Capturing the Moonrise After Dark
Photographing the moonrise can be challenging and rewarding (or incredibly disappointing if the weather doesn’t cooperate) and is one of my favorite types of photography. Typically we plan ahead so that we are taking our photos on the day when the moon rises at sunset or a day before depending on how high the moon has to rise above any large objects (such as mountains) that might obscure the horizon. But sometimes those plans don’t happen and we end up trying to capture the moonrise after sunset.
The difficulty with photographing the moon after sunset is that the full moon is incredibly bright, while the landscape is rather dark after the sun goes down. The difference in brightness is HUGE. For example, on the evening I captured the photos for this post, my photos have a full 10 stops difference in exposure value from the landscape images captured after sunset to the images of the moon. Add on another 4+ stops (from -3.7 EV to -8 EV) for the increase in darkness before the moon appeared. That’s about 14 stops of dynamic range.
Today’s high-end digital cameras top out at about 13 stops of dynamic range. That’s not enough to actually capture details in the disc of the moon and in the shadows of the landscape. I’m not aware of any camera available today that is capable of producing a usable image of both the moon and the landscape in a single exposure. Therefore, we have to combine multiple exposures in Photoshop to produce the final image.
Capturing the Photos
Although this photo shoot was not pre-planned, I did do some on-site planning to determine my composition. I knew that the moon was rising after dark and that if I wanted to get anything other than a photo of the moon against a black background (been there, done that) that I would need to capture multiple exposures for blending. Once we were set up and had captured a few sunset photos, I used my photo-planning app (Planit Pro) to estimate where the moon would appear and based my composition on that. As you can see from the screenshot below, Planit pretty much nailed it aside for being a couple of minutes behind (or more likely my camera clock is off).
With my composition set, I locked down the camera on the tripod and waited. I had planned to use two exposures for the final image: a blue hour shot of the landscape and the moonrise. I ended up capturing 17 blue hour images, 33 moon shots, and 12 mostly black images in between, so I had several exposures to choose from for the composite. As explained below, the final image is a composite of three photos.
The first exposure of the landscape was captured at 8:24 pm, about 32 minutes after the last bit of alpenglow faded from the top of the peak and just at the end of civil twilight. It was dark, but with a 10-second exposure I was able to capture a nice blue hour image with good detail in the shadows and not much noise.
For the moon, I captured a number of exposures as the moon was rising up behind the shoulder of the mountain. I selected a photo taken at 8:41 pm with about 2/3 of the moon’s disc visible. This image is somewhat underexposed (the exposure could have been pushed several stops higher without blowing the highlights) but I wanted to keep the shutter speed at 1/100 second to freeze the motion and capture crisp details in the moon.
I also added in an exposure captured at 8:38 pm just before the moon appeared. This photo shows the glow of the moon in the sky above the mountain while the landscape is only a silhouette except for the mountain peaks and the light stone walls in the foreground. I really like the mood of this photo and wanted to bring some of that to the final image.
I pre-processed all three exposures in Lightroom before merging them in Photoshop. The moon and silhouette photos were straightforward and only required come slight color and exposure adjustments. The landscape image was more difficult because I wanted to show some details in the shadows but at the same time retain the feeling that the photo was captured after dark. The sky also had to be darkened quite a bit separately from the landscape using Lightroom’s Select Sky masking tools. I also opened this image as a Smart Object in Photoshop so that I could make further changes to the raw file as needed.
Once in Photoshop, I manually aligned the three image layers (trivial since I didn’t touch the camera of tripod while capturing the photos). I placed the moon exposure on top using the Lighten blend mode to show only the moon. The silhouette image was placed in the middle and I simply lowered the opacity (to 66%) to achieve the look I wanted. No masking or painting required.
Back in Lightroom, I made some slight color and exposure adjustments and added some light on the dike wall in the foreground. I then cropped the composite image to a 4×5 aspect ratio and added a slight post-crop vignette. I also decided to clone out a couple of the brighter stars leftover from the silhouette image that I felt were distracting, but I left in the dimmer stars. Finally, for the web version shown here I added a slight amount of grain to eliminate some JPEG artifacts that were created when the image was exported.
I really did not expect to come away with a usable photograph on this evening. I thought it would be too dark, the moon would be too bright, and the composite image would not look realistic. However, I’m actually very happy with this final image because it stirs in me the feeling of what I experienced that evening. Looking at this image, I’m reminded of the chill wind blowing at my back as I stared east into the clear blue skies and the startling brightness of the moon as it appeared from behind the mountain. And whenever a photo can take me back to the moment I captured it, then I know I have succeeded as a photographer.