Nothing draws the eye quite like a large moon, bright and bold, above a striking foreground. But something happens when you try to photograph the moon—somehow, that moon that looks to your eye like you could reach out and pluck it from the sky, shrinks to a white speck in a photo.
While a delicate accent of moon is great when properly framed above a nice landscape, most people like their moons BIG. But the real trick isn’t making the moon large, it’s photographing a large moon with a nice landscape.
Bigger is better
Crescent or full, the moon will be as big as the focal length you choose—photograph it at 16mm and the moon registers as a tiny dot; photograph it at 600mm and your moon dominates the frame.
But a landscape image with a large moon requires more than just a long focal length. If big was all that mattered, you could attach your camera to a telescope, point skyward, and get a huge moon. But without a landscape to go with your huge moon, no one would know whether you took the picture standing on a beach in Hawaii, atop a glacier in New Zealand, or beside the garbage cans in your driveway.
“Big moon” is a subjective label, but I usually won’t use it unless I can photograph the moon at 200mm or longer. And while a 200mm lens may be “long enough,” the moon doesn’t really start to jump out of the frame for me until I approach 400mm.
My go-to big moon lenses are my Sony 100-400 GM and Sony 200-600 G, because they provide good magnification and focal length wiggle-room for pulling back when I need to fit a foreground subject that’s a little too close. A telephoto zoom also provides focal length flexibility that allows you to balance your composition, or add variety with a series of different compositions. Of course you can always switch lenses mid-shoot, but you don’t fully appreciate how fast the moon is moving in the sky until you try to switch lenses to better align it with a terrestrial subject.
When I want a moon even bigger than 600mm gives me, I add my Sony 2X teleconverter and voilà, I’m at 1200mm. Bigger still? Out comes my 1.5-crop body and I’m zoomed all the way to a 1200mm equivalent. (And since upgrading to my Sony a7RIV, I just go into APS-C crop mode (or crop later on my computer) and still have more resolution than I had with my 24 megapixel APS-C bodies.
The farther back from your foreground subject you can position yourself, the longer the focal length you can use (while still including the moon), and the bigger the moon will be in your frame. In fact, often the most difficult part of photographing a large moon with a specific landscape subject is finding a vantage point far enough back to fit the subject and the moon.
For example, I love photographing a big moon rising behind Half Dome in Yosemite. But at Yosemite’s popular east-side locations, even 200mm can be too close to get the moon and all of Half Dome in my frame. And while Yosemite’s most distant east-facing (moonrise compatible) vistas are up to 10 miles from Half Dome, Half Dome is so large, even at 10 miles away the longest focal length that will include the moon and all of Half Dome’s face is around 400mm.
A little easier for me is including a big moon with smaller foreground objects like a prominent, distant tree. Near my home in Northern California are rolling hills topped by solitary oaks that make perfect moon foregrounds when I can shoot from a lower position to place them against the sky. And since these trees are much smaller than Half Dome, even vantage points that are less than a mile away lets me zoom all the way up to 1200mm.
Depth of field
With subjects so far away, it’s easy to forget about depth of field. But extreme focal lengths mean extremely narrow depth of field. Depth of field isn’t a concern when Half Dome is your closest subject and it’s ten miles distant, but when your foreground is an oak tree on a hill that’s a mile away, you absolutely need to consider the hyperfocal distance.
For example, with a full-frame sensor, at 1200mm (600mm + 2X teleconverter) and f/16, the hyperfocal distance is about two miles (look it up): focus on the tree and the moon will be soft; focus on the moon and the tree is soft. But if I can focus on something that’s two miles away, the image will be sharp from the tree to the moon (albeit with a razor thing margin for error).
When I’m not sure of my subject distance, I estimate as best I can, focus on a point beyond my foreground subject, then review my image magnified to check sharpness. If my focus point is in my frame that’s great, but I won’t hesitate to remove my camera from the tripod to focus on something behind me that’s the correct distance (if you do this, to prevent refocusing, be sure you use back-button focus or are in manual focus mode when you click your shutter). Pro Tip: It’s always best to get the focus sorted out before the moon arrives, a good reason to arrive at your location well in advance of the moon’s arrival.
Location, location, location
As your focal length increases, your compositional margin for error shrinks. You can’t expect to go out expecting to photograph a rising or setting full or crescent moon, look to the horizon, and automatically put the moon in the frame with your planned foreground subject.
Even when the moon and your foreground do align, once the moon appears, you’ll only have a few minutes before it rises out of your telephoto frame. This means extreme telephoto images that include both the moon and a foreground subject are only possible when the moon is right on the horizon, making proper timing essential.
Like the sun, the moon traces a different path across the sky each day. This path varies with each lunar cycle (from new, to full, back to new); whether the moon is full or crescent, a location that perfectly aligns the moon and foreground one month will not work the next. In fact, any given shooting location and distant subject will only align with the moon once or twice per year.
Given all this, it should be clear that coordinating all the moving parts (moon phase and position, foreground subject alignment, subject distance, and rise/set timing) requires some planning and plotting. When I started photographing the moon, in the days before smart phones and apps that do the heavy lifting, I had to refer to tables to get the moon’s phase and position in the sky, manually plot the alignment, then apply the Pythagorean theorem to figure the timing of the moon’s arrival above (or disappearance behind) the terrain.
Today there are countless apps that will do this for you. Apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Photo Pills (to name just two of many) are fantastic tools that give photographers access to moonrise/set data for any location on Earth. There is a bit of a learning curve (so don’t wait until the last minute to plan your shoot), but they’re infinitely easier than my old fashioned way.
When the moon is a small accent to a wide scene, it’s often enough to just show up on its full or crescent day and shoot it somewhere above your subject. But because the margin of error is so small for a big moon image, planning is best done weeks or months in advance.
I identify big-moon candidate locations near home and on the road, and am always on the lookout for more. My criteria are a prominent subject that stands out against the sky, with a distant east (moonrise) or west (moonset) facing vantage point. Over the years I’ve assembled a mental database ranging from anonymous hilltop trees near home, to landscape icons like Half Dome, Mt. Whitney, and Zabriskie Point (Death Valley).
With my subjects identified, I do my plotting (I still do it the old fashioned way) and mark my calendar for the day I want to be there. That often means waiting a year or more for the alignment I want. And if the weather or schedule don’t cooperate, my wait could be longer than that.