How to Shoot the Moon and an Object

We’ve all seen those photos of the moon with a silhouette of the lone tree. For the longest time it was sort of a mystery to me how people got those shots. Whenever I was out and there was a full moon I’d think maybe I could get something like that. Then the next few moments would be me scratching my head (mostly due to mosquito bites) thinking that tree is way to big and the moon is waaaaay to small. I’m going to describe how to get that killer moon shot like the one below.

This is both a simple and complex task. I’ll explain the process first which is really quite simple (despite my long explanation) and then give you some tips on the more complex part which is finding a subject that will work.

1st Bank, Moon Photo, Moon Silhouette, St. Paul, Minnesota

1st Bank Sign and Moon – f/8, 1/160 sec, ISO 3200 (a bit high for my camera)

1) Step 1 is to put a hole in a box.  Oops, sorry that’s a different process 😉 Basically the first step is to get the longest zoom lens you have. The idea is to fill the frame with the moon as much as possible. I used a 70-400mm lens at 400mm + a 2x teleconverter on a crop sensor (1.5x) camera. That’s a whopping 1200mm 35mm equivalent.  As long as you have a 300mm lens or more I think you could make this work.

2) Zoom in on the moon and whatever object you’ve lined up to shoot with it. If it’s a small object like a weather vane, like you might see on a barn, you just move back until the object is the same size as the moon. They key realization is the moon is the same size anywhere you are standing and only changes based on the length of the zoom.

Instead of changing the zoom on the object you’ll need to change your position to affect the size of the object in the frame. In most cases you’ll need to put more distance between yourself and the object. In the photo above I’m about a mile away from the extremely large sign on top of the building.

3) Once you have the object and the moon about the same size then it’s time to get the exposure right. I like to stay below 1/100 of a second shutter speed to get detail (craters and such) in the moon. Even 1/80 or 1/60 could work but at high zoom magnification that starts to get dicey as the moon actually moves quite fast.

If you’re going for a silhouette then just expose for the moon (you can also use spot metering on your DSLR if you want) visually. In the photo above the sign lights up and matches well with the brightness of the moon so all is good.

If you’re trying to get an object that is not bright and not a silhouette then you’ll need a longer shutter speed. In that case make sure you’re taking the photo right after or before sunrise/sunset. That’s the time when most objects are relatively the same brightness.

4) I usually focus in manual mode. Just focus to infinity basically and use the focus zoom on your DSLR to make sure the craters of the moon have good definition. Using the largest (smallest number) aperture for your lens should be fine in most cases. Unless your lens gains a lot of sharpness stopped down but you might need to increase the ISO offsetting any sharpness gains.

Note: most of the time there will be a lot of space between you and any objects that are in the frame with the moon. There’s something called the hyperfocal distance. This is the point at which all object are in acceptable focus after a given distance. The object would need to be quite small for this to become an issue. You can check the focus of the object as well and change the aperture to a higher number if needed. Again you may need to increase the ISO if that’s the case.

5) After getting the shot then you might want to make a few tweaks in your editing program. Some of these could be set on your camera as well if you prefer.

Color Temperature – I usually like the moon to look white and even a little bluish. The moon is reflecting the sun which is very yellow/orange so move the color temperature down till it appears very white. You’ll almost get to a tungsten setting in the 3000-4000 color temperature range. This is just personal preference and you may want a more yellow/orange moon especially if low on the horizon for a harvest moon type scene.

Contrast/Clarity – you can add some contrast or clarity (Lightroom) to give the moon some pop. I find a little goes a long way before becoming over done.

Noise reduction/ Sharpening – If you sharpen at all make sure to use the masking slider if using Lightroom. There may be a lot of noise in the photo that you don’t want to amplify. You may also need some noise reduction to handle a higher ISO setting if that was needed. It’s always a trade off between controlling noise and not losing detail. I would error towards lower noise.

Cropping –  try to fill the frame as much as possible. If sharpness or noise become an issue you can back off a bit.

Just to recap the biggest thing is to fill the frame with the moon then put distance between you and an object till it matches the size of the moon in the frame. Next use a large aperture, a fast shutter speed and higher ISO if needed while focusing to infinity.

Keep going scrolling for helpful hints.

Half Moon Photo, Moon Photography

Half Moon – f/11, 1/80, ISO 400 (just right)


Helpful Hints:

Maybe the hardest part of all is finding a suitable object especially if you live in the city. You’ll need distance and line of sight which can make it difficult. Also the moon is always moving and changes positions day-to-day. There are tools I used to plan for this.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris – you can get this App for your phone. It can tell you the time and location of sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset. Use a compass while in the field to figure out where the moon will rise or set. It’s great for figuring out the how the light from the sun will fall at any time of day.

You can also use tables of sun and moon rise and set times from to figure out when the sun and moon will set about the same time. Again when one is setting and the other is rising is the best time to photograph the moon.

Google Sky Maps – I used this App on my phone and it worked surprisingly well. The problem was I knew where the moon would rise but because of the tall buildings couldn’t locate where it was at and what trajectory. Probably not using the right terminology but I’m not going to go all Jodie Foster in Contact. The Google Sky Map allowed me to see roughly where the moon was and helped me get close to where I needed to be once the moon popped out from the buildings.

Moon Phase Pro – I also use this app on Android to find what phase the moon will be in on any give date. It also gives the location, rise/set and even the distance in case you’re looking for a supermoon opportunity.

Let me know if you’ve found any other helpful trick to getting that killer moon shot?!

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