How I Shot This Moonrise

Sierra Foothills—Moonrise over the Foothills, Perspective 2
Sierra Foothills—Moonrise over the Foothills, Perspective 2 Click to see larger image.
Original Raw Image of Foreground.  Note that moon looks like a bright white blob.
Original Raw Image of Foreground. Note that moon looks like a bright white blob.
Original Raw Image of Moon.  Note that foreground is too dark to see.
Original Raw Image of Moon. Note that foreground is too dark to see.

A moonrise can be very difficult to shoot, especially if you want the mood to reflect the transition from twilight to darkness but still want the moon to look realistic. The range of light the camera sees is much more limited than what our eyes can see. So, left to its own devices the camera will give you a nice moon and a foreground too dark to see or a foreground that you can see and a bright white blob where the moon should be. I like to see the foreground and see the man in the moon. I like to have the moon the right color too.

This shot was taken on January 4, 2015, at the rise of a nearly full moon. Sunrise and sunset were nearly at the same time. And that is a key point. The dynamic range, i.e. the difference in the brightness of the moon and the brightness of the background, is smallest when the moon is full and is rising just as the sun sets. You often get the nice gold or red color in the moon at that time also. On this night, I also was lucky to have high, thin cirrus clouds to give me a nice corona around the moon.

The second point to realize is that it is nearly impossible to a moon rise like this with a single shot and not get a lot of noise when you boost the shadows or exposure in post processing. So, I rely on multiple shots and HDR. There has been a lot of backlash against HDR because it is often overdone. HDR’s problem is the carpenter, not the hammer. The next point is to realize that the moon moves. Well, the earth rotates but it makes the moon appear to move. In his book Night Photography, Lance Keimig says it moves its apparent diameter every 2 minutes. So, if you make your exposure too long, you get a streak instead of a moon.

So, what did I do?

Step 1 is planning. I use The Photographer’s Ephemeris, a web and mobile app, to get the date and time of moon phases, times for sunrise, moonrise, etc. for any spot on earth. It even provides the direction from which the sun or moon will rise and set at the spot where I plan to shoot. I’ve also been to my spot on numerous occasions so I can visualize where moon rise will be and plan my composition.

Step 2 is setting up the composition. Since I’ve been to my spot, I have a composition in mind before I go. When I get to my spot, I find my composition. Having used the Photographer’s Ephemeris, I have a good idea where the moon will rise and that, of course, is a key point of the composition. Once I have decided upon my composition, I insure that focus and depth of field are correct. I typically set and lock my focus to the prominent foreground subject and use a strong depth of field – F16 or so. Others have said that you should focus on infinity or on the moon but, since the foreground is very important, I usually focus there. I find a little loss of sharpness in the moon isn’t as objectionable as softness in the foreground.  By the way, you need to be sure your camera is locked on a tripod and it is preferable to use a cable release.

Step 3 is exposing the shot. The correct exposure will, of course depend upon a number of factors – darkness, weather conditions, haze, etc. But, you can expect to use a timed exposure. So you need to consider several factors: noise, apparent movement of the moon and getting 2 good shots – a reasonably well exposed foreground and another of a well exposed moon. There is no magic formula for this. I usually take test exposures to judge how quickly the light falls off and to gauge how far I need to adjust the exposure when moving between the foreground and moon shots. On my old DSLR, that involved taking the shot and looking at the shot and its histogram. The Fuji XT-1 lets me see the exposure and histogram in real time so it’s a lot easier and faster. For this scene, I exposed the foreground for 5 seconds at ISO 800. Immediately upon completing the image, I changed the exposure to 1/8 of a second to get a well exposed moon.  It’s important to move quickly because the moon is moving and you want them in as close to the same spot in the image as possible for post processing.

Step 4 is post processing. I use Adobe Lightroom for my post processor and I use Photomatrix Pro for my HDR work. HDR usually takes three images to get an acceptable result. But, I only have 2. So, I create a virtual copy of the foreground and adjust its exposure to fall in about 2 stops brighter than the original foreground image. (Note: I will often take a shot of the foreground before the sun sets to use as my third image. But in this case, the range of exposures was too great and the composite just didn’t look right.) I select the original foreground image, the exposure adjusted copy and the original image of the moon and export them to Photomatrix for creating the HDR image. Photomatrix provides numerous preset options; I chose the one that most closely approximates my vision and then tweak it to get my desired result then import it back into Lightroom.

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