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Moon phases are a key to understanding when you should be out taking photos. These days it’s easy to predict where and when you will see the moon for the type of photos you want to produce.
First let’s start with some tools you might want to look into, then options for different moon phase photos.
Astronomers have known the secrets of the moon’s phases and timing for eons. Ancient civilizations built monuments and shrines in regard to locations of the sun, moon and stars long before computers were invented. Our modern tools are a little easier to access.
Not into learning full astronomy? My first suggestion is to Google the phase you’re looking for. It’s that simple. One of the top sites that will appear in the results is Time & Date. You can find all the phases of the moon, based on the location of your Internet connection, right here. If the location isn’t correct, simply search for your city and the site will give you all you need to get started.
Another great option (that also has an app, but it is so much better on a large computer screen) is The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE). I wrote about using TPE here on DPS and they have a Web App available for those who don’t use phones and their apps.
The US Navy has a simple site that allows you to print out a year’s worth of times for any location on the planet.
Don’t have an Internet connection while you travel? Newspapers still print the information for the moon and sun phases (as well as setting and rising times).
Everyone loves a good app, and there are three that I keep loaded on my phone for photography purposes. All of these apps will show you the angle of the moon at any time, its phase, and some even help you calculate the best time to photograph the moon.
My choices are:
The best time to photograph the full moon is the day before or after a full moon. Why’s this?
A full moon is marked at the height of its path across the heavens and this is often after midnight. Let’s say the moon reaches the height of its fullness at 12:26 am on July 2nd. This means the full moon actually rises on the day BEFORE that which is marked on the calendar. Throw in use of Daylight Saving Time and the timing can be wonky.
Going out the day before the moon is actually marked as full means you’re catching the moon rising just about at the same time as the sun is setting. So the sun is lighting the moon and often the foreground of your scene. This gives a nice, even lighting to your scene.
The same can be said for shooting the full moon setting the day it is marked on the calendar.
Late at night, you can still capture great images of the moon. However, you have to understand that the contrast difference between the moon (a giant reflector in space) and the black sky will be immense. This means you will lose detail in the moon if you attempt to hold the shutter open long enough to exposure the foreground. Some creative light painting can come in handy in this case.
Some people call them half-moons because half of the moon is illuminated. Some call them quarter because they are at the quarter phase of a full cycle. Either way, they look the same.
Half-moons will rise or set in the middle of the day. It matters on whether the moon is waxing or waning, meaning if it is getting closer to full or further away in its cycle. This is a good time to use an app or Astro calendar to plan ahead.
You’ll be best served by catching a half moon when it is rising or setting, just like with a full moon. Having it closer to the foreground subjects will help it appear larger. Let me give you an example.
Here’s the half moon rising in Canmore, Alberta, Canada just behind the Rocky Mountains.
Nice and large when using a long lens and the moon is close to the ground. It is fairly high in the sky here as I am looking way up at the mountain.
Now, here are two examples with a nearly half moon over Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, and another of it over Seattle, Washington.
See the issue? It’s still a half moon, but later in its cycle, when it is far from foreground objects, it is relatively small and loses some grandeur.
Slivers, or crescents, are visible just before and after a new moon. Look for them a couple of days before and after the new moon and, just like full and half, try to find a time when they are low on the horizon.
You will also notice the sliver will seemingly rotate as it crosses the heavens and this may affect your composition choices. As with the half moon, you will have even more trouble giving the moon prominence in a mid-day shoot when it is high in the sky.
Lunar eclipses are all the fashion these days with this or that news source touting, “This will be the last blah, blah, blah for decades!” But don’t let them fool you; lunar eclipses happen often enough – about once a year. However, their location can be the biggest issue. Let’s go back to Time & Date’s site for more info on upcoming lunar eclipses for the next 10 years. You’ll need to click on the “Lunar” tab once on the page.
Not all of those eclipses will happen in your neck of the woods, so you’ll have to click through and see where they will happen. As with solar eclipses, when the sun is blotted out by the moon, people will often travel far and wide for lunar eclipse shots.
A full lunar eclipse, at its height, means the moon will be completely in the shadow of the Earth. Because of the distance between the Earth and moon, some light still slips past the Earth, which causes it to have all colors except red stripped away. This is why lunar eclipses are sometimes called blood moons.
Again, having a foreground subject helps because the eclipse often happens high in the sky. The whole sequence of the moon moving into and then fully out of the Earth’s shadow can take a little over an hour, and you should plan accordingly. The colorful and best ‘action’ of the eclipse will span maybe 5-10 minutes.
More tips on capturing lunar (and solar) eclipses are found in this DPS article.
When the moon’s not out, it’s a great time to photograph the stars. And my, oh, my, do we have a batch of great articles to help you with that!
Moon photography is a fun and challenging subject because the moon is constantly changing phases and its location in the sky. Thankfully, we have plenty of tools at our disposal to track and plan for great moon photos. While full moons are alluring, try your hand at the other phases, too.
Feel free to share your photos of the moon with the dPS community in the comments below.