The elusive full moon photograph

Written on 31st January 2020 | No Comments

Photographing a full moon rising above a landscape is a challenge, in terms of planning, technical know-how and luck. While it’s relatively easy to photograph a full moon high in the sky on a clear night, it’s far more difficult to photograph it while it’s low on the horizon, hovering above a landscape or looming behind a landmark. It’s the latter of these two ideas that I am most interested in and have dedicated a lot of effort to.

Glastonbury Tor and a full moon

Glastonbury Tor works well as a foreground subject for this purpose; it has a simple and instantly recognisable outline and it’s visible for miles around from the flat landscape of the Somerset Levels.

While it’s possible to photograph Glastonbury Tor during almost any of the full moons in a year, there are just one or two moons that rise in the north east. Importantly, they align with a symmetrical view of the tower which sits atop Glastonbury Tor. However, these full moons occur in winter when the weather is often cloudy or wet. Over several years I have worked on photographing this view of Glastonbury Tor aligned with a full moon. It’s been one of the most frustrating, nerve wracking, yet fun pursuits I’ve had with my camera.

Almost there! Low cloud blocked my view just before the crucial moment.

Key to getting the photograph right is shooting at a time when moonrise and sunset coincide. This makes it possible to capture the landscape and the face of the moon in one exposure, without using Photoshop to blend exposures or create a composite from multiple pictures. If you leave the shot too late the ambient light from sunset grows dim and it’s difficult to capture anything but a silhouette of Glastonbury Tor with the bright light of the full moon behind it.

The constraints of working at dusk and with moonlight makes the task rather a tall order: there is a short window of time in which the full moon is at the right height and the dusk sky is bright enough. It lasts for perhaps 20 minutes. If there is any cloud on the horizon it can ruin the shot by obscuring the full moon. 

The last ‘supermoon’ of 2014 lighting the night sky above Glastonbury Tor, Somerset. This was my first attempt at photographing Glastonbury Tor and the moon.

Patience is a virtue

When I started this endeavour, I waited for a few years without a chance of getting the shot because the weather was cloudy around the time of full moon. Eventually, as the first full moon of 2018 neared, I was granted a reprieve in the form of a clear forecast, which happened to be on New Year’s Day.

A ‘wolf moon’, the first supermoon of 2018, rising behind Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, on New Year’s Day. Low cloud blocked the view of the moon not long after this was taken.

I positioned myself in a field a couple of miles from Glastonbury Tor. Moonrise drew near but there were clouds hovering on the horizon. As the full moon came into sight I had to run across the field to get into the right position. Alas, the clouds were moving straight into the path of the moon. I took just a couple of shots before the moon was masked by the clouds. Unfortunately I didn’t get the alignment I’d hoped for. By the time the clouds had cleared the moon was higher in the sky and it had become too dark.

The following month’s full moon was also in a suitable position but the forecast was similarly unpredictable. I attempted the shot again only to find that a bank of low cloud blocked the moon until just after the moment of alignment. It was deflating to think that I had to wait another year before I’d be able to try again.

My second attempt at the aligned shot. This bank of cloud got in the way just at the wrong time.

During both of these events I wasn’t alone; for the New Year’s Day full moon I counted 10 or more other photographers in a small area. As I walked through the muddy fields to get into the right position they kept popping up out of nowhere. Some sported long lenses with camouflage covers, which made our endeavour seem like a military exercise.

I skipped the next suitable full moon at the end of 2019 as the forecast didn’t seem good enough. Following that was the first full moon of 2020 which came with a clear forecast. This time I was running a one-to-one workshop with a client. We positioned ourselves in what I hoped would be the right place and waited. It wasn’t long before a couple of other photographers arrived. As in 2018, the chase for the moon began.

This time the odds were in our favour as the sky was almost clear of clouds. We waited until long past the point at which the full moon should have been visible and I began to wonder what was happening. The moon couldn’t be late, could it? Eventually I noticed a faint glow behind Glastonbury Tor, which I realised was the glow of the moon. We had to reposition ourselves quickly so that we could preempt the path of its ascent.

Just a few minutes later the full moon moved into position and I took a few shots while it was aligned. It had been a long time coming but I’d finally got the shot.

The first full moon of 2020, rising behind Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, on 10th January 2020.

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