As beautiful as the moon is, it can be tricky to photograph in combination with the landscape, especially in the night. Making the most of strong artificial light, such as that produced by an urban city scape, usually makes things easier. The intense light of streetlamps, houses, roads and factories helps to balance the exposure, highlights and overall scene, allowing the surface detail of the moon to be exposed correctly – although often two exposures are still required. It becomes a far more complex task if you intend to incorporate this glistening rock within a rural landscape.
Planning and the golden hour
I’m usually a bit of a night owl, but I will make an exception and venture out in the daylight for a shot of the moon during the golden hour (the periods pre and post sunset). Naturally, planning is crucial to a successful shoot, and a quick look will tell you everything you need to know, from the phase of the lunar cycle, to the moon’s trajectory and elevation, and the time it will rise and set in relation to the location you select. It also enables you to pinpoint your elevation in relation to sea level and your target landmark height and distance, allowing you to work out approximate moon size versus focal length, and how long it will take to rise over landmarks. For me, the golden hour is one of the most rewarding times of the day to shoot the moon over the landscape, and technically it’s one of the easiest times to tackle this subject too.
Shooting during the golden hour has a number of benefits: the moon is clearly visible as the sun dips and the land will still be amply lit, enabling an exposure that will record sharpness in the moon’s surface – if needed, the landscape can always be lifted a little in post-production. During the golden hour, you can shoot a single frame, expose for the moon and the landscape will usually take care of itself. Avoid using graduated filters as they will lead to longer exposure times, decreasing the probability of a sharp moon surface. Bracketing by a stop or two either way is often good practice.
Dark sky technique
There are various techniques that will enable you to shoot the moon in total darkness, though it can be very tricky to achieve this within a rural, unlit landscape. Once total darkness falls, there is a drastic difference in exposure between the moon’s surface and the landscape. Unfortunately, grads won’t help at all as they won’t block enough light to bring out the landscape while keeping the exposure of the moon correct. If multiple grads are used then the moon will simply appear blurry owing to the long exposure time.
Realistically there are two ways to shoot the moon and the landscape together. The first requires a double exposure: a short one for the moon and a longer one for the foreground. When attempting this technique be sure to watch out for any reflecting moonlight on the landscape as the moon moves extremely quickly through the sky, so the two exposures may not align. Again, any artificial light can lend a helping hand here by decreasing the exposure time required for the landscape. But, truth be told, it’s extremely difficult to combine the two exposures effectively.
The second technique involves taking a grey card, setting a long exposure for the landscape, placing the grey card over the moonlit part of the sky, and then moving it just before the end of the exposure (in the final second). Once mastered, this method works better than shooting two exposures as you can slowly move the card upwards, seamlessly blending the sky. It takes practice, as the blend in the sky can be somewhat uneven at times, and by no means will this achieve a razor-sharp moon surface.