Moonrise photo by Tim Grey
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How to Plan a Moonrise Photo

(Editor’s note: Photographer, educator, and author Tim Grey shares his techniques on planning then shooting the moon rising over the horizon in Rome, Italy in this guest post.)

I am always more than happy to welcome good luck into my life, especially if that luck translates into a beautiful view I can document with a photograph. But I think it is important to realize that with a little bit of planning you can create your own good luck, which in turn can lead to cherished photographic images. It was exactly that sort of planning that enabled me to photograph the rising full moon over Rome, Italy while leading a photography workshop there.

iPhone app Planets photo by Tim GreyTiming the Moon

Photographing the full moon requires that several factors align to produce circumstances that make it possible to capture a unique photo. Of course, you’ll need to have good weather in order to see and photograph the moon. But you also need to know when the full moon will occur. The first step is to determine which day will feature a full moon. There are a variety of ways you can get this information, including websites and apps for mobile devices. I happen to use an app called Planets on my iPhone, which includes a Visibility option that will show you when selected celestial objects will be visible. This includes a list of dates for the key phases of the moon. I was, therefore, able to determine the date for the next full moon, so I could monitor the weather as that date approached.

Finding the Location

Once you know the date of the full moon, you’ll need to determine the location from which you want to photograph the full moon as it rises or sets. That essentially means you’ll need to know the path of the moon in the sky, so you can anticipate the point on the horizon where the moon will actually rise. And, of course, you’ll want to take into account what options exist for positioning yourself to create an interesting scene in which you’ll include the moon. This may all sound very complicated, but once again there are a variety of sources of information that make it relatively easy to choose a location from which to photograph the full moon.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris

I use an app called The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) for this type of planning, which can be found at http://photoephemeris.com. There are versions for desktop computers as well as mobile devices, but since I’m on the go most of the time when preparing to photograph the full moon, I tend to use the iPhone app for planning.

The Photographer's Ephemeris overview and detail screens on an iPhone.With the TPE app, you can select a specific date to view details about the sun and moon. In this case, I had already determined the date for the full moon, so I set that date into the TPE app. I then used the map within the app to identify my current position in Rome, Italy. The app then displays times for the rising and setting of the sun and the moon, among other details. Perhaps more importantly, lines on the map plot the position of the sun and moon at the time they will rise and set.

The plot lines for the rising and setting of the sun and moon are based on the selected location on the map within TPE. You can adjust the position on the map to see how changing locations will affect the relative position of the moon.

I already had a few ideas of possible locations from which to photograph the full moon rising over Rome, but I could use the TPE app to determine where the moon would rise from each of the locations I was considering.

I wanted to be sure to have some iconic subjects in the landscape below the full moon. So I evaluated various locations on the map with this in mind. Ultimately I decided to photograph from Janiculum Terrace (Terrazza del Gianicolo), because from that vantage point the full moon would rise between the Altar of the Fatherland (Altare della Patria) and the Roman Forum (Foro Romano).

Capturing the Photo

The full moon will always rise or set close to the time the sun rises or sets because in order for the moon to be full from our vantage point it must be opposite the sun in the sky. In this case, the moon would rise shortly after sunset, so I knew I could take advantage of the elevated vantage point I would be photographing from to capture images of Rome illuminated by late afternoon light. Fortunately, the weather cooperated perfectly.

The location in Rome awaiting moonrise. Photo by Tim Grey

Shortly after sunset, I looked at the location where the TPE app indicated I could expect the full moon to rise. I waited and watched, and I was not disappointed. About fifteen minutes after the sun had set, the full moon started to rise over the horizon. The sky was a little hazy, but that actually worked to my advantage. For one thing, it provided a bit of color to the sky and landscape before me. In addition, it helped to even out the exposure between the moon and the landscape. Once the moon had risen above the haze, the increased apparent brightness of the moon meant that I could not retain detail in the moon and the scene below with a single exposure. I used a 70-200mm lens, zooming to a focal length of 149mm to frame the scene. With the lens aperture wide open at f/2.8 and the ISO set to 400, I was able to achieve a good exposure with a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second.

Moonrise over Rome. Photo by Tim Grey

The Benefit of Planning

I always enjoy photographing Rome from atop the hill to the west where the Janiculum Terrace is located. But photographing the scene from this familiar vantage point was made more special with the addition of a full moon. All it took was a little bit of planning—and favorable weather conditions—to make the photograph possible.

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