Tips to Photograph a Full Moon and Mountain Alpenglow


Ever wonder how some photographers can balance the light of a rising Moon with the Sun lighting the mountains? How they get that “perfectly” exposed Moon with a beautiful color on the mountain peaks? It’s really not that hard.

Waiting on the Moon

The Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash., against as sunset washed Mount Baker on Wednesday evening Jan. 11, 2017. (© Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

Before the Moon – The Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash., against as sunset washed Mount Baker and Twin Sisters on Wednesday evening Jan. 11, 2017. (© Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

On Wednesday even Jan. 22, 2017, I spent the evening photographing the full Wolf Moon as it rose over the Tesoro Refinery and Mount Baker. Three years ago, I photographed the Tesoro Refinery for the Houston Chronicle when the U.S. Chemical Safety Board released its final investigation report and suggestions for improvement.

The Inspiration

Mt. Baker & Tesoro Refinery - Mount Baker is bathed in the rays of the setting Sun a the lights of the Tesoro Anacortes refinery begin to illuminate on Friday afternoon Jan. 31, 2014, in Anacortes, Wash. (© Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

Mt. Baker & Tesoro Refinery – Mount Baker is bathed in the rays of the setting Sun a the lights of the Tesoro Anacortes refinery begin to illuminate on Friday afternoon Jan. 31, 2014, in Anacortes, Wash. (© Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

The photo was pure luck as it was super cloudy earlier in the day when I was shooting the refinery at the Fidalgo Bay RV Resort from across Fidalgo Bay. You could see Mount Baker, but it was capped by clouds. However, during a ferry ride from Guemes Island I noticed how clear it was east and how the clouds dispersed out west. My creative juices were roiling!!!

Once off the ferry, I raced back to that same spot. While driving, the color was turning a deep red. I arrived about 20 minutes before sunset. I continued to shoot at eat an hour after the light was gone. The result is the photo above and since then, I’ve been dying to get something similar with a full Moon rising above it. Wednesday was my chance.

Peeking Over

Wolf Moon Peeking - The full wolf Moon rises over Mount Baker and the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes, Wash., on Wednesday evening Jan. 11, 2017. (© Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

Wolf Moon Peeking – The full wolf Moon rises over Mount Baker, the Twin Sisters, and the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes, Wash., on Wednesday evening Jan. 11, 2017. (© Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

Getting the Shot

Reading the week’s weather, it was to be clear on Wednesday the 11th of January. I then opened these applications on my phone: The Photographers Ephemeris, Lunfaqt, and MoonTrajectory. The most important information that popped out at me was that the Moon was to rise 20 minutes BEFORE the sunset. I then checked TPE for the direction of moonrise and marked best possible locations to get the refinery and Moon rising.

 The morning before I made sure I had all my batteries charged, all lenses clean, my headlamp packed, and set out warm clothes including gloves, scarf, windproof jacket, and winter shirt. It’s been freaking cold around here the past month or so. Being from Colorado, I learned to shoot in snow and cold the hard way. Frozen fingertips freaking hurt!!!

Last Rays

Wolf Moon Rising - The full Moon rises over the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash., as Mount Baker is bathed in the Sun's last rays on Wednesday evening Jan. 11, 2017. (© Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

Wolf Moon Rising – The full Moon rises over the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash., as Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters are bathed in the Sun’s last rays on Wednesday evening Jan. 11, 2017. (© Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

Here are some tips to photograph a full moon rising over your target:

  1. For the Best Exposure: The Moon should rise before the Sun sets by least 20 minutes to 40 minutes. This allows for the Moon to rise above the mountains plus the exposure balance between the Moon and landscape is not too drastic. Pre plan your destination and arrive at least an hour or more early. Moon and Sun rise and set times are when the disk dips below the horizon, not the local terrain. It may take 20 minutes for the Moon to rise over area terrain.
  2. Expose for the Moon. Take a spot meter reading of the Moon then add 1 to 2 stops of exposure. You’ll still get shadow detail and can pull it out with Photoshop or Lightroom.
  3. Use manual exposure. Manually set your shutter speed and aperture. Auto exposure tends to overexpose the scene. Yes, it’s OK to chimp while shooting. Your ambient light will diminish as the Sun sets causing you to have longer shutter speeds, but the Moon will actually begin to brighten some as it rises in the sky. Remember: As your shutter speed lengthens, the Moon will “drag” through the frame. Keep shutter reasonably short: less than 4 seconds.
  4. Use manual focus. Using autofocus to fine tune is great, but don’t let the camera choose the focal point. I always focus on the mountain or my subject. As it’s near infinity, the Moon will also be in focus.
  5. Use manual white balance. Auto white balance will try to negate the reds and oranges out of the scene. Start with “Daylight” then move to “Shadow” after the Sun has set.
  6. Use a low ISO. Yes our cameras can shoot great at ISO twenty billion, but using the lowest ISO for the best use of your sensor. You will be on a tripod after all so take advantage.
  7. Put your camera on a sturdy tripod and use a cable release with the Self-Timer and “Exposure Delay Mode.” A cable release lets you start the timer without disturbing the camera. Then the self-timer let’s any vibrations dampen, while the “Exposure Delay Mode” brings the mirror (if you don’t use a mirrorless camera) up and gives a short time for the vibrations to settle before opening the shutter. These help you keep your picture sharp.
  8. Shoot in raw. Might as well use the power of the raw file to get a better image. Why let the camera figure out all the setting and write a file that most probably will need work?
  9. And most importantly: Have Fun!!!

Mount Baker and Wolf Moon

Mount Baker and the Wolf Moon - The full Wolf Moon rises near Mount Baker as seen from Anacortes, Wash., on Wednesday evening Jan. 11, 2017. (© Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

Mount Baker and the Wolf Moon – The full Wolf Moon rises near Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters as seen from Anacortes, Wash., on Wednesday evening Jan. 11, 2017. (© Paul Conrad/Paul Conrad Photography)

After getting the shots with the refinery, I drove north to get a shot of just Mount Baker and the Moon. With the rays reflected in Fidalgo Bay, I spent another 15 minutes getting some nice shots.

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Paul “pablo” Conrad

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Paul Conrad is a Bellingham wedding and portrait photographer living in Bellingham, north of Seattle, WA, in the Pacific Northwest. He has won awards in news photography, features, sports, portraiture, and documentary. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States and in Europe. He is available for assignments anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. Although his specialty is photojournalism covering news, sports, and editorial portraits, he also is skilled in family portraiture, high school senior portraits, and weddings.

His clients include Getty Images, Wire Image, AirBnB, The Bellingham Herald, and many local business in Whatcom County. Previous clients are Associated Press, the New York Times, L.A. Times, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, and many others.

All images are © Paul Conrad. For commercial and editorial use, contact me with my contact form, or via email here.

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