Creative Field Techniques - Shooting the Super Moon for Landscapes

What I really like about that image above is how the moon complements the tree without overpowering it or taking center stage; simply serving as a point of interest and adding balance. Because it is the moon, it adds an ethereal beauty and a sense of time to the image. It is more than just a landscape shot. 

First, what is a super moon? Because the moon circles the earth in an elliptical pattern, it sometimes comes closer to the earth than at other times. When it is closest, it will appear larger than usual – hence, super moon. In addition to being larger, the super moon has some other nice qualities from a photographer’s perspective.

  • It sets around sunrise and rises around sunset. This means it will be closer to the horizon when the light is more dramatic and colorful.
  • The closer the moon is to the horizon, the larger it appears.
  • There are typically 2-4 super moons within a calendar year. Even better, there will be 2-4 opportunities to capture it at sunrise and sunset during each cycle before it wanes.

How do you know when a super moon is coming? Don’t wait for social media to tell you! You can research ahead of time and find out which of the twelve full moon cycles will be super moons and make note of those dates and the time of moonset and moonrise. Even better, you can purchase an app that will not only give you super moon information, but information about other sky events such as the Milky Way. I use a phone app called ‘SunSurveyor’, and there are others like PhotoPils and The Photographers’ Ephemeris. Easy to find these, check them out. Below is a screen shot from my app showing me the dates and time for a super moon in April.

I can choose an event and time travel to an opportunity, as you see in this next shot. This is a satellite image of a place I have identified and stored in the app. Within the screen, I can move my position around and see where the moon is relative to me and I can scroll the timeline to see how the position changes across the sky.

When I know there is a super moon opportunity coming, I prepare ahead of time. My goal is to capture a landscape (or waterscape) with the moon as a backdrop to the scene. I may scout an area ahead of time to find something new to capture, but usually I have a specific location (specific tree!) in mind. If I can get to the location before the super moon date, I use the SunSurveyor app to visualize the scene with the moon in Live View. This means I can hold the phone up to the sky to view my landscape with the moon positioned at a specific time. Look at the two screen shots below. Notice how the position of the moon changed from one day to the next. Also note the change in time. This gives me important information about where to stand so that I can compose an image with the moon and trees within the frame. Prior to the day I shoot, I will already visualize the scene.

From one day to the next, the moon sets about 45-60 minutes later. Same thing happens with the moonrise in the evening. You must pay attention to the time the moon sets and the time the sun rises. Preferably, I like to see the moon set after, not before the sunrise. This gives me several minutes of nice light to work with the moon before it sets. For example, on April 8th the sunrise was 7:08 am and moonset was 7:43 am. For moonrise in the evening, it would be the opposite with the sun setting after the moonrise.

The last thing that you must pay close attention to before you go out to shoot the moon is the weather. Here in Florida, our rainy season typically begins in April, making night sky moon or milky way shots difficult to pull off during the summer months. A clear sky will obviously work best, but don’t be discouraged if there are some clouds in the sky. Clouds can add to the image if the moon is not completely covered by them. Clouds may eventually move out of the way to reveal the moon and add some interest and mood to the scene.

On the morning of the moonset, I typically arrive at my location 30-60 minutes before sunrise. Any later than that is cutting it close because I like to take my time to get my camera and tripod set up for a composition and scope out the surroundings to find other compositions. For the shoot I need four things, a long lens (I use 70-400mm) attached to the camera, a tripod & head as you see below, cable release (or you can use the 2-sec timer) and a headlamp. The headlamp is on when you are preparing for the shot, but you need to turn it off when you are taking your shots.

More than thirty minutes before sunrise it will be dark, but as sunrise approaches, things will light up more. This is the reason I like to see the moon set several minutes following sunrise. Remember, the sun will be behind you as you face the moon. Notice in the shot below where the moon is about to go behind the horizon. Unfortunately, it set a few minutes before sunrise and the best light happened with the moon too low in the sky. I much preferred the moon to be higher in the sky so I came back the next morning because the moon was scheduled to set about 30 minutes after sunrise.

To set up the camera, keep two things in mind - focus and exposure. The moon will be the brightest point in the frame. If you set the exposure to capture the landscape to see details in the dark areas, the moon will be overexposed and look like a super bright orb without any details. To get a good exposure on the moon to see its surface details, you may need an exposure that is 2 stops below the landscape exposure. In this situation I take two shots, one for the landscape and one for the moon. In Photoshop I create a composite image of the two, such as the image below taken about 15 minutes before sunrise (it was also very foggy that morning!).

If you are not comfortable compositing two images during post processing, you can wait until closer to sunrise when it is lighter. Then expose the entire scene so as not to blow out the moon and still maintain details in the darker areas of the landscape. Here is an example of one exposure for landscape and tree, shot shortly after sunrise.

The disadvantage of taking only one exposure is you have a narrower time frame in which to work because you are relying on more atmospheric light. Also, the brighter it is, the more faint the moon becomes. Check out this image shot 30 minutes after sunrise. If you start shooting earlier when it is still kind of dark, you will have more fun coming up with various compositions as the moon moves in an arc toward the horizon. Also, the light can change dramatically and be quite beautiful before it gets too light.

The other technical part of capturing the moon is focusing. I like to focus directly on the moon to get it as sharp as possible, then take a shot. I then focus on my landscape (a tree, for instance) to get that sharp as well, and take another shot. Because it can be too dark to auto focus on the landscape, I set my focus to manual for both. I take one shot focusing and exposing the moon, move my focus point to the landscape and expose and focus on it for a second shot. If you take only one exposure shot, you can focus on a distant point in your landscape and the moon will appear plenty sharp. But if you can take two shots and composite them, all the better, especially if you need two exposures.

I mentioned earlier that I use a telephoto lens (remember, telephoto lenses are great for landscapes!). The reason should be obvious but to drive the point home, the moon will appear bigger in the frame; but more importantly, everything else will appear bigger! With that, you will not have the depth of field of a wide-angle lens. If you focus on a distant tree while using a telephoto lens (> 200mm), you will have adequate sharpness and depth of field for the super moon landscape shot. Also, using an aperture that provides some depth of field will help. In that case, I typically use f8 to f11 because it is the sharpest aperture range for my lens.

As for shutter speed, I like to keep it faster than 2 seconds. This is to avoid blurring the moon. I may have to increase the ISO to avoid long exposures, but typically not more than 400. Instead of f11, I may open it to f8 to add another stop of light so that I can keep the shutter speed under 2 seconds and the ISO 400 or lower. Remember, you need a tripod to do this right!

I hope this has inspired you to get out and capture the moon. And don’t forget those Milky Way opportunities as well!

If you are interested in learning more about camera or editing techniques, I offer individualized instructions in the field as well as in Photoshop. Please visit my website to learn more about these workshops or contact me at bigcypress214@yahoo.com with any questions you may have. And, please check out my video tutorials.