the blog of Seldom Seen Photography

Moon Troubles

Full Moon TacomaI have trouble photographing the moon. Okay, it’s not so hard before for the sun sets (which is why the best full moon pictures are typically taken the day before the full moon and, consequently, before the sun sets), but after dark, I have lots of problems. There is just too much contrast. The moon is bright, basically as bright as anything lit by sunlight on a cloudless sunny mid-day. Everything else is dark. The dynamic range of any scene with the moon is too much for a camera to handle.

Perfect time to try some HDR photography, right? Maybe, but I’ve never gotten it to work well. I’ve always get funny looking light artifacts around the moon; all my attempts at using HDR for scenes with the moon have looked awful. How about shooting one exposure for the moon, one for the rest of the scene, and combining them in Photoshop. Again, maybe you can do that, but every time I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work – there’s too much glare around the moon and I can’t get the sky to look right.

Last month when I wanted to photograph the full moon rising behind the Glass Museum in Tacoma, I was disappointed when there were clouds on the eastern horizon and the moon wasn’t visible. Less than an hour later, the moon rose above the clouds, and though it was no longer aligned with the Glass Museum, it lined up nicely with the cable bridge over the Thea Foss Waterway. Nice shot, I thought, except now it was way too dark to capture both the moon and the with a single exposure. I set up the tripod anyway and took a series of shots, hoping that perhaps the contrast would not be too extreme.

Later, when I downloaded the shots, I was disappointed to find out contrast was too great – moon troubles were visiting me again. I tried HDR (once again) and was disappointed with the results (once again). I was frustrated. At that point, I figured someone else must have an answer to this problem, so I spent some time researching moon photography on Google. Most advice centered around photographing during twilight before it was too dark. Not helpful in my case. After a bit of searching, I found a YouTube video (which I can’t find again to credit here), where the photographer used HDR for only the moon and the area of sky immediately around it, a single image for the rest of the shot, then combined the two images in Photoshop. He then re-imported the resultant image into Photomatix for additional tone mapping, which I thought wasn’t necessary. But the first part sounded interesting.

I had a series of seven images, shot one f-stop apart. I imported all into Photomatix and worked it for the moon only. I re-imported the HDR moon image into Lightroom. Then I took a single image from the original seven and worked it in Lightroom for the foreground only. I also worked the HDR moon image in Lightroom to approximately match the sky to the sky (away from the moon) in the foreground image. I exported both images to Photoshop into a single document, with the foreground image as the background layer and the HDR moon image laying on top. I used a layer mask on the HDR moon layer to mask out everything but the area around the moon, feathering the mask match the sky in the underlying layer. The two skies didnt quite match, so I used a curves layer with a clipping mask on the HDR moon layer to get the tone of the two skies to be more similar. Once I was satisfied with the result, I continued with my normal Photoshop workflow to finish the image.

Perfect? No. But in the end, after a lot of work, the result is the best moon image I’ve ever captured after dark. What do you think, is it any good? And please, if anyone has some better way to handle my moon troubles, be kind and let me know.

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6 responses

  1. Great shot, Joe. Great explanation. Sounds all very complicated, but you did it!

    May 4, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    • Thanks Lucy. Yes, a bit complicated, but now that I know what I’m doing, maybe it will go faster next time. I have some old images in the files where I was previously unsuccessful and might have to re-try those.

      May 5, 2014 at 8:38 am

  2. WOW!

    May 4, 2014 at 7:01 pm

  3. Hi Joe, very nice picture. I have only one observation (very personal of course) and I donĀ“t know if is correct, but I think the color in the moon should be more gray. If you are agree, try to changing the WB in the moon or maybe lowering the saturation.

    Greetings from Chile.

    Ps: sorry about my english, I’m learning :)

    May 5, 2014 at 12:17 am

    • Pablo, you’ve hit upon one of the big troubles in night photography. That is, typically many different light sources light up a scene, and each different light source has a different color temperature. This makes it very difficult to pick the correct white balance, because the correct white balance for one light source will be different from the others. The moon, being lit by sunlight, is certainly a different color than the bridge (in this case) that is lit by sodium-vapor lamps. Of course you could paint different white balances on to the different parts of the photo, which can be time intensive (and in this case very difficult with the cables), or find one white balance for the entire image that isn’t too objectionable. That is what I did here, and that results in the color in the moon. And you are correct, I could make it more gray by lowering the saturation or changing the white balance on it only.

      PS: your English is fine!

      May 5, 2014 at 8:49 am

  4. Terrific image, and thanks for walking us through your process.

    May 5, 2014 at 8:54 am

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