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Josh Cripps- 4 Tips For Killer Full Moon Photos

4 Tips for Killer Full Moon Photos


Have you ever been outside at night, looked up at the sky, and thought: “Oh wow, the full moon is so beautiful tonight. I'm gonna take the most awesome moon pic ever.”?? But when you actually point your camera at that big beautiful ball of cheese and press the shutter button, you end up with a photo that’s mostly black with a few overexposed white pixels where the moon is supposed to be? Yeah, welcome to the world of full moon photography. But it doesn’t have to be this way!


I’m Josh Cripps and if you know me, you know that the full moon is one of my favorite things in the world to photograph. And I go on missions almost every month to shoot it.


But I didn't start out shooting moon photos like these. I started like everyone does, thinking “Okay, it's night time and it's dark out so I need to put my camera on a tripod and use a long exposure and a high ISO….” And I ended up with photos that, frankly, looked like crap.


The big breakthrough moment that I had that allowed me take moon photos I was actually happy with was realizing that as beautiful as the full moon is to our naked eye, it is surprisingly difficult to photograph because of four main challenges: 

  1. It's not very interesting by itself. 
  2. It's so much brighter than you realize that it screws up your exposures 7 ways from Sunday.
  3. It's tiny. I know it looks huge. But it's not. It's tiny.
  4. It moves around like a drunken sailor, which is to say, a lot.

If you can overcome those four challenges then I guarantee you're gonna have killer moon photos. And in this article I'm going to give you four quick tips to address each of these four points.

Challenge 1: The Moon Ain't So Interesting Solo

The sad truth is that the Moon is not that compelling by itself, floating out there in the inky blackness. It's dry, academic, isolated. Even if you're able to get a decent shot like this, a full moon one month kinda looks like the full moon the next month. 


So unless you're doing some incredible detail shots like Andrew McCarthy (@cosmic_background on Instagram), don’t shoot the moon when it’s high up in the night sky. 


Instead, you're better off shooting it when the moon is near the horizon. That way you can align it with some cool stuff on Planet Earth. This is great because, as it turns out, we all live on Planet Earth, and so we all connect more easily to Earthy stuff. If you connect the moon to that same Earthy stuff, you'll automatically help create a much stronger connection to your viewer as well.


In my opinion the best subject (AKA Earthy Stuff) to include in your moon photographs is anything that sticks up in the sky by itself and is a long way away from you. Things like mountains, lighthouses, or even people if they are far enough away. 


The reason it's important for the subject to be far away is that the farther your subject is away from you, the bigger the moon is going to look compared to the subject. By getting farther and farther away from your subject, you can make the moon ;look as big as a person, or even a mountain.

And the reason it's important that your subject sticks up into the sky by itself is so that the moon will actually intersect it as it rises or sets. For example, the moon will never intersect with the cool trees in this photo because they are below the ridge in the background, at least from this vantage point.

Challenge 2: The Moon Is BRIGHT

The moon is crazy bright, orders of magnitude brighter than the Earth at night time, or even during blue hour. And if you try to shoot it during those times you end up with photos that have great detail in the moon, but none in the landscape. Or great detail in the landscape, and a totally blown out nuke of a moon.


To overcome this challenge we simply need to shoot the moon when there's light on the landscape as well. Because this helps the overall dynamic range of the scene go from extreme to something more manageable. Which means you can get a single exposure that captures the details of the moon and landscape at the same time


So when does this happen? Well, we can use a little moon geometry 101 to figure it out. It turns out the full moon is ALWAYS in the opposite part of the sky as the sun. Which means that during the day, when the landscape is fully lit by the sun, the moon is on the other side of the planet, not visible or photographable.


But right at sunrise and sunset, both the sun and the moon are right at the horizon, meaning at these very special moments you can see the full moon, and have light on the landscape as well. So that's when I recommend you shoot, sunrise and sunset.


Sometimes the day of the full moon is best, but sometimes the day before or the day after works as well. So look up the sun and moon rise and set times and see when they line up the best.

Challenge 3: The Moon Is Tiny

The moon always looks obscenely huge when it's coming over the horizon, but as you probably know that's just an optical illusion. 


In reality the moon is never more than about 1/2° in diameter, which means you can completely hide it by holding out a single finger at arm's length. 


To overcome this challenge I have a really really simple tip: use a long telephoto lens when you shoot. Anything between 200 and 1000 mm will work, but in my experience the sweet spot is 400 - 750 mm. This range helps the moon appear very large within the frame while also showing a lot of what makes your subject interesting. 


It may be tempting to get a 600 mm tele lens and throw a 2x tele on there, but what ends up happening is that you blow the landscape up so much that there's no longer any context of what it is, which kills the photo's impact.


However, those super long focal lengths like 1200 mm can be awesome when shooting smaller subjects, like people. But you really have to make sure your subject is far away, like 500 - 1000 ft or more, or you're gonna have a close-up of somebody's left ear with the moon behind it.  


The lens that I use for my full moon photographs is from Nikon: the 200-500 mm f/5.6. For a lens that has this kind of reach and versatility, it's very reasonable in cost, and is very sharp as well.

Challenge 4: The Moon Moves A Lot

The last challenge we need to overcome is that the moon moves a lot. It doesn't set in a straight line up or down, it wanders all over the sky, and the full moon only sets in the same place twice per year roughly. Which means that from month to month the full moon can be in a totally different part of the sky.


The other thing is that the moon moves fast: its own diameter roughly every hundred and sixty seconds. So if you're not prepared or not paying attention, the moon will vanish behind that mountain before you realize it.


To solve the challenge of the moving moon you need to be able to predict where the moon is going to be at any given moment. And for that all you need to do is use some kind of a planning app. My app of choice is PhotoPills. 


Yes, I know, there are a lot of tools and features in the app, and it can feel complex, but all you have to do to get started is learn how to use the augmented reality tool. You can go out the day before the full moon and the augmented reality feature will show you exactly where the moon is going to rise and set.


And the cool thing about the moon is, because it's so far away, it tracks with your position. In other words, if you move north relative to your subject, the moon also moves north relative to your subject. And if you move south it also moves south.


Say you have a subject picked out, like a mountain, but the augmented reality in PhotoPills is showing the moon setting too far to the north of the mountain. All you have to do is move to the south. And the moon will move south with you, so just keep checking the app until it lines up with your mountain. Easy, right? 


Of course There's a lot more to learn about planning moon photos with PhotoPills, but if you just learn the augmented reality tool, you can at least get started shooting killer full moon photos.


And getting started is what it's all about.


Now I could talk for hours about photographing the full moon, but I know you want to get out there and try it yourselves. So I'll leave it at those four tips for now and encourage you to get out, explore, and shoot. And don’t forget to join me at the Outsiders Photography conference to learn more moon photography skills.