Shoot The Moon

The moon. It’s been inspiring artists and lovers for millennia and is a favorite subject for today’s photographers. But many struggle trying to use the moon in their photographs. 

The moon is about 239,000 miles from the earth and over 2,000 miles across. Yet photographically, it’s still a pretty small light source. Possibly the biggest disappointment for photographers is that the moon seems so small in their landscape photos. 

A moon added to the image adds some interest. Now there are those who may realize that it's impossible for this to occur naturally, but I don't care, I like the image. 

But size isn’t the only challenge. Photographers love to include the moon in dramatic evening and night cityscapes and landscapes. The problem is that the moon is illuminated by the sun. It’s like including a bright sunny beach in your evening shot. It’s just too bright. The dynamic range from shadow to highlights is way more than any camera can handle. 

When you expose for the evening lights, the moon ends up as a white dot drilled into your image. So, the question is how do you expose for both?  You can’t. Not in the same frame. This is where Photoshop comes to the rescue. 

When I walked out to photograph this plane, the moon was up but the original image just had a small white dot. I simply replaced the small dot with a full moon image. 

Let’s solve both of these issues. Capture a great looking image, whether it be a cityscape, landscape or even a portrait. If you include the moon in the shot, you simply take it into photoshop and replace the moon with a properly exposed version of the moon. And, I’d suggest making is a little bit larger. 

The nice thing about compositing well-exposed moon in your image is that all the reflections will still look normal. For example, if the moon is leaving a reflection on the water, it will still look normal. 

It's good to have some full moon images in your library, just in case you want to include them in other images.

To capture an image of the moon, use the longest lens you have - you’ll be surprised at how small the moon is even at 200 mm.  Now, exposing for the moon is a bit tricky, it really is a moving target - pardon the pun. 

As the moon moves across the sky, it’s brightness varies a bit and even though it is illuminated by the sun, the “Sunny 16” rule may result in slight underexposure. For a bright full moon, I like to use f/11 instead. Let’s call it “Moony 11”. But this only works for a full moon. 

On the day before or after a full moon, the illumination from the moon is about 30% less than a full moon. One week on either side and the illumination from the moon is only about 15% as strong as a full moon.  

For this image, I didn't worry about using Photoshop on the moon. It's passing through some clouds so it doesn't just burn a white hole in the image. In this case, it's was best to leave it alone.

This may seem like a challenge but guess what? There’s an app for that. Check out the app store for your device and you’ll find lots of tools to help you determine a proper exposure. I’ve even seen one that will show you, via an overlay of a piece of film, the size of the moon on the sensor. 

Using the moon in your photography can really add some interest and it’s really a lot of fun. Get out and enjoy yourself.