There’s something about a full moon that brings out a variety of emotions in people. The full moon is when the werewolf made its appearance. A full moon enhances romance for couples in love. It induces strange behavior. It can result in good fishing, because the fish feed more. It has also been chronicled in music over the years.
Why the big attraction to a full moon? No one knows for sure, but whatever the reason may be, it’s something you can count on happening every month. And, for a photographer, knowing exactly when something will happen helps in setting up interesting photos. A full moon suggests a whole new set of images, whether the image be of the moon by itself, the moon included in a landscape, a huge moon with some kind of animal standing or flying in front of it, or the moon dancing in the clouds and shrouding your favorite subjects.
Just like the sun, the moon appears larger the closer it is to the horizon, which is when most photographs of the moon are taken.
One thing you’ll find out when you want to focus primarily on getting images including a full moon is you won’t get much sleep. First, you’ll stay out late into the evening to make photos of the moon when it rises, and then you’ll come out early in the morning to make even more. If you’re at a location that has interesting subjects on both the eastern and western horizons, you’ll find yourself in the field well before sunrise to get images you couldn’t get the night before.
Catching the Moment Before It Happens
The best night to create images of the moon is actually the night before it’s completely full. The viewer won’t be able to notice the difference, and photographing a night prior to will provide some light in the sky. On the night before a full moon, moonrise will occur about twenty to thirty minutes before sunset. On the night the moon is full, it won’t rise until sunset. The reason it appears to be completely full is that it’s 180° opposite of the sun. By photographing the night before, you’ll have more photographic options. First, you can make pictures with the moon in the frame along with the light in the sky, or you can wait until the sun sets and the eastern sky becomes colorful. This can be followed by making images with just the moon in the sky silhouetting interesting foreground subjects.
Another technique you can try is to use the light of the full moon on a clear night to illuminate a subject on the opposite horizon, creating photos with a dark sky above a moonlit landscape. To do this, you’ll need a very long exposure, usually around fifteen to twenty seconds. These images can be created anytime around a full moon, as long as you attempt them well after sunset so the western sky is dark.
The subjects including in the image frame will determine where you’ll make your exposure readings. If the moon is a secondary part of the image–i.e., small in the frame and there’s still light in the sky– then you need to expose for the sky, usually the colorful portion close to the horizon. If the moon is the primary light source and is prominent in the image, then take a reading just off to the side of the moon itself. I’ve found that when I do photos such as this, I get a reading of around 1/180 sec. at f/8. Adjust your times accordingly if you need a wider depth of field. Be careful not to have a really long exposure of the moon or it might show any movement and be an out-of-focus white blob. Creating moon pictures is a good time to take the safe approach and bracket until you feel comfortable.
Another approach is to make double exposures, so you have a very large moon behind another prominent subject such as a city skyline or landscape. Throw out all you’ve been taught or have read about doing double exposures when you’re taking double exposures of the moon. Because you’re not doing multiple captures of a single subject, your exposures will be quite different in your image of the moon and your foreground subject. Consider the right exposure for each subject your photographing.
Another idea you can try is to make 30-40 images of the moon in different positions in the image frame, and then make landscapes images with a blank sky. Later, you’ll place the moon image into the landscapes blank sky image. A good suggestion for doing this is to photograph a set number of frames horizontally–with the moon in the left and right corners and in the middle–and then do the same using a vertical format. Make the images of the moon at whatever reading you get off of the moon–usually from about 1/125 sec. to 1/250 seconds–and then when you go to take your next set of images, take them at whatever reading you need to get a proper exposure of that subject. The hardest part of doing it this way is that you have to remember how much room to allow for the placement of the moon in the sky.
Clouds can add to the essence of the moon. It can create a feeling or a mood, from dreamy to spooky. And if you find thin clouds in front of the moon and the moon right behind a nice subject, you can get an interesting halo effect surrounding your subject.
Some locations work better than others when you’re trying to create memorable full moon landscapes. Here in the U.S., Southern Utah, with all of its grand scenery, is a great place to go to incorporate the moon into dramatic landscapes. No matter where you go, do some scouting to find the best locations. Going out a couple of days before a full moon to find the best place to be when it’s full will save you time on the night of photographing. Remember, the moon rises between twenty to thirty minutes later each day, so adjust your times from when you saw the moon in a certain position. Also, if you go back to the same place a month or two later, the moon will be in a different position, just as the sun will be as the seasons change.
Creating good full moon images is a challenge. If this is all new to you, don’t be disappointed if you have to delete the photos from your first full moon adventure. A truly great image will happen. Like everything else in photography, the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
And there’s always next month, and the next and the next.
by Andy Long
First Light Photo Workshops
All text, screen shots & photos: © 2006 Andy Long. All rights reserved.