Posted on December 11, 2019
We tend to photograph the things we love most, but I don’t think that necessarily happens consciously. For example, I never appreciated the role the sky plays in my photography until someone pointed it out a few years ago. Browsing my galleries to verify, I was amazed at the percentage of my images that include at least one of the following: the sun, the moon, stars, a rainbow, lightning, or dramatic clouds. (And, as of last January, the northern lights.)
While I never set out to be a “skyscape” photographer, given my background, I guess it makes sense. (Or more succinctly, “Duh.”) As an astronomy enthusiast since I was a child, and an armchair meteorologist since my late teens, I spent most of my formative years with my eyes and mind on the sky. I continued these childhood interests into adulthood, studying both astronomy and meteorology in college (I even majored in astronomy for a few semesters), and to this day can’t pass up a book or article on either topic. Even without a camera, I can spend hours watching clouds form and dissipate, or gazing at the stars.
Despite a parallel interest in photography, as a film shooter I was frustrated by limitations that prevented me from photographing many of my favorite sky phenomena. While daylight sights like clouds and rainbows were doable, but daylight lightning was out of reach. Narrow dynamic range, a lack of exposure feedback, and inability to process a color image made photographing simultaneous detail in the landscape and the moon frustrating. But switching to digital photography finally provided the control over my color captures, control that had previously only been available to monochrome film shooters with access to a darkroom.
With my first DSLR, purchased more than 15 years ago (!), I suddenly had the exposure feedback and processing control I lacked. That camera struggled with ISOs above 400, but that was enough to handle moonlight and I was hooked on night photography. Nevertheless, for many years photographing the Milky Way and landscape detail with a single click (my own personal rule) seemed like a pipe dream. But unlike the film days, advancement in digital sensors seemed happen with each passing year, and for the last few years I’ve been able to add Milky Way photography to my night repertoire.
The same goes for daylight lightning—with my Lightning Trigger, I’m able to freeze bolts that come and go so fast they’re memories before my brain registers them. Not only that, we now have computers in our pockets that can tell us where lightning is firing almost in realtime.
My evolution to skyscape photography was gradual, paced mostly by the evolution of technology, but in hindsight, I feel a little foolish for taking so long to recognize the personal synergy created by combining these three lifelong interests. Now if I could only figure out a way to add baseball to the mix…
A few tips for good sky photography
About this image
I found this scene in October’s Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections workshop, on our last-minute (not part of the original plan) trip to Olmsted Point to photograph sunset and the Milky Way. The crescent moon wasn’t the prime prime goal of this shoot, but I knew it would be here when we arrived and had every intention of photographing it as big as possible. (Had I not known there’d be a chance to photograph the moon, I’d likely have left my Sony 200-600 lens behind.)
The challenges I dealt with composing this scene were extreme dynamic range and a (freezing) wind. Since a waxing crescent moon always sets shortly after the sun, which puts it in the brightest part of the sky above a fairly dark landscape, capturing the moon, sky color, and landscape detail is difficult to impossible. I solved this problem by positioning myself so the moon set behind a ridge lined with distinctive trees against the sky. With my Sony 200-600 G lens on my Sony a7RIV, I zoomed tight to enlarge the moon and exposed to make the trees a silhouette.
To mitigate vibration imposed by the breeze and magnified by my 600mm focal length, I bumped my ISO to 800, which allowed me to use a 1/25 second shutter speed. And just to be sure, I magnified the image in my viewfinder and checked its sharpness.
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Posted on October 13, 2019
Like a teenager with his first car, I was itching to take my brand new Sony 200-600 for a spin. But since I don’t photograph wildlife, my ultra-telephoto lenses are used mostly for the moon, and occasionally close-focus stuff like fall color and wildflowers. And as much as I wanted to try it on the moon, I thought the fall color in my Eastern Sierra workshop would be my first opportunity.
Because I schedule the Eastern Sierra workshop to thread the needle between the best chance for peak fall color at North Lake, while avoiding the Lone Pine Film Festival and the Bishop Classic Car Rally, it’s one of the few workshops I do that isn’t timed for something happening in the sky (like the moon, the Milky Way, the northern lights, or lightning). So imagine my excitement when, before this year’s Eastern Sierra workshop, I checked the moon and realized a 6% crescent would be setting behind the Sierra Crest between Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney on the workshop’s first night. Oh boy!
I got the group in position that evening and we all had a blast photographing the new moon slipping toward the serrated Sierra peaks. It started near Lone Pine Peak, and moved closer to Mt. Whitney as it dropped through the darkening sky. My first frames, while the moon was still pretty high, were fairly wide, but as it dropped closer to the mountains, my composition tightened.
When the crescent was just a few degrees above the crest, I grabbed my 200-600 and went to work. But, also like a teenager with his first car, I soon got the urge to soup it up and reached for my Sony 2X teleconverter. This gave me 1200mm at 61 megapixels. Wow.
I always joke that I don’t photograph anything that moves because I want to know my subject will still be there when I’m ready, so for someone as deliberate as I am, it really is startling to see how fast the moon moves through a 1200mm frame. Okay, maybe not as fast as a lion chasing dinner, or a leaping salmon becoming dinner, but instead of trying to track it, I still found it easier to anticipate the spot where the moon would disappear and let it slip into my frame.
It was 35 minutes after sunset when the moon finally reached the crest, making the trickiest part about this scene the exposure. This is the kind of exposure that begs to be handled in Manual mode because a meter would have no clue that I wanted to capture enough contrast between the sky and peaks to create a silhouette, as well as definition in the moonshadow, without completely blowing out the crescent. I also knew that the properly exposed image would look like crap on my LCD (it would require processing to moderate the extreme dynamic range between the dark mountains and bright moon).
To get the exposure right, I slowly pushed the scene brighter until the small blob of highlights in my histogram (the moon) hit the right side, then gave it one more stop of light (so the moon looked completely blown in the preview), knowing (fingers crossed) I could recover them later. I was slightly apprehensive because I still hadn’t processed any images from my new Sony a7RIV, but I was confident that it would have at least as much dynamic range as as my a7RIII, and just approached the exposure the same. All’s well that ends well—phew.
In a workshop my own photography isn’t a priority, so I didn’t get a lot of opportunity to play with my new toys on that trip. But my sense is that I’m going to love this new lens. Though its size means the 200-600 probably won’t replace my Sony 100-400 GM lens (which I love, BTW) as a full-time passenger in my camera bag, it will almost certainly be my default “big moon” lens. And my preliminary feelings are that the dynamic range of the a7RIV is indeed at least as good as the a7RIII (which is pretty incredible too).
Helping my workshop group with this crescent moon shoot got me thinking about metering, and how important it is to have it down cold. I’ve written a document on metering that I provide to all my groups to help them get up to speed before each workshop, but I’ve actually changed the way I meter in the few years since I wrote it. The old approach isn’t invalid (in fact, I think any serious photographer should be able to meter the old fashioned way), but I do think live-view histograms have made it a lot easier. So this week I rewrote my document and am sharing it below. (Please forgive any typos—it’s a work in progress.)
Cameras seem to be getting “smarter” every year. So smart, in fact, that for most scenes, duplicating a two-dimensional version of what your eyes see is a simple matter of pointing your camera and clicking the shutter button. That’s fine if all you care about is recording a memory, but not only is there more to photography than approximating “reality,” there are many creative reasons to override the camera’s choices.
For the creative control that elevates your images above the billions of clicks being cranked out every day, giving your camera the control of photography’s most important decisions ignores an undeniable truth…
Sorry—mine is too. And while I can easily cite many examples, right now it’s just important to understand that your camera thinks the entire world is a middle tone. Regardless of what its meter “sees,” without intervention your camera will do everything in its power to make your picture a middle tone. Sunlit snowman? Lump of coal at the bottom of your Christmas stocking? It doesn’t matter—if you let your camera decide the exposure, your subject will turn out gray.
Modern technology offers faux-intelligence to help overcome this limitation. Usually called something like “matrix” or “evaluative” metering, this solution compares your scene to a large but finite internal database of choices, returning a metering decision based on the closest match. This works pretty well for conventional “tourist” snaps, but often struggles in the warm or dramatic light artistic photographers prefer—and it knows nothing of creativity. If you want to capture more than documentary “I was here” pictures, you really do need to take full control of your camera’s metering and exposure. Fortunately, this isn’t nearly as difficult as most people fear (or as it once was).
The amount of light captured for any given scene varies with the camera’s shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO settings. Photographers measure captured light in “stops,” much as a cook uses a cup (of sugar or flour or chocolate chips or whatever) to measure ingredients in a recipe. Adding or subtracting “stops” of light by increasing or decreasing the shutter speed, f-stop, or ISO makes an image brighter or darker.
The simple beauty of metering is that a stop of light is a stop of light is a stop of light—it’s always the same amount of light, whether you change it with the:
But while an aperture stop adds/subtracts the same amount of light as a shutter speed or ISO stop, the resulting picture can still vary significantly.
Your aperture choice determines the picture’s depth of field (DOF), while your shutter speed choice determines whether motion in the frame is stopped or blurred. And while an ISO stop also adds/subtracts the same amount of light as shutter speed and aperture without affecting motion and depth, image quality decreases as the ISO increases. So getting the light right is only part of the exposure objective—you also need to consider how you want to handle any motion in the scene, how much DOF to capture, and the ISO that generates the least noise.
Let’s say you’re photographing autumn leaves in a light breeze. You get the exposure right, but the leaves are slightly blurred at 1/15 second. To freeze that blur, you change your shutter speed to 1/30 second, which also reduces the light reaching the sensor by one stop. To replace that lost light (keep the exposure the same), you could open your aperture by a stop (change the f-stop), double the ISO, or make a combination of fractional f-stop and ISO adjustments that total one stop. Each choice will render a different result, but that’s a creative decision your camera isn’t capable of.
Today’s cameras have the ability to measure, or “meter” the light in a scene before the shutter clicks. In fact, most cameras have many different ways of evaluating a scene’s light. Your camera’s metering mode determines the amount of the frame the meter “sees.” The larger the area your meter measures, the greater the potential for a wide range of tones. Since most scenes have a range of tones from dark shadows to bright highlights, the meter will take an average of the tones it finds in its metering zone.
Metering mode options range from “spot” metering a very small part of the scene, to “matrix” (also known as “evaluative”), which looks at the entire scene and actually tries to guess at what it sees. Each camera manufacturer offers a variety of modes and there’s little consensus on name and function (different function for the same name, same function for different names) among manufacturers, so it’s best to read your camera’s manual to familiarize yourself with its metering modes.
Since I want as much control as possible, I prefer spot metering because it’s the most precise. The spot meter covers the smallest area of the frame possible, an imaginary circle in the center 3% (or so, depending on the camera) of the viewfinder. (Some cameras optionally allow you to spot meter on the current focus point instead of the center of the frame.) When spot metering, I can target the part of the frame I deem most important and base my exposure decision on the light reading there.
Spot metering isn’t available in all cameras (this was more true with older models). In some cameras, the most precise (smallest metering area) metering mode available is “partial,” which covers a little more of the scene, somewhere around 10%.
Regardless of the size of the metering zone, the camera will take an average of what it finds. In some modes that average is evenly extracted from the entire zone, in other modes, the average is biased toward the middle: “center-weighted.”
Don’t confuse the metering mode with the exposure mode. While the metering mode determines what the meter sees, the exposure mode determines the way the camera handles that information. Most mirrorless and DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras offer manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, plus a variety of program or automatic exposure modes. Serious landscape photographers usually forego the full automatic/program modes in favor of the manual (my preference) or aperture/shutter priority modes that offer more control.
If you select aperture or shutter priority mode, you specify the aperture (f-stop) or shutter speed, and the camera sets the shutter speed or f-stop that delivers a middle tone based on what the meter sees. But you’re not done. Unless you really do want the middle-tone result the camera desires (possible but far from certain), you then need to adjust the exposure compensation (usually identified by a +/- symbol) to specify the amount you want your subject to be above or below a middle tone.
For example, if you point your camera’s spot-meter at a bright, sunlit cloud, the camera will only give your picture enough light make the cloud a middle tone—but if you’ve only given your scene enough light to make a white cloud gray, it stands to reason that the rest of your picture will be too dark. To avoid this, you would adjust exposure compensation (the +/- symbol) to instruct your camera to make the cloud brighter than a middle tone by adding two stops of light (or however much light you want to give the cloud to make it whatever tone you think it should be).
Rather than aperture priority, I prefer manual mode because I want control: my camera should not be making decisions for me. And once it’s mastered (it really isn’t hard), I think manual metering is easier. But if you can successfully handle each exposure situation with aperture or shutter priority, you’ll be fine—just stay away from the full automatic modes.
I always try to use my camera’s best ISO, and the aperture that gives me the sharpest frame. Not just the desired DOF, but also the least diffraction (diffraction is a loss of detail caused when light passes through a small opening and spreads slightly—the smaller the opening, the greater the diffraction softening). But sometimes exposure-setting compromise is the only way to achieve the desired results.
For example, when DOF isn’t a consideration, I keep my f-stop in the f/8-f/11 range because it provides a reasonable amount of DOF, and that’s where lenses tend to be sharpest (least distortion), and diffraction is less of a concern (than it is at smaller apertures). But when I need a specific DOF, or want to capture a sunstar (small aperture), I have no problem compromising my f-stop setting to get there.
And I only compromise my ISO when there’s no other way to achieve a certain motion effect. So while ISO 100 is ideal (for my Sony a7RIV and the majority of other cameras), when the wind blows or I want to freeze moving water, I’ll increase my ISO to achieve the motion and DOF combination I need. And if I want a little more motion blur, I have no problem dropping down to ISO 50 to a allow a longer shutter speed.
The simplest way to minimize the need to compromise image quality is to use a tripod. A tripod removes camera shake from the exposure equation, meaning the only time shutter speed matters is when there’s motion in the scene. And when shutter speed doesn’t matter, you can always use the perfect ISO and aperture by going with whatever shutter speed you need, regardless of its length.
Some scenes are all about compromise, even with a tripod. For example, I’d love to photograph the Milky Way at ISO 100, f/8, 1/100 second, but that would give me a black frame. Since star motion increases with shutter speed, I push the ISO as far as I can without getting unfixable noise, open the aperture as wide as I can without obvious distortion—and I still have to live with a shutter speed that gives me a little star motion. All of these exposure choices are compromises that render less than perfect results, but without them, I’d have no Milky Way image at all.
Armed with all this exposure understanding, it’s time to think about the best way to read and capture the light in a scene. For most of my photography life, in manual mode I’d set my camera to its native ISO (or to the ISO/ASA of the film I had loaded), determine my aperture (based on the DOF I want and/or the sharpest f-stop for my lens), point my camera’s spot-meter zone at the area on brightest part of the scene, and dial my shutter speed until it indicated the spot-meter zone is the tone I want. (I chose the brightest part of the scene because I know if I don’t blow it out, nothing in my frame will be lost.)
During my film days, and in my early digital life, that approach served me well. In fact, I think every serious photographer should understand metering well enough to do it this way. But….
In the film days, we didn’t know if the exposure was right until the pictures were processed. To insure against missing the exposure, we’d bracket exposures by (usually) one stop on either side of what we believed to be the correct exposure. Today, thanks to the histogram, bracketing is no longer necessary.
The histogram is a graph of the tones in an image, from absolute black to absolute white. Instead of clicking and hoping as we did in the film days, the addition of a histogram on every digital camera (that’s not a smartphone) provides photographers instant feedback on each image’s exposure. Better still, live-view histograms in mirrorless viewfinders, or on DLSR and mirrorless LCD screens, provide that essential exposure feedback before we click the shutter.
While any graph has the potential to evoke flashbacks of high school science trauma, a histogram is really quite simple—simple enough to be read and interpreted in the blink of an eye. And not only is your histogram easy to read, it really is your most reliable source of exposure feedback.
Simple Histogram: The shadows are on the left and the highlights are on the right; the far left (0) is absolute black, and the far right (255) absolute white.
When an image is captured on a digital sensor, your camera’s “brain” samples each photosite (the sensor’s individual pixels comprising the megapixel number used to measure sensor resolution), determining a brightness value that ranges from 0 (black) to 255 (white). Every brightness value from 1 to 254 is a shade of gray—the higher a photosite’s number, the brighter its tone.
Armed with the brightness values for each photosite in the image, the camera starts building the image’s histogram. The horizontal axis of the histogram has 256 discrete columns (0-255), one for each possible brightness value, with the 0/black column on the far left, and the 255/white column on the far right (they don’t display as individual columns because they’re crammed so close together).
Despite millions of photosites to sample, your camera builds a new histogram for each image virtually instantaneously, adding each photosite’s brightness value to its corresponding column on the histogram, like stacking poker chips—the more photosites of a particular brightness value, the higher its corresponding column will spike.
The black-and-white histogram most of us are familiar with is the luminosity histogram. But each photosite on a conventional sensor actually measures the tone of one of three colors: red, green, and blue (RGB). The RGB histogram uses the same pixel sampling process to separate the luminosity histogram into three separate, more granular, graphs, one for each color.
The luminosity histogram shows the detail you captured, but it doesn’t tell you whether you lost color. In fact, the luminosity histogram could look fine even when two of the three RGB channels are clipped (cut off, indicating color is lost). So in high dynamic range scene (extreme highlights and shadows), or scenes with an extreme amount of one color (such a brilliant sunset or a backlit poppy), checking the RGB histogram to ensure that none of the image’s color channels is clipped is especially important. The solution for a clipped RGB channel (or two) is to reduce the exposure.
There’s no such thing as a “perfect” histogram shape. Rather, the histogram’s shape is determined by the distribution of light in the scene, while its left/right distribution (whether the graph is skewed to the left or right) is a function of the amount of exposure you’ve chosen to give your image. The histogram graph’s height is irrelevant—information that appears cut off at the top of the histogram just means the graph isn’t tall enough to display all the photosites possessing that tone (or range of tones).
When checking an image’s histogram for exposure, your primary concern should be to ensure that the none of the tone data is cut off on the left (lost shadows) or right (lost highlights). If your histogram appears cut-off on the left side, shadow detail is so dark that it registers as black. Conversely, if your histogram appears cut off on the right side, highlight detail is so bright that it registers as white.
Basing the image’s exposure on the way the picture looks on the LCD is the single biggest exposure mistake I see photographers make. The post-capture review image that displays on your camera’s LCD is great for checking composition, but the range of tones you can see in your review image varies with many factors, such as the review screen’s brightness setting and the amount of ambient light striking the LCD. Even more important, because there’s more information captured than the LCD preview can show, even in the best conditions, you’ll never know how much recoverable data exists in the extreme shadows and highlights by relying on the LCD preview.
It’s human nature to try to expose a scene so the picture on the LCD looks good, but an extreme dynamic range image that looks good on the LCD will likely have unusable highlights or shadows. As counterintuitive as it feels, exposing a high dynamic range scene enough to reveal detail in the darkest shadows brightens the entire scene (not just the shadows), likely pushing the image’s highlights to unrecoverable levels. And making an image dark enough on the LCD to salvage bright highlights darkens the entire scene, all but ensuring that the darkest shadows will be too black.
In fact, a properly exposed, a scene with both bright highlights and dark shadows, such as a sunrise or sunset, will look awful on the LCD (dark shadows and bright highlights) because there’s information there you can’t see (yet). The histogram provides the only reliable representation of the tones you captured (or, in your live-view LCD display or mirrorless electronic viewfinder, of the tones you’re about to capture).
Starting with the live-view screen, and now in mirrorless viewfinders, we can view our histogram before clicking the shutter. So instead of guessing the exposure settings that return the tones we want, we have an actual pre-capture picture of the tones to monitor and adjust.
Using the pre-capture histogram—almost always in my Sony mirrorless viewfinder, but the histogram on a mirrorless or DSLR LCD screen will work too—I start the exposure process as I always have. In manual exposure mode, I default to my camera’s best ISO (100 for most cameras, but definitely not all, so check your camera’s native ISO), and the best f-stop for my composition. I don’t touch these settings unless motion in my scene, such as wind or star movement, forces an ISO and/or f-stop compromise. With ISO and f-stop set, I slowly adjust my shutter speed with my eye on the histogram until it looks right. Click.
In a low or moderate contrast scene, I’ll have a little room on both sides of the histogram (the graph doesn’t bump up against either side)—a very easy scene to expose. But in a high dynamic range scene, the difference between the darkest shadows and brightest highlights might stretch beyond one or both sides of the histogram. When a high dynamic range scene forces me to choose between saving the highlights or the shadows, I almost always bias my exposure choice toward sparing the highlights, carefully dialing the shutter speed until the histogram bumps against the right side.
When forced to decide between the highlights or shadows, I almost always try to spare the highlights, for a couple of reasons: First, shadows are usually easy to recover than highlights; second, highlights are almost always more important than shadows. In fact, because the human eye is reflexively drawn to the brightest areas of the frame, I rarely have anything important in the shadows of a high dynamic range scene.
The post-capture histogram is usually more reliable than the pre-capture histogram. Sometimes this doesn’t matter, but in a high dynamic range scene, or any time I push my histogram close to the right side, I verify my exposure by checking the post-capture histogram. Another situation that can sometimes fool the pre-capture histogram is blurred (long exposure) whitewater.
Most mirrorless cameras, and many newer DSLRs, offer “zebra” highlight warnings in their pre-capture view. The first time I meter a scene, my camera’s current exposure settings (based on my previous scene) might be far from what the new scene requires. When that’s the case, I push my shutter speed fast until the zebras appear (if my prior exposure was too dark) or disappear (if my prior exposure was too bright), then refine the exposure more slowly while watching the histogram. While these alerts aren’t nearly as reliable as the histogram and should never be relied on for final exposure decisions, I use their appearance as a signal that it’s time to monitor my histogram.
Photographers who shoot raw make exposure decisions with the understanding that the capture exposure is simply the start, and the final exposure is determined by the processing. But the more photons you capture, the greater your latitude for adjustment later.
Trusting the histogram is a great start, but every camera model interprets and displays its exposure information differently. Added to that, the histogram is based on the jpeg the camera displays, so raw shooters always have more image information than their histogram shows—it’s important to know how much more.
With my Sony a7R bodies, I know I’m pretty safe pushing my histogram at least a full stop beyond the left or right (shadows and highlights) histogram boundary. This knowledge enables me to get the most out of even the most challenging high dynamic range scenes.
Like most things in photography, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. For many people reading this, my approach is nothing revolutionary. But if it’s all new to you, or if you feel a little rusty, I suggest that you go out and try it in a low stress situation. Keep working on it whenever you find yourself in a situation where getting the shot doesn’t feel life or death.
When you do get into one of those “Oh my God, look at that!” moments, go back to whatever feels most comfortable to you. I think you’ll find that it won’t take too much practice before the right way is also the most comfortable way.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.
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.