Tips for Shooting a Moonrise

May 28, 2013

Moonrise Over the St. Petersburg Pier

Moonrise Over the St. Petersburg PierMoonrise Over the St. Petersburg PierMoonrise Over the St. Petersburg Pier

The two shots above are of the St Petersburg (FL) Pier last Friday night during a very nice full moonrise. This was nearly the last chance to shoot the illuminated pier since the structure will be closed for good this Friday and demolished later this year. It will be several years before the new pier is likely finished.


We’ve all been there… driving down the road and suddenly we look up and notice a beautiful full moon rising. Where is my camera? Why am I not in a good location to capture something wonderful? You might get lucky and have a camera with you, but to take a shot like this one takes a fair amount of planning.

St Pete Pier with Camera - w Watermark - IMG_0588-EditLuckily, great tools are available to make planning simple. Smartphone/Tablet apps like The Photographers Ephemeris and LightTrac, as well as websites like the Twilight Calculator, can give you the information you need to be in the right place at the right time. “The Photographer’s Ephemeris” (TPE) even has a free desktop version for Mac and Windows.  If you’re not inclined to do much planning, local meetup groups often schedule shoots around lunar and solar events. Such was the case with these shots; I took them during a local meetup. The meetup group had about 70 photographers present to capture this lunar event (see picture below).

St Pete Pier Meetup - w Watermark - IMG_0583-Edit

When to be there

Once you have the planning tools, you need to know how to use them. It’s easy enough to figure out when the moon will be full, but that doesn’t necessarily make a great photograph. The first two photographs pop because the moonrise was at the appropriate time of the day.

The moon was 98% full on Friday and 100% full on Saturday. Why not wait till Saturday? Because, Saturday would have made a completely different photo.

On Friday, the moonrise was at 8:00 PM and the sunset was at 8:18. On Saturday, the moonrise wasn’t until 9:06 and the sunset was still at 8:18. The Friday photo works because the moon rose just before the sun set. This meant that there was enough ambient light to illuminate the pier and other features in the landscape while the moon was rising. This also meant that the sky was bright enough to balance the brightness of the moon (although I did use a 3-stop ND grad to help the balance). A screenshot from the TPE app highlights the information:

Screen shot from "The Photographer's Ephemeris" for May 24, 2012

Screen shot from “The Photographer’s Ephemeris” for May 24, 2012

If I had waited for Saturday I would have gotten a shot more like the one below:


I like this photo also, but it’s a very different look from the earlier shots. This was taken about an hour after sunset. The pier is illuminated, so there is something happening here, but if this were a wilderness area, the foreground would be black–not very interesting. The picture above would have been the look of the shot had I been there on Saturday. On Friday I was able to get both looks.

Tip 1: To balance the sky and maintain detail in the landscape, the moonrise should occur 15-30 minutes before the sunset.

Where to be

The level of geographic detail available from apps like TPE is astounding. You can see from the TPE screenshot that I was able to position myself so that the moon would rise directly over the pier. I could look at the satellite image and see that I needed to be beyond the sandy beach area of the peninsula and about half way down the peninsula in front of the group of trees to get the moon over the pier. I just moved the pin in the app until the moonrise line intersected the pier. I could have been off by 50 feet or so, but that would have been an easy adjustment. However, in this case the app was so accurate that I never had to budge once I planted my tripod. You can also see how the moon arced in the sky as the evening progressed in the third (BW) photo.

Tip 2: The moon will arc as it rises, so you will need to plan for the arc if you want the moon over a particular feature.


You can use filters or HDR techniques to help balance the brightness of the moon with the landscape. In this case I used a 3-stop soft ND grad to achieve the balance I wanted. This still blew out the detail in the moon, but I was ok with that. I preferred to keep the exposure brighter for the effect I wanted. With the filter, the camera’s meter kept the histogram fairly tightly contained toward the left side. If you look closely at the shot with the camera screen, you can see that I was using +1 exposure compensation in order to “expose to the right.” This ultimately gave me more information to work with in the final files in post processing. In addition to the 3-stop ND Grad filter, I used a 3-stop solid ND filter to keep the exposure over 10 seconds to achieve the smoothness in the water.

Tip 3: Be sure to check the histogram in moonrise shots and expose to the right. This minimizes noise in post-processing when you need to recover shadow detail or make other adjustments.

Hopefully these tips will help you be in the right place at the right time to capture a moonrise near you.