Photographing Moonrise and Moonset

A two-page (PDF) tip sheet for photographing moonrise and moonset is available here. Print this out as a handy reference. The tips are not included in the Web article below.

Moonrise and moonset can be interesting additions to accent your photographs. I go out every month if I can - so often that I've been suspected of having some werewolf-type problem. Often the weather doesn't cooperate, but sometimes it surprises and the shooting is unexpectedly good. You have to get out there and try!

This two-part article offers suggestions for when and where to go, what to bring, and how to use it. The first part is a tip sheet you can print (it's PDF), containing specific recommendations. The second part consists of the example photographs and commentary on the page below. These offer examples of successful moonrise / moonset photos, as well as demonstrations of some failed attempts. I have many, many more moonrise photos but these should certainly suffice.

  E X A M P L E S  

The Awakening scupture (using flash)
TOP. The panoramic photo at the top of the article was made from five frames, which were then stitched together in the computer to make a 30-megapixel image. The foreground is the Tidal Basin with the Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C., taken August 29, 2004. It's a clear night and the moon appears low on the horizon, giving it a nice orange-red hue. Unfortunately the deep twilight is nearly over, and as the moon climbed higher the conditions were no longer good for photography.

RIGHT. The Awakening sculpture in East Potomac Park (since moved to National Harbor) makes an interesting foreground subject with the moon. This is an example of flash used to light the foreground, but flash is not usually applicable to moonrise or moonset photographs.

Jefferson Memorial 9-11-03

Jefferson Memorial 8-11-03
Moonrise Too Late. When the moon rises late in twilight, the sky is too dark for good photographs. It's a high contrast scene with the bright moon and lights opposed to the black sky. To the eye, the sky may appear to still have plenty of light, but the camera cannot capture the high contrast range.

On the left, the moon is properly exposed but the building is far too dark, and the sky is essentially black. On the right, the building is underexposed and the moon is overexposed (completely burned out, no detail). This is a fairly common situation, and there is no need to waste time trying to shoot if the official moonrise is more than a few minutes later than official sunset.

Lincoln Memorial 7-20-05

Key Bridge Wide Angle 3-5-04
Focal Length Affects the Moon Size. Left: taken with a 500mm super telephoto lens, the moon is magnified to a larger part of the frame. With a distant subject and long lens, the moon will be perceived to be dramatically larger. Right: taken with a 14mm ultra wide-angle lens, the moon is reduced to a bright "star" under the bridge arch.

June, Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial. If you're shooting in June, you have the best angle on the Jefferson Memorial. The moon rises farther to the south than it does through the rest of the year. And you can get far away, at the opposite corner of the Tidal Basin.

In 2011 the moonrise was slightly later than ideal, so the sky quickly grew dark as the moon came into position. By the way, a 300mm lens can capture the entire Jefferson Memorial from across the Tidal Basin. If the moon rises at the right time and the sky is clear, you can make better photographs than any on this page. And if the wind is still, you should get some great reflections off the water of the Tidal Basin. It's a long list of environmental coincidences, but if you're lucky the opportunity will be ripe for a great shot.

Capitol Dome Freedom Statue

National Mall 2004
The National Mall. From the grounds of the Netherlands Carillon in Arlington, there is an excellent view down the length of the National Mall (right). Here you see the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, the Capitol, and the Library of Congress, as well as other landmark buildings. The moon rises through this scene twice each year (usually the day before full moon nearest the equinox). In my experience and cynical summation, the weather is uncooperatively poor on those two evenings but PERFECT on adjacent evenings when the astronomics aren't right. Or the moon azimuth places it well outside the interesting portion of the national mall, preventing use of a longer focal length. But in the rare cases when the moon happens to rise in a good place and the weather is clear enough, you can use longer telephoto to magnify the moon: 300mm is a good choice if you want the entire Washington Monument to fit in the frame. A disadvantage of this location: you cannot move around far enough to change the placement of the moon in the scene - do your best with wherever the moon ends up. Another problem: it's become a well-known location, and there are literally hundreds of photographers staking out positions hours ahead of sundown (a representative section of them in the photo below).

Washington Monument
and Crescent Moon

Total Lunar Eclipse 10-27-04
640mm, 0.8 seconds, f/7.1, ISO-800
Magnify! If you're lucky enough to frame the moon near your subject and you can use a long telephoto lens (get far away from your subject and magnify), you will get a more dramatic moon due to its larger apparent size in the frame. Note how a few clouds make this photo more interesting than a featureless blue sky.

The photo on the right is cropped to one-quarter of the original frame, but there was still a lot of magnification. I used a 200mm (f/1.8) lens with 2X teleconverter, then mounted the resulting 400mm lens on a Canon 10D DSLR body for an equivalent 640mm.

Photo by Dr. Robert E. Murphy
It shows the moon during totality phase of a lunar eclipse. The light level is extremely low during totality, so I set the ISO up to 800. The shutter speed really should have been faster than 0.8 seconds for such magnification of a "moving" object like the moon. A better way to photograph the moon (with no an earth-bound foreground) is using a telescope with motorized equatorial mount (which I have never tried). That allows a longer exposure, low ISO for low noise, and prevents motion blur from smearing detail in the lunar surface.

On the right is the full moon rising behind the Makapuu Lighthouse on Windward Oahu, photographed by Dr. Robert E. Murphy in May 2011. Surely this is the best a lighthouse can look: mysterious and moody! I just love the atmospheric glow around the moon, plus the well-defined lunar surface resulting from a good silhouette exposure. See Bob's web site at - lovely landscapes and moon shots from Hawaii.

Arlington House 2004
MoonSET - Thought I'd Forgotten? It's true, I usually photograph moonrise in the evening. But moonset near dawn can actually be easier. That's because you can observe the moon up in the sky, and move about to place it in good position as it approaches the subject. Observe the moon's trajectory, then position yourself for a good composition as the moon nears the horizon. Note that the moon descends at an angle (in my area), so don't expect it to come straight down from its position higher in the sky. Another advantage is that moonset occurs when there's less human activity (as in, traffic).

The shot on the left of the Lee Mansion (Arlington House, located in Arlington Cemetery) was published full-page in American Heritage Magazine. This view is from the Potomac shoreline just downstream from Memorial Bridge. There is plenty of room to walk left and right along the shore, so you can adjust the position of the moon to fit your composition.

Pentagon 9-11 Memorial Lights
Fifth Anniversary 9-10-06

Crescent Moon with Jupiter and Venus
Waxing and Waning The moon doesn't have to be full to be photographically interesting, so don't ignore the waxing and waning moon. On the right is Rosslyn seen from Georgetown's waterfront, on the night of a conjunction of Jupiter, Venus, and the crescent moon (12-1-2008). This happens again in 2011, 2012, and 2052.

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