There’s something magical about the moon. Putting the moon in a photograph adds a sense of mystery and timelessness, and can elevate an otherwise ordinary scene into something special. Ansel Adams confessed to being “moonstruck,” and I suppose I am too.
The moon will be full next Tuesday (at 1:28 a.m. here on the west coast), and I’m sure many photographers will be trying to capture a rising or setting moon during the coming days, so I thought I would share some ideas about photographing the full moon, and clear up some misconceptions.
One misconception is that moonrise or moonset photos are taken at night. They’re not: they’re almost invariably made near sunrise or sunset. After dark the contrast between the moon and the landscape is too great, and a good exposure for the moon will make the landscape completely black, while a good exposure for the landscape will wash out the moon. Around sunrise and sunset it’s possible to balance the light between the moon and the landscape and get detail in both, yet have a dark enough sky for the moon to stand out clearly.
Another misconception is that moonrise or moonset photos are made on the date when your calendar says “full moon.” This can work if the terrain is flat, or you’re at a high vantage point. But if there are mountains or ridges blocking your view of the horizon, you’re better off photographing a moonrise one to three days before the full moon, and a moonset one to three days after the full moon. While the moon won’t technically be full, it will look full enough, and be in a better position than on the actual full moon night. Here’s why:
Understanding the Moon’s Movements
A full moon is frontlit. During it’s 28-day orbit around the earth, the moon has swung around to the side opposite the sun, so as we view the moon, the light from the sun is behind us, illuminating all of the moon’s surface.
So by definition a full moon is on the exact opposite side of the earth from the sun. That means that, from our perspective on earth, the full moon rises when the sun sets, and sets when the sun rises. But one day before it’s full, the moon rises, on average, 50 minutes earlier, or 50 minutes before sunset. Two days before it’s full, the moon rises approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes before sunset. So on the days before it becomes full, the moon has a chance to rise above mountains and ridges to the east before the sun sets to the west, and you can find balanced lighting between the moon and the landscape. On the full moon date the moon usually rises too late, so by the time it’s visible the landscape below is too dark, and it’s difficult or impossible to get a good exposure for both.
One day after it’s full, the moon sets, on average, 50 minutes after sunrise. Two days after it’s full the moon sets about 1 hour and 40 minutes after sunrise. So on these days it’s possible to see the moon still hanging above the landscape to the west as the sun is rising to the east, and, again, get that balanced lighting.
Now I said that the moon rises and sets approximately 50 minutes later each day, but that interval varies greatly depending on the time of year and the stage of the moon’s orbit. The interval can be as short as 30 minutes or as long as 1 hour and 10 minutes.
Why Winter is the Best Time to Photograph a Moonrise From Yosemite Valley
The moon also changes it’s path from summer to winter. Most people know that in summer, in the northern hemisphere, the sun rises further to the north (east-northeast), travels on a high path through the sky, and sets further to the north as well (in the west-northwest). In winter, the sun rises and sets further to the south, so it rises to the east-southeast, sets to the west-southwest, and takes a low path through the sky.
While a new moon takes a similar path to the sun, the full moon does the opposite: in summer, the full moon rises to the east-southeast, sets to the west-southwest, and takes a low path through the sky. In winter, the full moon rises to the east-northeast, sets to the west-northwest, and takes a high path through the sky.
Why is this? You probably remember learning that the earth’s axis is tilted, so in summer the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun. But again, the full moon is on the opposite side of the earth from the sun. So in summer, in the northern hemisphere, the earth’s axis is tilted toward the sun, but away from the full moon. Because the axis is tilted away from the moon, the moon takes a low path through the sky, similar to the winter sun. And in winter, when the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, it’s tilted toward the full moon, so the moon takes a high path through the sky, just like the summer sun.
This is why winter is the best time to photograph the full moon rising above Yosemite Valley. In winter, the full moon rises to the east-northeast, which lines up perfectly with the valley’s west-southwest to east-northeast orientation, and puts the moon next to Half Dome from many vantage points. In summer, the full moon rises behind the valley’s southern wall, and is hidden from most viewpoints until it gets high in the sky.
All of these astronomical gyrations can get quite complex, but luckily there are some tools to help you figure all this stuff out. A new one is an app called PhotoPills. It’s excellent, but only available for the iPhone (so far). The Photographer’s Ephemeris has been the gold standard for this type of program for years. TPE is free for the desktop, and $8.99 for iOS or Android. Both PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris are great tools for figuring out not only when and where the moon will rise, but whether it might be high enough to clear a ridge or mountain before sunset. There are excellent tutorials on both the PhotoPills and TPE websites, and if you want to capture a moonrise or moonset it’s worth learning how to use one of these programs.
Since the moon will be full during the wee hours on this coming Tuesday, the actual full moon night is Monday night, not Tuesday. So that should mean that the best evenings for photographing the rising moon in Yosemite Valley would be Saturday and Sunday. Looking at TPE confirms this. On Saturday evening the moon should rise to the left of Half Dome from locations in the eastern end of Yosemite Valley, like Cook’s Meadow, or near Sentinel Bridge. Sunday could be a good night to photograph the rising moon from Valley View or Tunnel View.
I hope this little astronomy lesson helps you understand the moon’s movements. Once you wrap your head around some of these concepts it’s not that difficult to predict when and where the moon will rise so you can put yourself in the right position to capture a moonrise or moonset. Good luck!
— Michael Frye
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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.