Why I very rarely shoot the full moon

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It’s not that I don’t want to shot the full moon, I just don’t have the right equipment and as such I never plan for it, even when the Supermoon comes around.

I was in the city taking photos last night when I received a couple of text messages telling me to look at the moon. I was at South Wharf, the moon was obstructed by the buildings at first but then I saw it poke up. I wasn’t really in the best position to capture a great composition but I gave it a shot anyway because, well, it did look magnificent. I was torn between shooting the the incredibly vibrant sunset and the full moon. I tried to shoot both as best as I could. I will have to plan to properly shoot the full moon one day though.

You might be wondering why I can’t shoot the full moon with camera I’ve got, I mean, I do have a professional camera. In fact, I can shoot the full moon, I just can’t do it justice. When the moon is full, it appears quite large and is amazing to watch as it rises up. In order to capture the moon as large as it is, you need a telephoto lens to magnify the image. We are talking about lenses 200mm or longer. I shot mostly landscape images so my main lens is 16 – 35mm. This tends to make images smaller as it captures an expansed field of view, similar to a car mirror where objects can be closer than they appear. I also have an 85mm which is great for portraits and whilst it does a better job at capturing the full moon than the 35mm, it still doesn’t do it justice.

So yes, I would like to capture a great shot of the full moon one day, however I wouldn’t being planning to do so until I invest in a telephoto lens. And yes a Sigma 150 – 600mm lens is on the cards but so is a lot of other photographic equipment so it’s not at the top of my list.

For those of you that want to shoot the full moon, here a a few tips you might like to take on board... tips I’ll be using when I head out with a telephoto lens one day. 

Lens selection

As I’ve just explained, use the longest focal length lens you have available, that’ll keep the moon looking as large as possible and be the main focus of your shot.

Location

Position yourself so you capture the moon in a composition of your choice. You might want to do a location scout a day earlier, or just re-shoot next month if you don’t nailed it, the full moon repeats itself every 28 days pending cloud cover.

The full moon always rises in the east so find a location that faces east. Some good locations around Melbourne and its surrounds are along Southbank and South Wharf, Williamstown, Sorrento pier and Point Lonsdale (although I haven’t shot from there before). Google Maps and location scouts are great for finding spots. When doing a location scout, take a compass to find east, if you have an iPhone, you are all set. Bear in mind though that the moon may not rise 90º east, I think it does shift a little throughout the year but it’s in the general direction. Another thing you will want to consider is that if you are using a telephoto lens, you will need to be further away to properly compose the moon in your scene, this is where a location scout pays off.

Timing

The full moon rises at sunset although I have experienced it ‘appearing' to rise a little later due to cloud cover low in the sky. In this case, it was higher in the sky when it did surface. As an FYI, in the days leading up to the moon being full, it will rise before sunset and as it wanes, it rises after sunset. This can give you an indication as to its phase in the sky. Shooting the full moon as soon as it rises is most ideal for two reasons. Firstly, the moon appears larger when it’s closer to the horizon. And secondly, it will help you achieve the right exposure. The full moon is effectively a big torch lit up by the sun. When the moon is out and the sky is dark, the contrast between the darks and the shadows is too much for the camera to handle. Sure it will be fine if you are simply zoomed into the moon and are not shooting anything else, however if you are trying to capture the moon amongst a landscape, you will run into trouble. You will either have no detail in your scene, or the moon will be blown out and there won’t be any detail in it which you can see in my image above. When the moon rises however, just after sunset, the sky is still somewhat bright. At this point, the contrast between the darks and lights will be match a little more evenly and you should be able to get detail in the moon whilst maintaining detail in the rest of the composition. Think of it like a torch, a torch during the day isn’t very effective however at night it is. There will be a point in between i.e. sunset/twilight where the light of the sky and the torch will be in balance.

Camera settings

I’d say aperture is the most important setting I’d consider when shooting the moon. Of course you don’t want your shutter speed to be too long either as the moon moves pretty quickly. When you are shooting on an aperture of say f11 or f16, which a lot of landscape photographers will use, lit objects such as street lights, the sun and the moon have a star like effect. Some people like this however it’s something I’m moving away from in my photography and I especially don’t want the moon to look like that. I’d opt for an aperture of something like f4. This will give the light a softer effect and minimise the star effect. This aperture typically isn’t what a landscape photographer would use as they are trying to achieve maximum depth of field however, if you are far enough away, you will be focusing at just below infinity and will have a fairly deep depth of field anyway. Worse case scenario, you can always focus stack your image if you don’t believe it’s cheating.

Note: For those of you that don’t understand aperture, depth of field and focal distance, I’ll be explaining it in a future blog where I’ll be teaching people with SLR cameras how to start shooting in manual mode.

If you have any further tips for shooting the full moon or have any locations you’d like to share, please leave a comment. If you want to contribute to my telephoto lens fund so I can start taking full moon photos sooner, I’ll happily accept donations 😉 

Jarrod McShane