Wednesday, November 01, 2006

How To Plan for Great Full Moon Rise and Set Shots!

As a general rule of thumb the full moon rises at sunset and sets at sunrise. This is very convenient because you can get the moon illuminated by the orange glow of the sun, with its color and size magnified by the atmosphere, low enough to place it near some of your favorite subjects on the ground (such as reflected in your favorite lake or fountain). Turn in any other direction, and you also have the sunrise/sunset itself to shoot, as well as subjects side-lit by the warm, low-angled light!

In practice however the actual moon set and rise times, and how they relate to sunset and sunrise, will depend upon the time of year, your position on the earth, and your position towards the east or west side of your time zone. Fortunately you can simply look up the time for your town. I'll get to that in a moment.

First I'd like to point out that you often don't want to shoot on the exact full moon date. The moon's brightness can be too great unless the sun is still lighting the ground with enough intensity. Fortunately the moon rise and set times move a little later each day, so a day or two before the "official" full moon it will be rising while the foreground is still lit, or if you have mountains on the horizon it will be high enough to clear than the horizon while the sun sets. Similarly, the day or two after "full moon" is often best for dawn moon set shots, since after the full moon date it remains in the sky above the horizon as the sun rises and lights the scene.

For example, in November where I live the sun is rising around 7am and setting around 4:46 (it changes a minute or so each day), so the November 24 moon rise at 4:24pm should be lit by the setting sun. Also that morning's moon set at 7:15am will be right after the rising sun has started to light up the landscape around 7am.

In the past I used the U.S. Naval Observatory to produce charts of sun and moon rise and set times.  Here are examples of the rise and set times (in 24 hour military time) for October, November and December, with the link you can use to look up times for your location (assuming no mountains on your horizon of course):

Rise and Set for the Moon for 2007
Pacific Standard Time

Rise Set Rise Set Rise Set
h m h m h m h m h m h m
24 1615 0432 1642 0719 1738 0818
25 1645 0550 1742 0835 1853 0906
26 1721 0710 1851 0941 2005 0943
27 1806 0831 2004 1034 2114 1014
28 1900 0949 2117 1115 2219 1039

If you have a calendar in your cell phone or PDA you can program rise and set times in, even months ahead of time, and don't forget to add an alarm 45 to 60 minutes ahead of time to remind you to get to the site 30-45 minutes early to plan and set up for your shots.

Vane AttemptToday I mainly use a free app on my PC, "The Photographer's Ephemeris" (TPE) to plan for the moon position in more detail on a +Google Earth satellite image:

Anticipating Sun and Moon Alignments

Using TPE you can check the moon's altitude in the sky at any moment, so with a little extra math to check the geometry, you can set up your camera in advance to line the moon up with just about any land-based object.

As an example, here's the moon during a lunar eclipse, which I planned to capture as it passed right through the tip of the Transamerica Building in San Francisco.  Since I was shooting images to create a time-lapse video, I had to put the tripod in the exact right place at least 15 - 20 minutes ahead of time:

It's amazing the tools photographers have at their fingertips these days!

Shooting tips:

Set your camera on manual focus and focus it a little behind the closest object you want in focus (depth of field only comes a short way forward, longer towards the distance). Use a small aperture if you have a tripod and are taking a wide shot, but if the exposure gets long and your zoomed in on something, remember that the moon is constantly moving and it will blur, so consider widening to f/8 or more (best to bracket f-stop settings and get the shot than to wish the next day that you had done something different).

The lighting will change rapidly in the course of a few minutes, so bracket your exposures ligher and darker, and consider using your camera's exposure compensation to darken most shots (you can combine it with automated exposure bracketing in many cameras) so the moon won't be a blurry, washed out mess. Plan ahead to have a foreground subject, a scene that the moon and possibly sunrise/sunset simply adds another dimension to (the moon itself has been done once or twice before). If the exposure range is too great between the bright moon and your darker foreground subjects, you can expose differently for the two and combine the shots later. You used to have to spend a lot of time in Photoshop to combine differently exposed shots, but now specialized "HDR" software will do the work for you automatically (best to use 2 or 3 exposures AT LEAST 1.5 to 2 stops apart in exposure from each other). See my experience tip on HDR and download trial Photomatix software at, but you can do that later as long as you bracket shots and use a steady tripod (and best to use automated exposure bracketing) so multiple exposures will line up and can be automatically processed.  Search this blog for "HDR" for more information on the technique.  If you decide to buy Photomatix, you can get a 15% discount by using the coupon code JeffSullivan when you by it from its publisher HDRsoft:

Consider trying some shots using fill flash if your foreground subject is within the appropriate range (about 8-20 feet for most cameras). Dawn and dusk are also prime times for using graduated neutral density filters to darken the bright sky and bring out what's on the ground, enabling the camera to see what our eyes can see onsite.

If you'll be travelling during the prime full moon days, the equator is 25,000 miles in diameter and completes a revolution in 24 hours, so it's moving at over 1000 miles/hour, so a rough estimate would be that every 100 miles you move east will be a 6 minute earlier change to the rise and set times, and 100 miles west will be 6 minutes later... more or less.

You don't want to fumble around in the dark, so don't forget your tripod, flashlight, jacket, hat and gloves, bug repellent in the summer, and maybe a folding chair for long moonlit night or star trail shots.

Now go look up the moon rise and set times for your area, and plan ahead to go nail some great shots in the 3-5 great shooting days that the moon gives us each month!