Big Moon Landscapes

How to add a looming lunar accent to your scenic photography

Nothing draws the eye quite like a big moon, bright and bold, above a beautiful foreground. But most photographers have experienced the frustration of trying to photograph the moon looking like a ripe pumpkin balanced on the horizon, only to find it shriveled to a raisin-size dot in the image.

photograph the moon: supermen over half dome

Supermoon, Half Dome, Yosemite. One of my favorite things in the world is watching the moon rise behind Half Dome, and “supermoon” moonrise had been on my radar for over a year. A layer of clouds threatened to wash me out, but as sunset approached, they thinned to a nearly transparent film that added a golden halo to the rising moon. Sony a7R III, Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS, Sony 2x teleconverter. Exposure: 1/8 sec., ƒ/11, ISO 400.

Crescent or full, the moon will be as big as the focal length you use—photograph it at 16mm, and the moon registers as a tiny dot; photograph it at 600mm, and your moon dominates the frame.

While a properly-framed moon makes a beautiful accent above a wide-angle landscape, for shear drama, most people like their moons big. Simply pointing your longest lens at the moon will make it big, but without a landscape to go with it, no one would know whether you photographed your big moon while standing on a beach in Hawaii, atop a glacier in New Zealand or beside the garbage cans in your driveway. The real trick is figuring out how to capture a large moon with a striking landscape foreground.

The Right Lens To Photograph The Moon And Landscape

“Big” is relative, but I usually don’t use the label for the moon unless I can photograph it at 200mm or longer. And while a 200mm lens can do the job, the moon doesn’t really start to jump out of the frame for me until my focal length approaches 400mm.

Big moon photography requires a long lens and the ability to adjust quickly in rapidly changing conditions. My go-to big moon lens is my 100-400mm zoom. In addition to good magnification, a 100-400mm provides enough focal length range to pull back when I want to fit a foreground subject that’s a little outside my fully-zoomed frame; the ability to adjust as the moon’s position shifts; and the flexibility to quickly capture a series of varied compositions. All this can be achieved by switching lenses, but nothing seems to emphasize the moon’s movement across the sky faster than a lens change.

Winter Moonrise, Half Dome, Yosemite. I’ve photographed the moon rising above Half Dome from this location more times than I can count, but on every previous visit I found some version of a wide-angle composition that at least included all of Half Dome’s face and usually included Half Dome and its reflection in the Merced River. On this visit, having plotted exactly where the moon would appear, I decided to go with an ultra-long focal length and had my composition more or less ready when the moon appeared. Sony a7R III, Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS, Sony 2x teleconverter. Exposure: 1/25 sec., ƒ/11, ISO 100.

When I want the moon even bigger than 400mm gives me, I add a 2x teleconverter and, voilà, I’m at 800mm. Bigger still? Out comes my APS-sensor body, and I’m zoomed all the way to a 1200mm equivalent.

Distance Yourself

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. But 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 in a telephoto composition.

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 Half Dome to get the moon and all of Yosemite’s iconic monolith in my frame. Even if I back up to Yosemite’s west side, where I can find Half Dome vistas up to 10 miles away, Half Dome is so large that the longest focal length that includes the moon and all of Half Dome isn’t much more than 400mm.

A little easier is photographing a big moon with smaller foreground objects, such as a prominent tree. Near my home in Northern California are rolling hills topped by solitary oaks. When I can shoot up at these trees and position them against the sky, they make perfect moon foregrounds. And since trees are much smaller than Half Dome, even vantage points that are less than mile away let me include them with the moon all the way out to 1200mm.

Foothill Moonrise, Sierra Foothills, California. I’d never photographed this solitary hilltop oak before this evening, but my eye had been on it for a couple of years. Because the best vantage point is east-facing, it’s a moonrise subject. On the evening of the full moon, I arrived about 30 minutes early, choosing a dead-end country road with a view about a mile distant. Unsure of exactly where the moon would appear, I waited until I saw its leading edge and ran along the road to align it with the tree. Sony a6000, Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2. Exposure: 1/8, sec., ƒ/11, ISO 400.

Keep It Sharp

With such distant subjects, 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 big concern when your closest subject is 10 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 ƒ/11 with a full frame sensor, the hyperfocal distance is about a mile-and-a-quarter. 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 from your position in this example, the image will be sharp from front to back. When I’m not sure of my subject distance, I find a focus point a little more distant than my closest foreground subject, then immediately review and magnify the resulting image to check its 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 that’s the right distance but out of my frame, then return the camera to the tripod to shoot. Using this approach, to prevent your camera from refocusing when you click your shutter, be sure you use back-button focus or focus manually. And when you change your focal length, you must refocus. 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 moonrise.

Not only does photographing at extreme focal lengths limit your depth of field, it also magnifies the slightest vibration. A tripod and remote release (or your camera’s self-timer) are essential for sharp long-telephoto images. And it’s best not to extend the tripod’s center post. If you photograph with a DSLR, use mirror lock-up or shoot in live-view mode to eliminate mirror-slap.

Dune Moon, White Sands National Monument. Photographing White Sands for the first time, I waited for the moon to appear and positioned myself so the moon hovered above the intersection of two pristine dunes. Sony a6000, Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2. Exposure: 1/8, sec., ƒ/11, ISO 400.

Freezing the moon’s motion is rarely a concern because the moon is daylight bright, regardless of the amount of light in the foreground. A shutter speed necessary to avoid blowing out the highlights in the moon will almost certainly be fast enough to freeze the moon’s motion, even at extreme focal lengths.

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 find the moon aligned with your planned foreground subject.

Even when the moon and your foreground do align, once the moon appears above the horizon (or before it disappears below), you’ll only have a few minutes when it’s low enough to be in the same telephoto frame as your terrestrial subject. 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.

I’ve always considered a full moon image a failure if the moon is blown out. The best time to photograph a full moon on the horizon is in the 15-minute window on either side of the “official” (flat horizon) sunset, when the bright moon stands out nicely against the darkening sky, but there’s still enough light to capture foreground detail without losing lunar detail. Monitor your blinking highlights to avoid clipping the moon.

For a crescent moon, I target 30-45 minutes before the official sunrise or after the official sunset. Because a crescent moon is always in the brightest part of the sky, most of my crescent moon images are silhouettes that emphasize my subject’s shape against the sky, and the moon’s delicate outline.

photograph the moon as a crescent

New Moon, Sierra Foothills, California. When I have an opportunity to photograph a setting moon, a pair of trees atop a hill in the low foothills southeast of Sacramento is often my first choice. On this summer evening, the clouds parted just in time to reveal the new moon before it slipped out of view for good. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM. Exposure: 1.6 sec., ƒ/11, ISO 400.

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 to aligned the next.

Coordinating all the moving parts—moon phase and altitude, foreground subject alignment, subject distance and timing—requires precise planning and plotting. When I started photographing the moon, in the days before smartphones and computer 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 on a map, 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 to do this for you. Apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris and PhotoPills (to name just two of many) are fantastic tools that give photographers access to moonrise and moonset data and maps 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.

Plan Ahead

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 for error shrinks as the focal length increases, planning for a big moon image is best done months in advance.

I’ve identified many big-moon candidate locations near home and in my travels, and am alwayson the lookout for more. My criteria are prominent subjects that stand out against the sky, with a distant east- or west-facing vantage point. Over the years, I’ve assembled a mental database of subjects ranging from hilltop trees near home to landscape icons like Half Dome, Mt. Whitney and Zabriskie Point in Death Valley.

Moonrise Silhouette, Yosemite. I was guiding photographers in Yosemite and had no plans to photograph the moon this evening. But glancing at my watch while we were at Valley View, I realized the moon should be appearing above the valley wall any minute, looked up, and there it was. With no time to spare, I raced along the riverbank until I could silhouette a single evergreen against the moon. Sony a6000, Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2. Exposure: 1/25 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 400.

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 up to a year for the alignment I want. And if the weather or my schedule doesn’t cooperate, my wait can be longer than that.

It’s Time For Action

Like most things in photography, doing is better than reading. Don’t wait until the day of the next full or crescent moon to prepare. Right this minute, you’re just a Google search or smartphone app away from knowing when the next full or crescent moon is. Look it up and mark your calendar. And while you wait for the day to arrive, download an app like The Photographer’s Ephemeris and become familiar with it. Take a weekend drive in the mountains, hills or countryside near home and identify potential moonrise and moonset subjects, and use them to hone your plotting skills with your new app.

Don’t be disappointed if you don’t nail it the first time you set out to capture a big moon. At the very least, you’ll have learned something for the next time, and your life will be all the richer for the beauty you witnessed.

Gary Hart has photographed nature's beauty for over 30 years. Gary’s photos and writing appear in many publications, including Outdoor Photographer and Sierra Heritage magazines. You'll also find his images in greeting cards, postcards, calendars, galleries and many private collections throughout the world.