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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Shoot The Moon

When the sun sets and the rest of the photographers pack up for the night, you can get some of the most stunning and unique images

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Rising moon, South Tufa, Mono Lake, Calif. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III set at ISO 100 with a 1/2 sec. exposure at ƒ/16.
Photographing A Crescent Moon
A new moon occurs when the moon is between the earth and the sun, meaning its illuminated side faces the sun and away from the earth, making it not visible from earth. But since the moon arrives and exits about an hour later each day, adding or subtracting a thin slice of detail with each passing, you’ll find its crescent near the amber-to-indigo transition zone between day and night one or two days before and after the new moon. The day before it’s new, the moon’s thin crescent hangs low in the east just before sunrise; the day after it’s new, you’ll see a similar crescent in the western sky right after sunset.

I’ve also had good success at sunrise two days before the new moon, and at sunset two days after the new moon. That extra day gives the crescent just a little more body and provides separation between the moon and the sun, keeping the moon’s crescent from being overpowered by sunlight.

On nights I plan to shoot a crescent in the western sky, I arrive early enough to photograph sunset. Once the sun is down, I start searching for the moon’s crescent in the darkening portion of the western sky. For a crescent in the east, I try to be in place an hour before sunrise and continue shooting through sunrise, long after the moon is washed out by the brightening sky.

Finding The Scene

Whether I’m after a delicate crescent or a robust full moon, I try to scout locations and plan compositions in advance. Looking for scenes that would be enhanced by a full or crescent moon has become second nature, not just on my photo trips, but in my everyday travels, as well. Recognizable landmarks, prominent features like trees, city skylines, lakes and oceans, or rivers and streams that flow in the direction of the rising or setting moon, make excellent subjects.

An extreme telephoto lens can beautifully silhouette a distant ridgetop tree against the moon’s brilliant disk, but a common misconception is that photographing the moon requires maximum magnification. Many of my most successful moon images, full and crescent, are wide, using the moon as an accent to turn an already striking scene into something special.

Photographing a crescent moon means shooting toward the brightest part of the sky, making exposure difficult. It’s the moon’s shape, not its features, that make a successful crescent image, so an overexposed crescent doesn’t bother me. And crescent moons are made for silhouette images. Look for a prominent shape—a tree or mountain, for example—that stands out against the sky. Water’s ability to reflect the sky’s light and color makes it another ideal foreground subject.

Shooting In Moonlight
On nights I photograph a rising full moon, I usually plan to stay out and photograph in moonlight. When the sun finally leaves and the stars appear, I turn my camera away from the full moon and start photographing the moonlit landscape. In most of my moonlight shots, the moon is at my back because it’s important that my subject be frontlit. Keeping my exposure times at 30 seconds or below minimizes star movement (I prefer waiting for moonless nights to photograph star trails), especially if I’m using a fairly wide lens.

The moon’s brightness varies each month, but rather than rely on my meter and histogram for exposure settings, experience has given me an exposure starting point that gets me within one stop on the first shot. I typically start at ISO 400 at ƒ/4 for 30 seconds (don’t forget to remove your polarizer!). A glance at my LCD—not my histogram—usually tells me whether I need to dial it up or down a stop.


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