It’s been almost 180 years since the first photograph of the full moon was made by an English scientist, chemist, and historian, John William Draper. Since then, the moon has been a subject that has captivated the attention of photographers around the world. Photographing the moon by itself is one thing, but when you want to include the moon in a landscape photo, you have some challenges to overcome.
The first problem is that the moon is exceptionally bright in the night sky. The second problem is that you want both the landscape and the moon detailed and in sharp focus.
To make a dramatic photo of the moon in a landscape, we’ll be using two techniques in the field and one in post-processing to make the final image.
1. Exposure bracketing
To make your job a bit easier, photograph the moon when it is close to the horizon. At this time the light from the moon goes through more atmosphere before it reaches our eyes, so it is not as bright as when the moon is high in the sky.
But, under normal circumstances, you’ll still need to bracket your exposures to capture detail in both the landscape and the moon.
Plan to make one exposure for the landscape and another exposure for the moon. You can either use spot metering in both cases, or you can use exposure compensation after your first image to darken the next shot by four or five stops until the moon is properly exposed.
Here is an example of two photos with different exposures: one exposed for the landscape and one exposed for the moon.
2. Focus stacking
If you are working with a landscape composition where some elements in the frame are relatively close to the camera, you’ll find that your moon is not sharp if you’ve focussed your camera on the landscape. The only way your landscape and the moon will both be in focus at the same time is if everything in the frame is far way away from the camera.
But the solution is simple. Make your first exposure in the normal way, exposing and focussing on the landscape. Then make your second exposure to not only expose for the brightness of the moon, but also focus on the moon to make sure it’s sharp.
In the two brackets shown in the image above, I not only changed the exposure to expose properly for the moon, but I also changed the focus point so that the moon would be sharp.
Sometimes you may need to use focus stacking without changing the exposure settings. For example, when I made the image below I didn’t need to bracket my exposures because the moon was a dark red color due to the eclipse. However, I still needed to use focus stacking to make both the cactus and the moon appear sharp.
3. Exposure Blending
In post-processing, you can combine your two exposures to make an image with a properly exposed and sharp foreground landscape and moon.
But it’s not quite as simple as just doing a copy and paste if you want it to look natural.
Photo 1: Clone out the moon
In the first photo, notice how the brightness of the moon has caused a strong glow in the sky beyond the moon itself. So if you just paste your properly exposed moon on top of that, the glow will look strange. My first step in post-processing is to clone out the original moon and make the color of the sky look even.
Photo 2: Select the moon
In the second photo, use the Quick Selection Tool to make a selection of the moon. You can then improve your selection by using “Refine Edge” in Photoshop Elements or “Select and Mask” in Photoshop CC. Other post-processing programs have similar tools.
Whichever program you use, the objective is the same. You want to smooth out the edge of your selection so the moon looks natural when pasted onto the first image. If the edges are abrupt, it won’t look natural.
To do this, contract your selection by about 3 pixels and then feather it by 2 pixels. When you are done, save your selection on a new layer.
Paste the moon from Photo 2 on to Photo 1
Finally, you can copy your new layer, go to the first photo and paste it in place.
If the moon doesn’t look natural, you may need to experiment with blend modes and opacity. Try using the overlay blend mode and reducing the opacity of the layer until you get the look you are after.
Using these techniques will help you create dramatic images of the moon in the landscape – images that more closely match what you are able to see with your own eyes.
To see exactly how I created my moon composite image using Photoshop Elements, watch the video below.
If you have any other tips for photographing the moon in the landscape, please share in the comments below.