Shoot For The Moon

SHOOT FOR THE MOON: Best apps and tips for creating Moon illusion images


Sure, anyone can photoshop Pluto’s moon Charon into a wide angle shot of downtown LA and get mad props, but for the realists, planning a Moon illusion shoot takes a lot of forethought, street smarts, imagination, and an adventurous spirit.  Luckily, there are a few handy apps for your smartphone that will aid this process and take out a large portion of the guesswork.  You’re on the Moon’s clock with this type of photography. It can come down to crunch time when you’re forced to choose between multiple spots all with different vibes and challenges.  Get these apps to get the shot. 

Photopills Photopills – This app has a great reputation and it’s easy to see  why: It has tabs for generating details on the Sun, the Moon, the  angles and times of their rising and setting, exposure settings, depth  of field, field of view, star trails, time lapse, AND you can use the app through your camera with Augmented Reality to plan for objects in the sky and where/when they will be in relation to the landscape, skyline, or foreground. Photopills also has a great social media  presence, shares images, and holds online contests with user  submitted photos. It’s pricey, but it does the work.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris – I typically use The Photographer’s Ephemeris for planning my shoots and location scouting because it is easy to use, simple, and accurate.  And features a button that will link directly to your current map in Google maps.  It’s basically the “lite” version of the PhotoPills planner with times and angles for the Sun and Moonrise/set plus some added features.


SkyPortal – Aside from miraculously controlling Celestron WiFi telescopes, the free SkyPortal app comes in handy here as an all-purpose planetarium, but it also sends push and in-app notifications for a few of the more prominent celestial events each month.  Again, useful here are the notifications for planetary conjunctions with the Moon which spice up any landscape shot and provide a timely window to capture people’s interest, precious social media ‘likes’, and general curiosity about that bright “star” next to the Moon.

Phases of the Moon – I check my Phases of the Moon app from Universe Today many times throughout each month.  For photoshoot planning I’m most interested in the day before and the day of the full Moon, the two or three days following the new Moon, and the rise and set times of each relative to the Sun.  Lighting is everything.

Rabbit Hole MoonTiny Planets – Fun for making tiny planet or rabbit hole images out of your Moon Illusion pics.

iMovie - For time lapses.  Super easy to upload the movie file of 40 minutes’ worth of images and toss in some background music from your iTunes library.  Check out my latest.

Google Maps – Navigating the city, checking to see if street angles line up with the Moon, location scouting for parking garages to shoot from, etc.

SkyWeek+, The Weather Channel, AccuWeather, MyRadar, Aviation WX, 8mm - Celestial events calendars, weather, video editing, etc.

QUICK TIPS:  Use the apps and plan wisely.  Experience is the best teacher so take a lot of photos.  Natural lighting is your friend.  Having multiple rural AND city locations increases your chances of great shots.  Try to keep exposures under 5 seconds, and under 800 ISO for a sharp lunar disc and a clean image.  Check local times.  Seasonal variables will vary results.  Experiment with shooting the Sun this way as well, but wait until Sunset and/or scattered cloud coverage or you may damage your eyes and camera.

Full Moon: Try the morning before/of the full Moon just before Sunrise for a rare full Moonset.  The morning after is often too bright.  If you’re foreground is elevated landscape (mountains) then shoot the day before.  If you’re catching it on or near the horizon, shoot the day of.  Shooting against city lights can allow for more leeway. 

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Crescent Moon: The sunset after the new Moon can be tricky, but the two day old Moon is dependably good.  Three day old Moon can still deliver, but you’re pushing the limits of natural lighting.  Reverse likewise for the old Moon if you’re an early riser or there is a neat conjunction.  Try to highlight Earthshine and comment snootily about how there’s no such thing as the dark side of the Moon.

Composition:  Rule of thirds, switch it up, get artsy, play, adapt

Perspective and Equipment: A shorter focal length telescope or telephoto zoom lens makes the effect, though interesting results can be achieved with less.  General rules: Bigger the zoom, bigger the Moon in the frame. 300 – 500mm is the sweet spot.  Longer the distance between camera and foreground, more dramatic the Moon illusion.

Intervalometer, tripod, extra battery, slider dolly for time lapse movies

Other Considerations:  Composites can be tasteful, but should be avoided.  Clouds can make or break a shot in seconds.  Mistakes can lead to discoveries.  Capture what makes a time or place special – photography is about moments.

Hesse Park Full Moonset

That’s about it!  This is just a quick primer on my methods, your results may vary.  Last night was a new Moon so try out these techniques tonight or tomorrow and around the 23rd of March at the full Moon!  Post your shots of the Moon looking otherworldly like Luke watching the double Sunset on Tatooine. Submit to Celestron’s gallery using #MissionMoon2016.

  Luke Illusion

***Images and words by Jarred Donkersley except Photopills and SkyPortal screen shots and this last one from Star Wars.***