Posted on December 16, 2018
Nothing draws the eye quite like a large moon, bright and bold, with a striking foreground. But something happens when you try to photograph the moon—somehow a moon that looks to the eye like you could reach out and pluck it from the sky, shrinks to a small 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. The trick isn’t photographing a large moon, 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 is okay, the moon doesn’t really start to jump out of the frame for me until I approach 400mm.
My go-to big moon lens is my Sony 100-400 GM because it provides good magnification along with 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 align it with a terrestrial subject in a telephoto composition.
When I want a moon even bigger than 400mm gives me, I add a 2X teleconverter and voilà, I’m at 800mm. Bigger still? Out comes my 1.5-crop body and I’m zoomed all the way to a 1200mm equivalent.
Often the most difficult part of including a large moon with a specific landscape subject is finding a vantage point far enough back to fit the subject and the moon. But the farther back from your foreground subject you can position yourself, the longer the focal length you can use, and the bigger the moon will be.
For example, I love photographing a big moon rising behind Half Dome in Yosemite. But at Yosemite’s popular east-side locations, even 200mm is too close to get the moon and all of Half Dome in my frame. And while Yosemite’s most distant east-facing Half Dome vistas are up to 10 miles away, Half Dome is large so that even at that distance the longest focal length that will include the moon and all of Half Dome isn’t much more than 400mm.
A little easier for me is including a big moon with smaller foreground objects like a prominent tree. Near my home in Northern California are rolling hills topped by solitary oaks that make perfect moon foregrounds when I can shoot up so they’re 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 limited 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, at 800mm and f/11 (with a full frame sensor), the hyperfocal distance is about a mile-and-a-quarter (look it up)—focus on the tree and the moon will be soft; focus on the moon and the tree is soft. But if you can focus on something that’s a little beyond the tree, at maybe one-and-a-half miles away, the image will be sharp from front to back.
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, great, but I won’t hesitate to remove my camera from the tripod to focus on something behind me that’s the right 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). It’s always best to get the focus sorted out before the moon arrives, a good reason to arrive at a new 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 on the evening of a 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 changes with each lunar cycle (from full, to new, back to full); whether the moon is full or crescent, a location that perfectly aligns the moon and foreground one month will probably be nowhere close the next.
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 the 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, planning for a big moon image is best done 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 or west facing vantage point. Over the years I’ve assembled a mental database ranging from 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 close to a year for the alignment I want. And if the weather or schedule doesn’t cooperate, my wait can be longer than that.
About this image
<Some may recognize this from the horizontal version of this moonrise I’ve shared for years; I just processed this vertical version.>
A few years ago I scheduled a spring Yosemite workshop to coincide with a 3% crescent moon that I’d computed would slip into the narrow gap between El Capitan and Half Dome about 45 minutes before sunrise on our final morning. Though we were all at the same place, photographing the same thing, the true magic was simply being there to witness a special moment that probably won’t repeat for decades.
The afternoon before this moonrise, I brought the group to this spot on Big Oak Flat Road so they could familiarize themselves with the location and plan their compositions. During this preview someone asked exactly where the moon would rise, and I confidently blurted that it will appear in the small notch separating El Capitan and Half Dome, between 5:15 and 5:20 a.m. I’d never actually photographed a moonrise from this spot, and as I spoke to the group I became painfully aware of how small the opening is—even the slightest error in my plotting could find the moon blocked by El Capitan or Half Dome.
Sunday morning we departed dark and early (4:45 a.m.), full of anticipation. We arrived at Half Dome View a little after 5:00, early enough to enable everyone to set up their tripods, frame their compositions, and prepare their exposure settings. Then we waited, all eyes locked on the notch.
And then there it was, the slightest point of moonlight edging into that small gap between Yosemite’s iconic monoliths. Phew. The rest of the morning was a blur of shutter clicks and exclamations of delight.
Before the shared euphoria abated, I suggested to everyone that they take a short break from photography and simply appreciate that they’re probably witnessing the most beautiful thing happening on Earth at this moment (a feeling every nature photographer should experience from time to time). It’s always exciting to witness a moment like this, a breathtaking convergence of Earth and sky that may not occur again exactly like this in my lifetime. It’s even more rewarding when the event isn’t an accident, that I’m experiencing it because of my own effort, and that I get to share the fruit of my perspiration with others who appreciate the magic just as much as I do.