love technology!

If the whole astrolabe and determining altitude thing is a bit more effort than you really want to put forth, that's ok. TPE will still get you in the general vicinity even if you don't bother with that bit of fine tuning. Just be prepared to have to do a little more running about to get the moon's position the way you want it. And also remember if you have large a mountain...obscuring the horizon, you may have to wait as much as an hour or more after the actual moon rise time before it becomes visible. That is often a long enough delay to really screw up your photographic forwarned!

So, in closing, utilizing the aforementioned tools is a good way to save time, ease frustrations, and up your odds of success when shooting moon scenes. Go ahead...give it a go!

Moonrise at Sunset - Sedona, AZ


  1. Guy, great info here and thanks for sharing! Based on your recommendation I loaded TPE on my iPhone. Just a heads up though that the app isn't free, it's $8.99. Love your shots, keep up the great work!

  2. 'Moonrise at Sunset' is fantastic, Guy!
    Nice to see you updating your blog with helpful tips like these. I just posted a link to the Astrolabe at RMNP with due credit for my source.

  3. Absolutely genius and so beautiful. Great artist.