How To Photograph The Moon With Creativity

How To Photograph The Moon With Creativity

Orbiting an average of 238,855 miles from Earth, the moon has been capturing the imagination of humankind throughout history. Being the closest celestial object to our home, it was long viewed as a divine, spiritual being to early civilizations. The moon has played a starring role in many cultures and influenced much of our daily life: calendars, languages, mythology and, of course, art. Artists have looked to the moon for guidance, from prehistoric cave paintings to Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.

Watching the smiling crescent moon set while on an evening sail around Costa Rica. Sony a7R II, Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM (landscape), Sony FE 400mm F2.8 GM OSS (moon). Exposure: 1/125 sec., ƒ/2.8, ISO 640 (landscape); 1/160 sec., ƒ/2.8, ISO 640 (moon).

The moon has always been more to me than just a photography subject; our relationship goes way back. Ever since I was a child, I have been absolutely enamored with the moon. It seemed like every time I stepped outside, it made sure I was aware of its presence shining down on me. I had jewelry, temporary tattoos, tees and magazines that all bore its beautiful face. Gazing up at it brings me peace, encourages me to keep going when I feel down, and reminds me always to have a curious mind. The moon knows and understands that it’s OK to have periods of darkness because the light will always find its way back. It’s a beautiful reminder to keep looking up, and I think this is why I’ve grown so attached to the moon in my work. I want to share with others these feelings and ideas that the moon inspires in me, the tranquility that I feel when I walk out my front door knowing that it’s there. The moon is a significant influence on not only my photographic work but my life.

My first photographic love was the great outdoors. I sought out every opportunity that I could to explore the vast nature that surrounded me in the lush Pacific Northwest. It was only a matter of time until the moon swiftly made an entrance into the landscapes that I focused on photographing.

Image of the moon with the aurora borealis

A rare sight of the moon and the ephemeral aurora dancing in the Lofoten Islands, Norway. Sony a7R II, Sigma 14mm F1.8 DG HSM | Art. Exposure: 5 secs., ƒ1.8, ISO 2000.

There are many different techniques used to photograph the moon, but I find myself more drawn to environmental shots—photographs that capture the moon interacting with the landscape. While I do love a good intimate portrait of the moon, there’s only so much story to tell when the focus of the frame is a single object, no matter how many fascinating craters and textures may be present. As a landscape photographer, I love to use my environment as a storytelling device that gives life and personality to the moon. My favorite way to incorporate the moon into landscapes is by aligning it either on top of mountains or in between the wild rock formations of the desert.

A unique aspect of our moon is that depending on the time of month and year, it can appear to be various distinct objects. Utilizing its numerous phases is a great way to step up your photographic storytelling because each one carries a different association. A crescent moon can bring delicate and tender emotions, while a full moon can stir powerful and dominating ones.

Another key impact on the mood of the photograph is the time of day when the moon is captured. The best time to photograph the moon, like most landscape photography, is near sunrise and sunset. Twilight before sunrise or after sunset can create soft and dreamy scenes, while just after sunrise and right before sunset can create dynamic and energetic scenes.

Photograph of the moon over Mt. Hood, Oregon.

Upon waking up after a wildly stormy night, I captured the most painterly lenticular clouds stacked on top of the already-towering Mount Hood, or Wy’east, in Oregon. Sony a7R III, Sony FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS. Exposure: 1/200 sec., ƒ/5, ISO 320 (landscape); 1/200 sec., ƒ/5.6, ISO 320 (moon).

I may have a different approach than most lunar photographers as I only plan my photographs about 20 percent of the time. It’s fascinating to me how I often find myself in scenarios where I’m able to align the moon over remarkable landscapes with little to no planning. Time and time again, it seems that I get lucky when it comes to aligning the moon. But is it luck? Is it a coincidence? I am constantly stunned, but then I wonder if it’s simply my affinity for looking up—my curiosity for the worlds outside of our own. I suppose my first tip for moon photography would be to just go—get outside. The more often you spend time outdoors in beautiful locations with a camera in hand, the more likely you are to stumble upon a spectacular moon alignment. Always keep an eye to the sky.

Apps For Planning Moon Photography

While I greatly enjoy our surprise interactions, I do love planning shots as well. There are many factors and uncertainties at play when planning anything nature-related, so I try to keep an open-minded, flexible approach when photographing the moon. The most important preparations that I take into consideration when planning are the moon phase, locations, unique features to align, sunrise and sunset times, and weather.

I use several apps to help with my preparations, but the three most helpful are PhotoPills for timing and aligning, Google Earth for location and feature scouting, and Windy for weather predictions.

Photograph of the moon at Gates of the Arctic National Park.

The quarter moon as seen from just outside my tent at 1:19 a.m. in Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska. Instead of starry skies, the midnight sun in the Arctic creates gorgeous golden-hour light all night long. Sony a7R III, Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM. Exposure: 1/250 sec., ƒ/5.6, ISO 320.

PhotoPills is a wildly powerful app built for landscape photographers that can be a bit overwhelming at first glance, but once you understand how to navigate and use it to its full potential, it takes the uncertainty out of aligning the moon in your chosen environment. With this app, I’m able to select a date, time and location, and it will tell me where I need to stand to line up the moon perfectly over whichever landscape I choose. There’s even a feature that allows me to input different focal lengths to see what my field of view will be. I recommend watching some of the PhotoPills YouTube videos and reading through its user guides to get the full benefits of this impressive app.

Most are already aware, but Google Earth is a very powerful tool as well. After I choose a general location and use PhotoPills to find out what phase and where the moon will be, I use Google Earth to scour the surrounding landscape for any fascinating rock formations or mountains that will line up. This step is one of the most exciting in the planning process because your creativity truly gets to take hold to visualize different shots.

Windy is one of the best weather apps for photographers because not only can you see precipitation on the radar, but you can also filter different layers such as high clouds, low clouds, fog, wind, air quality and so much more. I’ve also found it to be wildly accurate, which is not something that I can declare about many weather-predicting apps.

Photograph of the moon at Glacier National Park.

While I was exploring Glacier National Park in late September, a record-breaking early-season snowfall dropped 56 inches of fresh powder. After a day of trying to shoot in challenging conditions, I was greeted with the most magical and ethereal moonset on my drive home. Sony a7R III, Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM. Exposure: 1/125 sec., ƒ/2.8, ISO 160 (landscape); 1/125 sec., ƒ/5.6, ISO 320 (moon).

Equipment To Photograph The Moon

Lunar photography can get quite technical, and that’s where the right gear comes into play. A camera that allows you to control your settings manually is imperative. I am currently using Sony a1 and Sony a7S III camera bodies. These cameras are both excellent in low-light scenarios, which makes them the perfect tools for lunar photography.

For most shots, I use a telephoto lens to enlarge the moon. This telephoto compression not only makes the moon appear larger in the frame but also draws the viewer in for a more intimate and minimalistic composition while still showcasing the landscape. My most-used lens is the Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS, but I also use the FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS when I need more light and the FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM for wider shots. I will say that the versatility of a 100-400mm lens has been paramount to my work thus far, and I highly recommend a lens in this focal length range to take your photographs of the moon to the next level.

Blending Exposures

When it comes to photographing the moon above a landscape, it’s a common misconception that a photo is either a single shot or a composite, but many moon photographs are exposure blends. An exposure blend is when you take the same photograph multiple times with different exposure settings and combine them in post-processing. Our moon’s reflected light is quite bright, so details may be blown out and lost if exposing for the entire frame. I often take a brighter exposure for the landscape (sometimes multiples depending on the scene) and then a darker exposure for the moon and blend them all in Adobe Photoshop.

Photograph of the moon and Milky Way at Mount Rainier National Park.

Thanks to wispy clouds softening the quarter moon’s reflected light, I was able to capture the Milky Way and the moon perfectly framing Mount Rainier or Tahoma in Mount Rainier National Park. Sony a7R III, Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM. Exposure: 30 secs., ƒ/2.8, ISO 2000 (landscape); 8 secs., ƒ/2.8, ISO 2500 (moon).

This isn’t always the case, as it’s highly dependent on the moon phase and time of day. If the moon phase is crescent, it typically isn’t too bright for single exposures up until sunset, but if the moon phase is gibbous or full, chances are you’ll need to take more than one exposure.

Composites are also fairly common with lunar photography. Many get upset by this and think that composites aren’t “real” photography. In my eyes, photography is an art form; my photography work isn’t journalism. I try to evoke specific emotions through my work, and therefore it isn’t always true to life. I would rather capture the scenes that I envision in-camera over compositing pieces together, but there are places and scenarios where an alignment isn’t possible. Sometimes it’s a story that I want to tell regardless, so I bring that vision to life through post-processing.

For example, nature is in absolute control when it comes to landscape photography. Weather is a major factor in the success of a photograph, and sometimes all you can do is pivot when it isn’t working in your favor. I had been diligently planning to capture the total lunar eclipse of May 2021. I had everything all prepped and ready to go, but due to horrendous weather and thick clouds, my plans quickly went out the window. Not a single thing went according to plan—my car battery even died on location—but that’s life, isn’t it? Instead of allowing the situation to crush my creativity, I chose to improvise and create a composite. While patiently waiting and hoping for the moon to pop out of the clouds, I photographed the surrounding snow-capped mountains to use as the landscape. I fell in love with a nearby saddle that instantly called to me; its shape was seemingly meant to cradle a full moon. I am still in disbelief, but shortly after, the gorgeous orange gradient of the eclipsed moon briefly peeked out of the dense dark blue clouds. I knew that this composite would be something special, if not just for the much-needed reminder that it’s OK when life doesn’t go according to plan. Sometimes things turn out even better.

Photograph of the moon during a lunar eclipse event.

Photographing the total lunar eclipse in Salt Lake City, Utah, did not go according to plan due to awful weather, but I didn’t let that stop me from creating a unique composite instead. Sony a1, Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS. Exposure: 1.6 secs., ƒ/10, ISO 1000 (landscape); 2 secs., ƒ/10, ISO 1250 (moon).

Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s important to experiment and play around with different techniques to help find your voice and style. I encourage you to get out of your comfort zone and create scenes that don’t exist in the real world. If you discover that it isn’t for you, that’s great. You’re another step closer to finding out who you truly are as an artist.

One thing’s for certain, there’s nothing quite like an evening spent outdoors gazing up at our moon. No matter what your experience is with photographing it, there’s so much that this mysterious chunk of rock can teach. What’s so captivating about our moon? It’s become a symbol of our emotions, our dreams, our intuition. It has always been an object of contemplation and reflection for us, and through art, we’re able to feel its transcendence. The moon connects us to our past while inspiring us to ponder our future. And that’s why I always keep an eye to the sky. 


See more of Autumn Schrock’s work at autumnschrock.com.

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