Many of you are probably wondering how I photographed this image. My friends have all asked me, several of them photographers. The simple answer–this isn’t one image. It is two images. In one image I exposed and focused for the moon. In the other image I exposed for everything else. If I had taken only one image, depending on how I had set my exposure, either the details of the moon would have been blown out or the surrounding scene would have been extremely underexposed. But the complete answer to the question is complicated, because there are so many things to consider to get a good full moon photograph.
Here are some of the things to think about:
Taking the Picture
- Scout the location carefully. Find an interesting subject as the backdrop for the full moon.
- Use an application on your phone, such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris, to determine the exact location of the moonrise. Then use the map on the application to assist you in determining where to stand when you take your pictures. Be particularly mindful of tall structures or trees that may block the moon as it rises.
- The longer the lens you choose to photograph with, the larger the moon appears in your image. I shoot with my Fujifilm XF 50-140mm lens (approximate equivalent of 75-210mm) when I want to capture the overall scene. I use my Nikon 400mm lens (600mm equivalent), with an adapter for my Fuji X-T2 camera, when I want the moon to be very big, spot-lighting an element in the scene.
- Use a tripod. I also suggest using a remote shutter release. Although the self-timer on your camera can be used in lieu of a remote shutter release, in this situation I find the self-timer too slow between shots.
- The lower the moon in the sky, the bigger it looks. Therefore it is important to come early to set up. You need to be ready to go the second the moon starts rising from the horizon, as it rises very quickly. You may even decide to stand at a different spot, so prepare yourself to move swiftly and efficiently.
- Before the moon rises, test out different compositions, shooting angles, and focal lengths. Decide what works and what doesn’t.
- Manually set your camera’s exposures, based upon the camera’s histograms. Minutes before the moon rises determine the exposure for the overall scene you are photographing. Once the moon appears, determine the proper exposure for the moon. Try starting with an F/stop of F/8 or F/11 and an ISO between 200 and 400, and then adjust as necessary Your shutter speed will depend on your choices for F/stop and ISO. I try not to exceed an ISO of 800, and set my F/stop depending on the depth of field I prefer for the image.
- Shoot each shot twice, exposing and focusing for the moon and then exposing and focusing for the scene without the moon. Each grouping will be merged when you process the images.
- Don’t forget to occasionally review the histograms of the images you have taken, to double-check your exposures.
Processing the Image
I process my images using Lightroom and Photoshop, and will discuss the technique I use here.
- Select the group of images you want to process as one picture and make very basic adjustments to each image for exposure, highlights, whites, shadows and blacks.
- Go to the top menu and click Photo>Edit In>Open as Layers in Photoshop. Lightroom now takes you into Photoshop. The selected images are merged together as layers in one image.
- If the properly exposed moon image is on top of the layer stack, grab the moon layer with your mouse and move it below the image of the properly exposed scene.
- Pick white as your Foreground Color.
- Add a layer mask to the top layer by clicking the layer mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel (third icon from the left).
- Change the Foreground Color to black and choose the brush tool. Brush over the moon on the top layer and the moon on the bottom layer appears in its place.
- Fine tune the moon, changing the brush from black to white and white to black until the moon looks the way you like. Save the image and return to Lightroom.
- You may find it helpful to use the elliptical marquee tool to create a circular selection around the edge of the moon so that you keep the edges sharp and well-defined, as you paint in the moon from the bottom layer.
- Use different edged brushes, experimenting to see what you like best. It is important to keep the details of the moon crisp, and the edges sharp.
- Back in Lightroom process the single image as you normally would, tweaking highlights, shadows, blacks, whites, exposure, color, and tone.
Of course you may be able to take just one image of the moon and the landscape or cityscape you are photographing, exposing for the overall scene and improving upon an over-exposed moon in Lightroom or Photoshop (or whatever processing software you are using). I prefer not to leave things to chance. By taking at least two images of the scene, I know the moon, the focal point of my image, will be sharp and properly exposed.