The Moon: (Sometimes) Size doesn’t matter

Goodnight Moon, Sierra Foothills, California

Goodnight Moon, Sierra Foothills, California
Canon EOS SL1
8/5 seconds
F/5.6
ISO 100
300 mm

A few years ago I proposed an article to “Outdoor Photographer” magazine on photographing the moon. The editor at the time (not the current OP editor) replied that moon photographs don’t work because the moon appears so much smaller in a photograph than people remember it. I couldn’t argue—the moon does indeed look smaller in a photograph than we perceive it in person. But I’ve never thought the moon needs to appear large to be an effective subject because its emotional power gives even the smallest moon enough visual weight to grab the eye and hold a disproportional segment of the frame. Ansel Adams certainly had this figured out, making a small moon the prime focal point of many images, including the image that’s arguably his most famous, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.” Nevertheless, it took a new editor to finally get OP to acknowledge that size doesn’t matter and publish my “Shoot the Moon” article.

Today, more photographers than ever are using a small moon to accent familiar landscapes. But as nice as these images can be, sometimes it’s nice to make the moon BIG. I’m afraid the vast majority of images displaying a BIG moon looming over an iconic scene are composites, wide compositions with a telephoto moon superimposed on top. My feeling about these moon composites ranges from “Ugh,” when the photographer has at least had the integrity to label it a composite, to “Foul!,” when the photographer pretends that the entire scene was captured with a single click.

Your ability to enlarge the moon naturally (with a single click) is determined by the amount of telephoto you use: The longer your focal length, the larger your moon. But increasing the focal length shrinks the field of view, so matching a large moon with a particular scene requires positioning yourself a long way from the scene. For example, if I want to photograph the moon rising above Lake Tahoe, Tahoe’s size means I’m pretty much stuck with a wide angle (small moon) scene. In the Emerald Bay sunrise scene below, I was about a half mile from the lake, but even at 40mm I’m unable to fit all of the bay, and the moon is quite small.

Gary Hart Photography: Moonrise, Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe

Moonrise, Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe

On the other hand, Yosemite Valley offers many distant vantage points that allow me to isolate Half Dome or El Capitan with a telephoto lens. I make a point of knowing when I can align a crescent or full moon with Half Dome and do my best to get myself (or a workshop group) there to photograph it. The image here is a 400mm (full frame) shot that completely isolates Half Dome from the rest of the scene.

New Day, Half Dome and Crescent Moon, Yosemite

New Day, Half Dome and Crescent Moon, Yosemite

Compare it to the image taken from the same location—at 105mm, Half Dome shrinks and the moon becomes an accent in a much larger scene.

Rising Crescent, Yosemite Valley

Rising Crescent, Yosemite Valley

The image at the top of this frame perfectly illustrates my approach to moon photography. Because I can’t always get to Yosemite (and I like some variety in my images), I keep a mental database of nearby locations that align with a subject I can silhouette against the east or west horizon (the general direction of the moon’s rise and set) when viewed from a distant vantage point. Near the top of my list is a pair of trees topping a hill in the foothills east of Sacramento (the same trees featured in my July 12 post). Not only can I photograph these trees against the sky, from a distance, the ability to shift a fairly good distance north or south without losing my view of the trees allows me to juxtapose them against the moon, which shifts a significant amount from month to month.

The July 12 image was photographed the same night at 330mm with my full frame 5D Mark III; today’s image was photographed at 300mm with a 1.6 crop camera, for an effective focal length of 480mm. I plan to return to this spot a few more times for even tighter (larger moon) captures. I’d also like to try some with the full moon—since the view here is to the west, I’ll need to photograph the full moon when it sets at sunrise. Stay tuned….

*    *    *

About my new camera

Some photographers may be mortified to see that I shot this with a Canon Rebel SL1. For those who don’t know, the Rebel line is Canon’s entry level, consumer camera (by inference, something no self-respecting pro would ever be caught dead using). But, while the Rebel cameras have some limitations, image quality isn’t one of them. So here’s my reasoning.

For about a year my primary camera has been my 5D Mark III. While the 5DIII gives me more dynamic range and better high ISO performance than my five year old 1DSIII, rather than sell the 1DSIII (still a great camera), I decided to keep it as a backup. Unfortunately, it’s also a brick, an absolute pain to lug around in the remote chance my 5DIII goes down. And its an even bigger pain to fly with.

Another problem with my 1DSIII as my prime backup is, like my 5DIII, it has a full frame sensor. I prefer having a “crop” (smaller sensor) body as my backup, because it gives me something I don’t have with a full frame (60% more reach from my lenses). So when I heard about Canon’s SL1, I checked it out and learned: It takes all my lenses; has an 18mp sensor; and is incredibly compact, hands down the tiniest SLR I’ve ever seen (if I didn’t shoot everything on a tripod, I might find it almost too small to shoot). It’s also only $650. So I bought one.

Now my 1DSIII will still travel with me wherever I drive (as will my 5DIII and my SL1), because I’ll have room. And if my 5dIII ever goes down for an extended period, my 1DSIII will become my primary body until the 5DIII returns to health. But when I fly anywhere, it’ll just be my 5DIII and my SL1. And in those situations where I want to carry two cameras in the field—for example, when I photograph the moon and want both wide and long shots—the tiny SL1 will always be the second camera. (So I guess size also matters when I’m choosing a backup camera.)

Epilogue: The image in this post was captured on my very first shoot with the SL1, and I’m happy to report that it performed wonderfully.

6 Comments on “The Moon: (Sometimes) Size doesn’t matter

  1. I enjoyed your defense of the SL1. Although I don’t have a backup DSLR yet I have hung on to my Sony HX9V which I used exclusively before purchasing the Nikon D600. There is a place for the smaller cameras and although they have significant limitations, they can do just fine in some instances. I think pros tend to poo-poo anything less than top-of-the-line. Thanks for this alternate view of equipment. D

    • The SL1 is fairly slow (but how many frames per second do you need when shooting landscapes using mirror lock-up?), and its autofocus doesn’t compare to the 5D111 (you know, for all those fast moving landscapes I shoot). I’m sure the SL1’s dynamic range and high ISO performance don’t compare to my 5DIII (though it would be interesting to test it against the 1DSIII), but I don’t think I’ll notice a difference for 99% of what I shoot. And I love having a second body that I don’t even know I’m carrying. I’m already loving the ability to make my 400mm lens a 640mm lens.

  2. These are real stunning shots Gary! I agree with you on camera choices. I use a 5DII as my main body, but I also I have a Rebel XTi that I have had since 2007. The Rebel is a great little camera and I still use it often. I upgraded to the 5DII in 2010 for its features. Live view is an amazing option to have when you need it.

    • Thanks, Michael. Whenever people ask whether they should upgrade their SLR, I tell them that I still sell 24×36 prints from jpegs that I took nearly 10 years ago with my 6 megapixel Canon 10D.

  3. Once again, Gary, a beautiful photograph and wonderful teaching tutorial all in one!

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