I wanted to photograph the full moon against a beautiful deep blue sky. I ended up with blown-out highlights of the moon:

enter image description here

So I switched to spot metering and captured the moon, losing the blue sky in the process:

enter image description here

I want a single photo that shows both the moon and the surrounding context (in this case, the blue sky). Doing an exposure fusion in Photomatix Essentials did not help:

enter image description here

Nor did HDR fusion (again in Photomatix):

enter image description here

Notice that the detail in the moon was lost in both cases, and the sky was also messed up in both cases: exposure fusion lost the beautiful blue color, while HDR created more texture than was actually present in the sky. I toggled Photomatix's option to remove ghosts, but that didn't help, either.

How do I photograph the moon together with its surrounding context (in this case, the blue sky, but in other cases, a tree, buildings, etc) without blowing highlights or shadows? I'm using a Sony NEX-5R, with the longest focal length lens I have, and with manual focus when needed.

Thinking I should fuse the photos manually, I tried opening the images as layers in Acorn, with the darker photo on top and with opacity set to 50%, and tried all 15 - 20 blending modes (normal, dodge, lighter, darker, multiply and so on), but none of them seemed to work. I'm afraid I don't know enough to use layers effectively. What blending mode and opacity and order of layers should I use for this task?

I don't have Photoshop, but do have Lightroom 5, Acorn and Nik Collection.

(In case you are about to recommend software, please note my requirements: I use a Mac, I would be willing to pay $20-30, and I don't want to use command-line software.)


7 Answers 7


Within the constraints you have specified, GIMP would be the best way to go. It is completely free and entirely Mac compatible. You do not need 'full' HDR software, you just need to be able to composite a properly exposed moon with a properly exposed foreground.

Given the sharply defined edge of the moon, this is simplicity itself in GIMP. Simply take the two shots, then select the moon from the properly exposed moon shot and paste it into your foreground shot.

Theoretically you don't even need a tripod, because you can just clone out the moon from the foreground shot and put the properly exposed moon in the scene anywhere you like. If you have a long lens that can fill a decent amount of the frame with the moon, you can even paste in a 'bigger' moon than reality.

The process is very similar to the one described in this tutorial on the Photo SE blog: http://photo.blogoverflow.com/2012/06/exposure-blending-for-landscape-photography/

But rather than pasting in the whole sky you are just pasting in the moon.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I was able to use the Magic Wand to select the moon to paste it into the other photo. I used Acorn, but it's the same thing. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 16, 2014 at 1:59

With an image like this, the best and easiest solution is probably manual exposure fusion. It's easy enough to do in any raster graphics editor (GIMP, Photoshop, etc.).

For example, here's what I managed to produce from your original images in a few minutes in GIMP:

Exposure fused image

Here are the steps I used:

  1. Open both images as layers in GIMP, with the darker image (moon detail) on top.

  2. Temporarily set the top layer's opacity to something like 20% and move it to align it with the bottom layer. (You'll probably also want to select Layers → Layer to Image Size afterwards.)

  3. Reset the top layer's opacity and — here's the trick — give it a layer mask which is a grayscale copy of the layer itself (Layer → Mask → Add Layer Mask..., select "Grayscale copy of layer").

    This makes the top layer mostly opaque in the areas where it's reasonably exposed (i.e. in the moon itself) and transparent where it's underexposed (i.e. everywhere else). This is enough to give you an exposure-fused image, sort of, but it doesn't look very good: the moon is too dark and the surroundings too bright, so we need to tweak it a bit more.

  4. Select the layer mask you just created (in the Layers dialog) and use Colors → Levels... to tweak the mask levels. Here, I left the input levels alone, and just adjusted the minimum output level to around 25 (to darken the surroundings, by making the top layer slightly opaque everywhere) and the maximum output level to around 175 (to lighten the moon face by making it somewhat transparent).

After flattening the image and exporting it as JPEG, the result is as you see above.

Ps. One remaining issue you can notice in the resulting image is that there's some Mach banding visible around the moon, especially when the image is scaled down. This is a common problem when working with images featuring subtle color gradients using 8-bit color. The ideal solution is to work in an image editor that supports a higher color depth and that is smart enough to apply dithering when exporting into an 8-bit format like JPEG. If you can start with RAW images that have a higher color depth and no JPEG compression, that's even better, but not strictly required.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, Ilmari. Actually, I think that in this case, it's not worth trying to fuse this image, because I find the original photo with the blown-out highlights of the moon looking better, since it correctly captures the deep and beautiful blue sky, and the intense white of the moon against the deep and vibrant blue sky -- this is what gives the photo its charm. When we tone down the blue and the white, the photo loses its charm IMO. This is not a criticism of your answer (it answers the question asked, and very well), but of my question itself, in a sense. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 23, 2014 at 4:56

The best method I have found is to shoot the moon when there is still enough light in the sky to narrow the dynamic range between the Moon's surface and the surrounding sky.

A moon just a little past new can be shot shortly after sunset and exposed so that details are visible from the earthshine reflecting from the dark part of the new moon. Shooting an almost new moon just before sunrise also allows the same exposure. You can even capture a few bright stars and maybe a planet or comet all in the same frame. The following is a single exposure with only global adjustments made to the RAW file. It was shot around two days after the new moon at about 50 minutes after sunset right at the end of nautical twilight.

New moon and comet

If you want a fuller moon you need to shoot it during daylight hours or very shortly after sunset during early twilight and expose for the surface of the moon. This will underexpose the surrounding sky. The following image was shot about two minutes before sunset. The moon was about two days away from being full and had risen about an hour and forty-five minutes earlier.

enter image description here

The ratio of the amount of light from the moon and the surrounding sky changes rapidly during the hour or so before sunrise and the hour or so after sunset. Taking an image using the same settings and framing just a few seconds apart can alter the results significantly.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I didn't know you could capture the dark side of the moon (facing away from the sun) in a photo. Impressive. I guess a problem for me with "shoot at the right time" is that this photo was already shot at 5:30 Am or something. Wait a little longer, and the sky becomes whitish rather than the beautiful deep blue I wanted to capture. Or the moon may be covered by clouds, or be in a position where it's not visible from the balcony of my apartment... \$\endgroup\$ Jun 16, 2014 at 0:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ But that's just it, when you expose properly for the details of the moon the "whitish" sky shows up as that darker blue in the resulting photo. You can make a mid-day sky dark blue by controlling the exposure. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Jun 16, 2014 at 1:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ If that is the way you prefer it to look then do it that way. Personally I prefer there not to be a false halo around the moon caused by the oversaturation bleeding into the adjoining pixels during demosaicing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Jun 16, 2014 at 2:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is the right approach for another reason - if you take a short exposure of the moon then a long exposure of the trees etc, the moon will have moved appreciably in the time it takes to change settings and take the long exposure. I was trying for a similar effect but with bare branches in front of a full moon and had to give up - to get the alignment meant waiting until the sky was too dark. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chris H
    Jun 16, 2014 at 12:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Michael, both your pics are really good. Very nice to look at, especially the first. You should really be proud :-) \$\endgroup\$
    – Francesco
    Jun 20, 2014 at 8:11

Like comedy, it's in the timing. Shoot earlier in the day. This was taken in Southern California in December around 5:00pm. Moon. Blue sky. No need for HDR or exposure fusion or masks and layers.

The moon is a very bright directly-sun-lit object. Treat accordingly.

Moon Canon XT/350D. EF 400mm f/5.6L USM. iso 100, f/11, 1/20s. Tripod and cable release.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Please see my comment to Michael's answer regarding why shooting at a different time may not be the best answer for me. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 16, 2014 at 0:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ I guess the question then really is do you want the shot badly enough to make or wait for the conditions to be right? It's your choice to limit your vantage point to your balcony and mornings. But if you want the shot badly enough, isn't it worth considering altering those conditions? \$\endgroup\$
    – inkista
    Jun 16, 2014 at 1:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Fair point, but I want to make the best of the photo I have already taken. If a few minutes of editing / merging can't fix it, then, sure, I can wait for the right time. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 16, 2014 at 2:00

The problem is that you are trying to take a photo way outside the dynamic range of your camera's sensor, but within the (very wide) dynamic range of human vision. The moon is lit by full sunlight, but the sky by only a low level of diffuse light.

You could try shooting earlier, when there is more light remaining in the sky, giving a narrower dynamic range to capture.

Without erasing the diffused light around the moon in the sky shot, you won't get a clean, sharp moon when you edit in the moon that is correctly exposed.

In terms of other editing software, you could try GIMP, which is open source. (I don't use it, so am unsure of its full capabilities, but I understand it is powerful).

  • \$\begingroup\$ The dynamic range is exactly why I'm taking multiple photos and trying to merge them. I wouldn't mind the merged shot having diffused light around the moon, as long as the moon and the sky appear correctly. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 15, 2014 at 8:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ To be precise, the dynamic range of the eye is not actually particularly impressive. It's our brain that practically stitches together a "HDR" sensory experience out of several "exposures" occurring during microsaccades. \$\endgroup\$
    – JohannesD
    Jun 15, 2014 at 9:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately, shooting at a different time doesn't work for me for the reasons I outlined in my comment at Michael's answer. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 16, 2014 at 0:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JohannesD good point... I've edited the answer to reflect your comment. \$\endgroup\$
    – John
    Jun 17, 2014 at 7:40

A lot of people remember the "sunny 16" rule. Well, it used to be something everyone knew from the days of old before light meters were commonplace in cameras (or when shooting from the hip on manual exposure). It goes like this:

The proper exposure for something in the full sun at f/16 is 1/ISO

So, if you've got ISO 400 film loaded in the camera, you can walk around shooting at 1/400 during the day and get the exposure within the latitude of the film.

The moon that you see at night, is an object in the full sun. It doesn't matter that its 10pm here, the illuminated moon is still in the sunlight. This is why its really easy to get properly exposed images of the moon during the day.

However, the albedo of the moon is somewhere around a 11% - 12%. The camera's light meter is calibrated to an 18% gray card. The difference between the moon and the gray card is about one stop... and thus you get the looney 11.

So, spot meter the moon with the camera adjustment set to exposure for an additional stop... and then bracket like crazy. You could also do a double exposure (for film types) or other post production magic.

The key there is to spot meter. When you have the camera on matrix meter it will likely be confused by the surrounding sky (being dark) and thus try to expose for that and blow out the exposure of the moon.

But remember that the difference between the night sky and the moon (in full sun) is likely to be quite a bit more than you can capture in a single frame.

Just as a note, you do want a tripod and a faster exposure rather than a slower one. Moonrise to moonrise is about 23.5 hours and in half that time it will cover 180º. This means it moves at about 0.004º/s. With a 200mm lens and 1.5 image crop, the horizontal field of view is 6.9 degrees. That means the moon is moving at 1/1725th of the frame/second... or about 3 pixels on the camera/second. This has significant impact when you do a longer exposure (or even try to line up to exposures perfectly).

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for trying to help, MichaelT, but this doesn't answer the question. The question is about how to merge the captured photos, not how to correctly capture the bracketed images, which I've done here. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 20, 2014 at 1:19

I live in the Netherlands and I do some astrophotograpy.

If you want to take photographs of the moon then I would advise you to buy a telescope and a T-ring. In that way you are using the telescope as a lens. The downside of this is that it comes with a price. I baught my telescope for € 600 (without a tripod), and you should buy the necessitate accessory too (like the Star Diagonal Mirror, which can cost you € 100).

You could buy something like this (photo bellow is my canon 600d with a refractor telescope)

enter image description here

With that gear I made this picture, see below.

enter image description here

To get the surrounding context you could post-process the image. Maybe you could apply an orton effect to it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The question isn't "how do I take a photo of the moon." \$\endgroup\$ Jun 15, 2014 at 12:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ Read my edits please. \$\endgroup\$
    – Julian
    Jun 16, 2014 at 7:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Julian Kartick Vaddadi is asking "How do I photograph the moon together with its surrounding context (in this case, the blue sky, but in other cases, a tree, buildings, etc) without blowing highlights or shadows?". To recommend buying a telescope that makes the moon fill the frame is not helpful. Also the Orton effect is not the answer to what Vaddadi is looking for. \$\endgroup\$
    – Hugo
    Jun 16, 2014 at 7:34

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