There are few scenes more awe inspiring, especially for a photographer, than the full moon each month as it rises through the horizon on its heavenly trek.
With all the uncertainties of life, there is something reassuring about the simple act of observing the perfect schedule found in the astronomical orbits. The stars, planets, moons and other heavenly objects spin through the universe like the intricate clockwork of a Swiss watch. So if you know this schedule, you can prepare for some awe-inspiring images.
Often when I visit the Lakewalk in Duluth to photograph the moonrise or sunrise, I hear the surprised “ooos” and “ahhhs” of people as they first catch a glimpse of the glowing orbs as they break through the Lake Superior horizon on their appointed rounds.
As simple as it may seem, photographing moonrises can be very difficult, but by following a few tips, one can learn how to take moon photos like a pro, making the joy of the moment into a lasting memory you can show others. Paying attention to timing, location, composition, lighting and knowing your equipment you can greatly improve your chance of capturing that special view of the moon.
Step 1: Before you leave home - Recommended Equipment
A tripod and shutter release cable are critical to a proper capture. Hand holding the camera will probably result in a blurred and ruined image. For these shots I used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and a Canon 100-400mm L lens. I recommend a 200mm and longer lens as the moon will fill more of the sensor. Generally speaking, the moon will be the primary point of interest and if the lens is too short, the moon will be lost on the horizon. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
I cannot overstate the importance of a tripod when taking pictures in dim light with a telephoto lens. If you don’t have a tripod, use the camera self timer and steady the camera on a sturdy surface.
Don’t forget to dress for the weather, have a small flashlight or headlamp and, of course, check your camera batteries and storage cards. If you haven't used your camera for awhile, take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the controls; the last thing you want when that “perfect moment” arrives is to be fumbling around with your camera controls.
Step 2: Timing and Location
The first task in capturing a full moonrise is being aware of when and where the moon will rise. This has always been a challenge throughout my 20+ years of nature photography. The nautical charts and calculators were helpful to get you in the ballpark, but, with today’s software and apps for smartphones, the task of tracking moonrise/sunrise times and directions has become as simple as checking your phone. For me, there is no better software than a program called Photographers Ephemeris, which allows people to find where and when the moon/sun will rise to the minute, all plotted out on Google Maps. If you do not have access to this program you will need to check your local newspaper or the US Navy’s fine site which helps calculate moonrise times all over the planet.
Once you know the moonrise time, head to a location with a clear view of the Eastern sky. The moon will rise in different locations, north to south, all through the year, so don’t expect it to come up where it did a month ago. Set your camera to about 200mm to check for foreground objects and to the sides of where the moon will show itself. Try to include a foreground object as an interesting silhouette. If possible, check the location on the evening before you plan to shoot and become familiar with the location and its surroundings.
With regard to personal safety, it is best to be visible and preferably not alone when taking photos at night. It is also important not to put yourself in an unsafe location, just to get that perfect image.
Step 3: Setting Up For The Shot
Pro Secret 1:
Don’t limit yourself to the exact night of the full moon. There is a three-day window around the date of the full moon that you can use for optimum sky light.
Pro Secret 2:
Compare the moonrise time to the time when the sun is setting; you want some skylight, but not too much. I like the amount of skylight that exists in the eastern sky about half an hour after sunset. (This is what I did for the pictures in this article, and it was actually the day after the full moon.)
On the night of the full moon, arrive at your location a good 20 minutes before the moon’s scheduled appearance. Make a final check of your equipment and your location. Be ready to move quickly in order to correct your final location. While the calculated rise time is accurate, hills and your elevation above sea level can add a bit of error. In this photo, I had to wait 5 minutes past the calculated time and move my location about 50 yards to get the composition that I liked.
Step 4: Composing The Shot
Compose your shot on the most likely location of the moon rise. Remembering that it is not going to be exact. Using the rule of thirds is a good start to framing the moon shot. Try to avoid placing the moon in the center of the frame. Consider both horizontal and vertical orientations for the shot. If there are a lot of higher clouds in your area, you may want to consider including them and centering the moon and horizon on the lower section of the frame.