4 Important Tips to Improve your Moon Landscape Photography

One of the most photographed Astral objects is the Moon. Many of us have always been fascinated with our lunar sphere, especially when the moon is full. There is something special about a full moon and some even believe in Mysterious powers of the full moon. Animals act different, some say even people act different. Mythological stories talk about werewolf and other creatures that roam the earth when the moon is at its biggest. Others are more attracted to the romance of the full moon and the beautiful light it cast on the landscapes. Count me a member of the last group. 

I love the photograph a beautiful moonlight kissed landscape and in occasion when we have an extra “special” full moon phase I photograph the moon as the main subject. 

Photographing moon lit landscapes aren't the easiest thing to to, so here are some tips to “Improve your moon lit Landscape photography”

1 Planning

One of the most important things I have learned in photographing Astrophotography, Moon lit landscapes, the moon or the Milky Way is planning my shot. Make a decision wether you are going to photograph the moon as your main subject or a moon lit landscape. This decision will determine the gear you will be taking along. 

When planning my shots I take advantage of todays technology in determining what the sky will look like, the phase and angle of the moon. I use an iPhone and the Apps I use to help me in this process are: 

Sky Guide:

http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/sky-guide-view-stars-night-or-day/id576588894?mt=8

The Photographer's Ephemeris (VERY AWESOME!)

http://photoephemeris.com/

Google Maps

Super Blood Moon Photographed at Diege Peak at Mt. Rainier

Super Blood Moon Photographed at Diege Peak at Mt. Rainier

When planning make sure you scout your locations before the shoot. So many photographers just show up and hope for the best. In my experience that only leads to disappointment and often a poor photograph. By scouting you will get familiar with the location and you can “try-out” different compositions. By doing that you come will prepared and do not need to lose time looking for a shot.

Here are the dates of the Full Moons in 2017    

Feb. 10     Snow Moon                Aug. 7             Sturgeon Moon    

Mar. 12     Worm Moon                Sept. 6             Harvest Moon    

Apr. 11        Pink Moon                Oct. 5             Hunter's Moon        

May 10     Flower Moon              Nov. 4             Beaver Moon    

June 9      Strawberry Moon       Dec. 3             Cold Moon

 

2 Composition

There are many variables determining the “Best Possible” composition for moon lit photographs. Things to consider is wether you have a clear sky, a cloudy sky or a night full with Atmospheric Turbulence. Are you going to photograph a landscape or just the moon as the main subject. Which moon phase are you photographing, a crescent moon or full moon? 

Most photographers tend to play it safe and have a tendency to center the subject. A very safe approach but a little boring in my opinion. Its been done a million of times and the chance your photograph in going to be any different is small. Change it up a little, photograph the moon and turn it 90 degrees in photoshop or Lightroom. Don't limit yourself to just one perspective, imagine yourself in a spaceship flying around the moon, highlight and shadows will vary according to your position, so turn that big cheese wheel around and come up with something different. 

When photographing the moon as part of a landscape, the rule of thirds is a safe and good way to start. However don’t limit yourself to rules and try different artistic perspectives and angles. But when you do, know the rules, my starting points:

  1. I use the rule of Thirds ( and then break them later)
  2. I use a building, tree, plants or rock to frame the scene
  3. I make sure I have a point of interest in the foreground, mid ground and background 
  4. I try to create a vanishing point
  5. I try to make usage of diagonal lines. 
Seattle Under Full Moon Light - Blended image of Foreground and moon

Seattle Under Full Moon Light - Blended image of Foreground and moon

In the western hemisphere we read from left to right. When composing an image keep that in mind. Our natural tendency is to look at something from left to right. Also we are drawn to the lightest part on image first. Knowing those two things we can help our composition. 

Playing with your composition can give you different images..

Playing with your composition can give you different images..

3 Gear

Lens Choice

Most of today’s digital camera’s will do, the body you use is not that important. The lens choice is. When photographing landscapes I prefer to use a wide angle lens, anything from 35mm all the way up to 14mm. The wider the lens, the more of the scene you will be able to capture but also the smaller the moon will be. Imagine how big the moon looks to you when seen with the naked eye. This is very similar to a 50mm lenson a full frame camera (35mm equivalent). When you want to photograph the moon bigger you will need a zoom lens, a super telephoto. I usually shoot my moon shots with a 600mm lens with a 2 times tele converter with a cropped sensor, that give men the equivalent of a 1600mm lens. That way I can see some detail in the moon surface. 

My lens choice:

Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 ED Zoom

Nikon AF-S FX 600mm F/4 G ED VR

Nikon FX TC-20EIII 2 times Teleconverter with Auto Focus

One of my favorite things to do is blending my landscape photographs and my moon photographs together. It creates this surreal image which is true to my creative identity. 

Tripod

A good and steady tripod are essential. Without it your photographs aren't going to be that great. One could say that with todays modern camera’s and stabilized lenses we could boost the ISO but a practice that still is a lot below the image quality compared when using a tripod 

When using lenses beyond 200 mm in my opinion a tripod is a necessity.

My tripod of choice:

Manfrotto 058B (Very heavy!)

Dedge Peak Journalistic approach of the Blood moon

Dedge Peak Journalistic approach of the Blood moon

Remote Shutter Release

Minimizing Camera shakeis the most important thing. A remote camera trigger is an important tool and cheap to help reducing that. 

I use a Phottix TR-90

4 Exposure and Camera settings

In all landscape and astrophotography eliminating camera shake is crucial, any small movement or vibration can result in a soft (unsharp) image. That’s why I use a remote shutter or sometimes in case I forgot it I use the self timer function on the camera which I set to a 3 - 5 second delay. 

Mirror Lock-up

Next important setting is Mirror lock-up. Many, not all, of today’s cameras allow you to lockup the mirror. This is a feature that allow you to reduce vibration induced motion blur during the exposure. In the normal camera modus when the shutter is pressed the mirror goes out of the way of the shutter mechanism. (Without this mirror we would not be able to see anything in our view finder) This action causes vibration, enough to cause a soft image. With mirror lock-up the mirror is already out of the way of the shutter. I use mirror lockup in all my landscape images. 

Exposure Settings

The moon is a very fast moving object that moves around our planet with a speed of around 2290Mph. Pretty fast, but because of its distance from the earth it doesn't appear that fast. But it is still a moving subject and when photographing the moon with a low shutter speed, motion blur will be introduced. I photograph the moon with around a 1/160 of a second minimum. That way I am sure that motion blur will not be a cause of an unsharp or soft result. 

When is comes to my aperture settings I always shoot at the “Sweet Spot” of my lens. As a rule of thumb that is about 3 stop above the widest aperture settings. With my f/2.8 lens the sweet spot is around f8. 

When it comes to ISO there is no general setting, it depends on how bright the scene is and/or the moon. I use my camera’s metering system to determine the “correct setting. When shooting landscapes I usually set my camera at a Matrix Metering, when photographing the moon as my main subject I use a spot metering setting. 

Bracketing

Depending on the dynamic range of my scene and the dynamic range capabilities of my camera I will bracket my exposures. In most cases I will take 3 exposures from every scene. 1 Normal exposure as metered by my camera, 1 stop under and 1 stop over.  In some cases I will go and shoot 9 exposures when the scene is complex and has a lot of detail in it and where the dynamic range is very high. In photoshop I then blend those image together into a 32bit file.

Focus

In most cases I use manual focus to get the proper exports, however its very ease to use the auto focus function on a full moon. There is enough contrast in the moon to allow the camera’s autofocus system to grab prober exposure.

So here you have it my basic workflow that I use when photographing Moon lit landscapes or the moon itself. Leave me comment if you have a question or just want to say hi. 

Bart de Gols