Camera or not, two of my very favorite things in nature are a rising moon, and the rich pink and blue twilight sky opposite the sun after sunset*. Once a month, in the days around the full moon, these phenomena converge, and I get an opportunity to photograph the moon actually in the best part of the sky. I spend a lot of time trying to identify the scenes above which to photograph these celestial displays, and the best time to be there.
As a one-click photographer, for years the primary obstacle to photographing these scenes has been capturing (in a single frame) detail in the daylight-bright moon and a rapidly darkening landscape. In my early digital years, I found that the window of exposure opportunity—the time from sunset until the foreground became too dark to capture with one click—ended about 5-10 minutes after sunset (this can vary somewhat with several factors, such as longitude and terrain), just as the best color was ramping up. I could extend that window by 5 minutes or so by using a graduated neutral density filter to subdue the moon’s brightness by 2 or 3 stops, but GNDs come with their own set of problems—especially when the scene doesn’t have a homogenous, horizontal space near the horizon to disguise the GND boundary.
Technology to the rescue
One of the main reasons I switched to Sony in 2014 was the dynamic range of the Sony Alpha sensors, and few situations underscore that advantage better than these twilight moonrises. With my new cameras, suddenly my post-sunset threshold jumped by at least 50%—an advantage that continued progressing with each Sony sensor iteration.
Along with improved sensor technology, advances in processing software enabled me to get even more out of each image. Probably biggest processing improvement is in the noise reduction software that reduces blotchy, image softening, detail robbing noise that’s the prime limiting factor when you pull up the shadows of a twilight moonrise. Noise reduction software doesn’t restore lost image data, but it can bring out the best of what you did capture, allowing you to push back the twilight moonrise window just a little more. (I use and recommend Topaz DeNoise AI.)
Time for an Ansel Adams quote
Ansel Adams famously said, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” Put in today’s terms (and far more prosaically), all the technology in the world doesn’t do much good if you don’t know how to use it. For example, me: I know now that I probably packed up too early, mistakenly thinking the twilight moonrise photography window had closed—simply because I didn’t know how to get the most from my camera.
In fact, proper exposure is probably the single biggest struggle most photographers have when photographing a twilight moon. The most frequent mistake is trying to make the picture look good on their LCD, which invariably results in a preview image with gorgeous foreground beneath a brilliant white lunar disk—a disk that, on closer scrutiny, is hopelessly stripped of detail.
Photographing both a full moon and the landscape, with detail, starts by understanding that, in a high dynamic range scene, an ideal exposure rarely looks good on the LCD. I repeat: In a high dynamic range scene, an ideal exposure rarely looks good on the LCD. The key is making the image as bright as possible without blowing the highlights, providing the best opportunity to restore the highlights and shadows in post-processing.
While it’s usually best to trust the image’s histogram in extreme dynamic range situations, since the moon is such a small part of most images, it rarely registers on the histogram. This small but important detail makes it possible to capture a histogram that looks great, while ending up with a moon that’s hopelessly blown (detail-less white).
So if you can’t trust the image or the histogram, what can you trust? I thought you’d never ask. While the histogram is helpful for the landscape part of the scene, when I photograph a full moon, I monitor the moon’s exposure with my camera’s highlight alert feature—on my Sony Alpha mirrorless bodies that the “zebras” (pre-capture highlight warning stripes on all mirrorless and some DSLR cameras), but DSLR shooters can use the post-capture blinking highlights.
My twilight moonrise recipe
My process for a post-sunset moon starts with metering in manual mode (because I want complete control of my exposure). I set the ISO to 100 (my Sony a7RIV’s native/best ISO), and the f-stop to whatever I think will give me the sharpest image. The exposure is controlled with the shutter speed.
While the moon’s brightness doesn’t change, with a rising full moon, the landscape will continue to darken, making a foreground exposure that was perfect a minute or two ago not quite so perfect now. As the scene darkens, I add light by deliberately increasing my shutter speed in 1/3 stop increments (that is, one click at a time), with my eye on the moon.
When the zebras appear, I use my knowledge of my a7RIV to squeeze the most possible light from the scene. Raw shooters almost always have more detail than their histogram or highlight alerts indicate (different cameras’ highlight alerts engage at different points). This means you can add still light after the first alerts appear in the moon. When I first detect the zebras on my a7RIV, I know I can push my highlights 2/3 to 1 full stop brighter and still recover detail later.
If you’re shooting with a DSLR that doesn’t offer pre-capture zebras in your viewfinder, you may still be able to get them on the live-view LCD (some DSLRs offer them, some don’t). If not, you’ll need to check the post-capture blinking highlights after you click. Camera familiarity is no less essential when reading the blinking highlights of post-capture DSLR image preview highlight alerts than it is with the pre-capture zebras on a mirrorless camera.
Another thing I’ve started doing to get the most light out of the scene is pushing my highlights beyond the point where I’m certain I haven’t blown them out, then magnifying the moon in the preview image—if I see detail, I know not only am I still good to go, I may even be able to squeeze another 1/ or 2/3 of a stop more light out.
What I’m starting to realize now is how much usable detail I have in the shadows of my a7RIV. This image was captured just Friday night, on the final night of my Yosemite Winter Moon workshop. It was more than 20 minutes after sunset and my foreground looked so black on the LCD that I figured it was unusable. But the scene was so beautiful, I just couldn’t make myself stop shooting. (A friend who happened to be standing next to me for most of the evening had left about 10 minutes earlier, despite my protests that he was leaving too soon.)
So imagine my surprise when I opened it in Lightroom, pulled up the Blacks (to about 30), Shadows (all the way), and Exposure (about two stops) sliders and saw plenty of detail and very fixable noise. A quick treatment from Topaz DeNoise AI confirmed what what I’d just seen—my twilight moon window is now open until at 20 minutes after sunset. Amazing.
(I’ll have more on this fantastic finale to a fantastic workshop in a future post. Spoiler alert: This isn’t the only image from this shoot.)
* When I say sunset, you can infer that I mean sunrise as well, with everything happening in reverse, on the other side of the sky.
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