Shooting the moon: behind the shot with Peter Alessandria
I planned this shot out two weeks in advance. I knew I wanted the moon to encompass Lady Liberty’s crown and torch. I love the ferry passing in front. This is a single exposure.
Peter Alessandria is not only an award winning, full-time professional photographer but he also happens to be a resident DPReview community member. He recently submitted an image of the moon aligned with the Statue of Liberty, which we selected as a Top 10 image for our 2016 Reader’s Best Shots (Places), that garnered quite a bit of praise – as well as some skepticism. Many people wanted to know just how he could accomplish such a shot and if it was indeed the ‘real deal’.
With that in mind, Peter got in touch with us and we worked with him to create a ‘behind the shot’ guide to shooting the moon. As you can imagine, quite a bit of planning and dedication goes into getting any of the shots that are presented here in this how to guide.
To see more of Peter’s work check out his Instagram and the following websites:
What kind of equipment do you use to get those incredible moon photos?
Strawberry Moon rising above the World Trade Center. Shooting just after sunset left plenty of light in the sky for this single exposure. Taken from about five miles out.
Peter Alessandria: I currently shoot with a Canon EOS 6D and 70D. I like the 6D for its relatively low noise, high ISO files and the 70D for the swivel screen and the extra reach (at a given focal length) the APS-C sensor gives. My current lens of choice for most of my moon shots is the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 | C.
You also need a sturdy tripod and cable release. Since you’re shooting at night, a head lamp or flashlight can also be helpful if there’s no ambient light. And of course depending on the time of year, weather protection for you and your camera may be necessary.
Do you have any apps or websites that you use to plan out where the moon will rise or set?
This photo (single exposure) was taken during the Super Moon we had in Nov. 2016. The moonrise came just after sunset meaning there was still a lot of light in the sky and on the Statue.
The main app I use to get my moon shots is The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE). The web browser version is free to use on your phone or computer while the app for Android and iOS is $4.99. Two additional apps that track the moon are “PhotoPills” (iOS) and “PlanIt!” (Android), these two Apps are also useful for shooting the Milky Way which I do a lot of.
TPE works by showing me where and when the moon (and sun) will rise and set based on my location. It includes moon phases and other useful information and allows me to plot the trajectory of the moon as it moves through the night sky. This is helpful since I want to identify where the moon’s path will intersect with my target. Lining the moon up with iconic landmarks such as the Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty, makes for dramatic and unusual photos.
Editor’s note: Star Walk is another excellent App that can be used to help plan shots of this nature.
Apps and gear aside, how do you go about planning to get to a prime vantage point or location to get the shot?
Moonrise Empire State Building (single exposure). This shot was taken last summer from seven miles out and required setting up in an old abandoned landfill in New Jersey.
Planning a shot with TPE is only the first half of the process. The second part is to find accessible locations on the ground that have clear lines of sight. This is where Google Map’s Street View comes in. Once I find the trajectory line I want, I use Street View to go to potential locations and see if there are any obstructions on the ground. This part can take hours since my optimal location is often to be as far away from my landmark as possible.
A couple of things to keep in mind when using Street View: images may be several years old so even though it looks good on the computer, when you arrive it may not end up being a good location. And Street View obviously only provides info on streets which Google has photographed. Sometimes when making these shots, the best location isn’t on a public street. Thus I sometimes end up in places I am not supposed to be, and as a result I was stopped by law enforcement eight times in 2016. Thankfully, the police have always been reasonable – and even helpful – once they found out what I was up to.
Once you’ve found out the time and the approximate position in which the moon will rise, what steps do you need to take to make sure that you nail the shot?
This is a photo (single exposure) of the full moon rising behind the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor took a couple of weeks of planning.
The moon rises and sets at different times every night. Over the course of the month, rise/set times progress about 45-50 mins per day. This means you’ll need to check your charts carefully to make sure you aren’t late. You usually only have a few seconds to capture the exact moment of perfect alignment so it pays to be ready. Also, due to fluctuations in the Earth’s rotation and the Moon’s orbit, the spot on the horizon where the moon appears to rise/set also changes every night. In the long term certain locations repeat, but in the short term this means I have to make a new plan for almost every shoot.
Next, the moon doesn’t travel in a straight line (relative to the rise and set points) as it passes overhead. In the Northern Hemisphere the moon arcs to the south as it rises and then arcs back to the north as it sets. The arc is more dramatic the farther north you go and it arcs in the opposite direction in the Southern Hemisphere. This means to get my shots, I have to anticipate the path of the moon along its arc relative to the height of my landmark (TPE does give elevation and angle information but I’ve never quite figured out how to use it).
So if I want a shot of the moon atop the spire of the Empire State Building, I need to anticipate the moon’s path and how long it will take to reach that point. I often end up ‘leading’ the moon (like a skeet shooter does with a clay target) since I have very limited time to reposition if my calculations are off.
Of course none of this matters if clouds or rain are in the forecast, so make sure to check the weather ahead of time.
Since camera settings are often a topic of discussion when it comes to photos like these; what settings do you find yourself using most often?
Living in New Jersey means seeing the Statue of Liberty from behind. To see her face means traveling to Red Hook, Brooklyn and paying as much as $30 in tolls from NJ!
There are lots of factors that determine the proper exposure for these shots. Generally speaking, I try to keep my shutter to less than 2 seconds – and closer to 1 second or less if possible – to avoid motion blur of the moon (a sharp landmark is more important than a sharp moon but you still need to be conscious of this). My aperture is usually wide open (F5.6-6.3) on the Sigma 150-600. Even at 600mm, the lens is sharp enough to get good shots. My ISO is generally in the 160–320 (or occasionally higher) range.
One advantage of shooting the moon when it’s low on the horizon is that it is easier to get everything properly exposed in one shot. The general rule is the higher the moon gets the brighter it gets (assuming clear skies). Even though my NYC landmarks are usually pretty well lit, they are no match for the moon once it gets above 30-40 degrees on the horizon. Since the moon is reflecting sunlight, it is by far the brightest thing in the scene which exceeds the dynamic range of most cameras. Therefore, once it gets above a certain point, you will probably need to bracket your shots and combine them later in post. This is also why I prefer shooting the moon around sunrise or sunset. The ambient light in the sky makes it easier to capture everything in one exposure.”
The moon looks unusually large and colorful in your images, why is that?
Moonrise behind the World Trade Center (single exposure). This is an extreme example of how distance affects the relative size of the moon. This photo was taken from 23 miles away making the moon appear huge.
There are three factors that determine the size of the moon:
- Most of my photos are shot when the moon is low on the horizon and the moon appears larger when it is on the horizon than when it is overhead.
- I am often at 300-600mm FF equivalent on these shots. The telephoto compression enhances the apparent size of the moon.
- I try to find locations as far away from my landmarks as I can. This is because the greater the distance I am from the landmark, the larger the moon appears relative to the landmark. Of course the farther away you are the more difficult it becomes to find a clear line of sight. I usually look for elevated locations for this reason.
When it is low on the horizon the moon appears red or yellow for the same reason the sun does: its light has more atmosphere to travel through than when it is directly overhead. Particles in the atmosphere (moisture, dust, pollution) tend to scatter the blue (shorter) wavelength of light while allowing the longer red wavelength light to pass through to our eyes. As the moon rises there is less atmosphere to contend with so the light we see becomes more white.
Anything else you’d like to say?
New Year’s Day 2017 Crescent Moonset – taken from Brooklyn, NY.
First I want to give a shout out to the readers and staff of DPReview. Back in 2002, when I was new to photography and had a question, it was the amazing DPReview forum members that helped me out. And for the last 15 years I’ve relied on the great, in-depth news and reviews the DPReview staff provides. I still visit here several times per week to stay up to date on the world of photography. Thank you DPReview for being such an important part of my photography career! (Editor’s note: Thanks Peter, your check is in the mail.)
I also want to thank my friend and colleague Jen Khordi. Jen founded the New Jersey Photographers Facebook group (closed – 1,600+ members) and brought myself and Jo Hendly on as co-admins. Jen introduced the TPE app to the group and was one of the first to see its potential in connection with NYC landmarks. If you live in the NJ/NY/PA area send us a Facebook request so we can add you to the group.
I’ll close by saying you don’t need to live near New York City to capture cool moon photos. Look for familiar landmarks in your own town or city and then plan your shot the next time the lunar cycle allows it. Your friends and neighbors will love it!”
To see more of Peter’s work check out be sure to check out his website and to find out just how Peter got his start as a professional photographer check out this video and give his about me section a read on his website.