Photographing the Fabulous Full Moon

Don’t forget the crescent moon. That thin slice of light often yields more poetic results than the more obvious full moon.

Story and photos by Derek Doeffinger


If you decide to photograph the moon, be aware that moon mayhem may ensue. You see, photographing the moon is both exciting and frustrating. The opportunity to photograph the moon arises only a few times each month – less if the weather doesn’t cooperate. And like a sitcom, each opportunity lasts no more than half an hour, but can be full of unexpected twists and turns. Complicating things is that the time slot for moon photography shifts constantly, both from day to day and month to month, and the location is infinitely variable. If uncertainty flusters you, prepare to be
challenged. Or better yet, just be prepared.

Let’s set the scene. The sun is about to set; you have only minutes to reach the perfect location. In the fading light you skid around curves scanning left and right for the perfect location, and double checking in the rearview mirror. Suddenly, there it is. You screech to a stop and leap out (now only five minutes left) clutching a 3-foot-long steel device that from a distance has an uncanny resemblance to a rifle. Before you can set it up you hear yourself saying, “It’s only a tripod, officer.”

By the time you’ve been frisked and background checked and identified as a menace only to yourself, darkness has settled in, the moment has passed, and the pilot program of the series “Shoot the Moon” has temporarily ground to a halt.

Don’t worry, the second episode will be better and each succeeding one will also improve. By following a few simple tips, you can jump over moon mayhem and land on moon magic.

The aesthetics

Let’s start with the basics. What should a moonscape look like? A bright moon in an empty dark sky makes for a boring photograph. So you need to include some land. But not just any old field will do. Let’s find an interesting setting with a barn or a church or a pond or a cemetery, or any variety of things to add interest. But don’t wait until the last minute. As you drive around the Finger Lakes, make note of subjects that could look good with a moon positioned above either the eastern horizon or the western horizon.

What else goes into making a nice moon photo? Well, good moon pictures usually show detail in both the moon and the land-based subject. That means you need to take a picture no later than 10 minutes after the sun sets. After that, the land is too dark to be photographically balanced with the bright moon.

I usually photograph moonscapes from about 10 minutes before sunset/sunrise to 10 minutes after. Keep in mind that the moon is actually illuminated by the sun so for all intents and purposes, the moon itself is in mid-
afternoon lighting and much brighter than things on the twilight land (see “The Technical Stuff” on page 20).

How big should the moon appear in your photo? Our minds make a rising full moon seem enormous, but the camera lacks a mind, so you may be shocked at how small it actually appears in a photo – unless you use a telephoto lens.

But producing a large moon in your photos with a telephoto lens can be problematic. Most scenes don’t give you sufficient space to back away enough to include both the foreground and the moon when you’re using a telephoto lens. So don’t hesitate to use a normal or wide-angle lens to create the composition you desire.

If you’re a Photoshop user, you can take a larger size moon picture with a telephoto lens and later paste it into your moonscape photo. However, be aware it’s not quite as easy as it sounds to create a natural-looking composite moon photo.

The preparation

With only minutes to make your photo, you need to be ready.

If you don’t yet have a list of destinations, leave an hour early to give yourself time to find a good subject. If you have a list, a few days before the moonrise or moonset reaches a fairly low position in the twilight sky, determine if it will be positioned to work compositionally with the subject you have in mind. Two websites will help here. tells you when the moon rises and sets. For “full” moon photography, I usually photograph one or two days before the official full moon. Because the official full moon rises at about the time the sun sets, it may not clear a hilly landscape (or hazy sky) until it’s too dark to get a good moonscape. More than three days before (or after) the full moon, twilight will reveal it too far above the horizon to include in most landscapes. Keep in mind, you can also photograph crescent moons as they are near the horizon.

To check the position of the moon relative to your chosen landscape or landmark, you can use It uses Google Earth to show where the moon aligns to specific locations. You can read more about this at

Is there any special gear? Yes, a tripod. You may need it, you may not. If you’re using a telephoto lens, you should use the tripod for sharp pictures because the light will be dim and shutter speeds somewhat slow, resulting in blurred pictures from camera movement.

And bring a telephoto lens just in case you find a setting with enough space for you to use it to show the moon big and beautiful. Go to see a comparison of the full moon photographed with a wide-angle, a normal, and a telephoto lens.

Carry a small flashlight if you’re cell phone isn’t bright enough.

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