Behind the Lens: How to Shoot the Full Moon

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To be honest, I never really thought I’d have a shot like this in my portfolio. For a long, long time I had very little interest in shooting the full moon. It was too hard technically, too annoying, too difficult to make a good looking photo. At least that’s what I thought until I helped teach a PhotoPills / Milky Way photography seminar with Rafael from the PhotoPills team in July of 2017. His presentation of full moon shots opened my eyes to the beauty and possibilities of shooting Earth’s natural satellite. Not to mention the ex-engineer in me loved all the math and planning necessary to make it happen. So after the seminar was over I ordered a long lens for my camera (Nikon’s 200-500mm) and set about brainstorming ideas.

Where I live in Mammoth Lakes we are quite lucky to be near to some of most incredible geology in California. There is an ancient volcanic ridge that runs north-to-south just a few miles west of town. And over the eons that ridge has worn away into a series of sharp spires known as the Minarets. I knew these striking towers of rock would be the perfect backdrop for a full moon shot so I began the planning.

It’s not enough to simply look up the day of the full moon, arrive at the Minaret Vista parking lot on said date, and expect things to go off without a hitch. Because, you see, the moon moves around. A lot. From my perspective here in California the moon can change the location where it sets by around 6° per day. Meaning that if I am pointed directly at the full moon on day 1, the next day the moon could be 6° north or south of where my camera is looking. The moon’s position also varies with the sun: as the northern hemisphere heads into winter and the sun sets farther south every day the full moon actually appears farther and farther north. Meaning that the deepest parts of winter are when the full moon sets and rises farthest to the north. In the summer the full moon sets and rises far more southerly. In other words, depending on the day and season the full moon might not set anywhere near the Minarets! But if I change my own position I can affect the relative alignment of these key elements. The farther north I go personally the farther north I can make the moon apparently set. But how do I know exactly where to stand?

For me it begins by looking up the Minarets on Google Earth and knowing their exact position. Thanks to some topo map sleuthing and some personal experience I know that this is Clyde Minaret (the tallest one), and the rest scamper off to the north like this:


Now, it would be convenient to shoot this full moon photo from Minaret Vista because it’s an easy spot to get to. However, it would be an amazing coincidence if the geometry lined up perfectly that way. So in order to check the alignment I simply turned to PhotoPills to figure out where the next full moon (September at this point in the process) would set. And as it turned out, if I was standing at Minaret Vista on September 6th the full moon would appear to set far to the south of the Minarets.

Which meant that I needed to shoot from a few miles north of Minaret Vista on that morning in order to actually see the full moon set over the Minarets. Within the PhotoPills app there are some very precise and cool ways to figure out exactly where I needed stand for the shot, but there’s also a quick and dirty way which is what I did: I simply moved my location pin by trial and error until the geometry showed the moon setting over the Minarets, like this in the photo below. I then saved that location as GPS coordinates I could punch into my phone.

Fast forward to the morning of the shoot. Moonset was slated for 6:48 am, but I guessed the moon would actually disappear behind the mountains 10-15 minutes before that. So I drove up the 4×4 road to my chosen location and arrived on scene around 6:10 am. I wanted time to double check my plan and verify in person that the moon was heading where I expected. I was pretty close right off the bat and some quick photos confirmed the moon would definitely drop right behind the Minarets.

Which meant at that point it was a matter of choosing my settings and trying a number of different compositions. Settings-wise I knew I wanted the moon to be large in the frame so I zoomed in to 500mm on my lens. Then I put my ISO to its lowest base setting of 64 and dialed my aperture to f/8. Because I was so far away from the Minarets (about 10.4 km) I knew they would be in the same focal plane as the moon, so I didn’t need any kind of extreme aperture like f/32. I then used my live view to zoom in and dial in perfect focus. Then it was time to pick a shutter speed, which is where things became a little more challenging than I had expected. There was a lot of smoky haze in the air from wildfires burning in the Sierra and that haze was eating up the ambient light. Which meant that at f/8 and ISO64 I needed a shutter of 1/30 sec to get a good exposure. 1/30 sec at 500mm is a recipe for blurry images so even though I was mounted on a tripod I turned on VR on the lens to get some extra stability. It helped a lot but in hindsight I’m wishing I had shot at something like ISO400 in order to get a shutter speed around 1/200 sec, which would have helped a bit with sharpness. However, in the moment the moon was moving so fast and I was scrambling to keep up, so changing my ISO and shutter speed didn’t click into the forefront of my brain. The other thing that was affecting sharpness was simply the gulf of air between me and the Minarets. Looking through the lens at 500mm I could easily see the air shimmering and shaking as temperature gradients caused the morning light to bend and quiver. Nothing I could do about those though so with those settings in place I rattled off a few images.

Full Moon over Minarets
Full Moon over Minarets

It was quite fascinating to see how far the moon moved laterally as it set. It seemed like it was almost on a 45° incline, and as it dropped lower in the sky it appeared to move an equal distance to the north. It began to approach the obvious low notch in the Minaret ridgeline but I could see it wouldn’t quite be positioned perfectly in the slot. So I scooped up my tripod and lens and sprinted northward through the pumice to get in position. As the moon sank toward the slot I fine tuned my location as well: 20 feet to the north. No, too far, back 10 feet to the south. Perfect. The moon is dropping into the notch and shoot shoot shoot! (At this point the ambient light had grown brighter as well and I was up to 1/80 sec on my shutter speed).

There is very little time for adjustment in a situation like that and in a mere 40 seconds the moon had moved from one side of the notch to the other:

However, right in the middle, exactly 20 seconds between those two shots the moon was in the perfect position and I was able to take home this photo, my favorite from the entire morning. And perhaps it’s not as razor sharp as it could be, but thanks to the smoke in the air the light had a beautiful quality and color that will be impossible to replicate in any future attempts. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s a keeper!

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Any questions or comments about how this shot came to be? Let me know in the comments and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.