Thursday, July 12, 2012

How to Photograph Birds Crossing the Moon

Snow Geese crossing the moon in late afternoon - notice that the moon isn't quite full

Using the moon as a background in a photo can make for a really fantastic shot. A shot of a bull Elk bugling with the moon so large that it fills half the scene or a flock of geese passing in front of a full moon can be pretty dramatic. Unfortunately, the better the shot, the more likely that people will assume that it has been photoshopped – actually, not too bad an assumption.

If you think about it, such shots can be incredibly tough to get. The moon is only full (or nearly full) a few days each month. The sky has to be clear, and the subject needs to be positioned properly. Photos with the moon rising are particularly difficult. The window for getting such a shot is incredibly short. The moon is only positioned properly on the horizon for a minute or so. It’s no wonder that people assume that such photos are more the result of time spent at the keyboard rather than behind a lens.
I’m not saying that there is necessarily anything wrong with digital manipulation (unless you try to pass it off as the real deal). The problem comes when the artist puts together two objects together that aren’t possible to capture in the same frame. An extreme example would be a setting sun next to a full moon – two objects that are never next to each other in the sky. Most people would catch that right away, but there are other, more subtle things to look for that may make you suspect shenanigans.

More Snow Geese

The best way to tell the difference between a (potentially) manipulated shot and the general article is often a matter of perfection as well as imperfection. A photoshopped photo will generally contain both elements. Consider the position of the full moon relative to the sun. A few days before the moon is full, it rises before sunset. The full moon rises as the sun sets. You won’t have a completely full moon out during daylight hours. A completely full moon against a bright blue sky with a Bald Eagle crossing it just can’t happen, however, an ALMOST full-moon against a beautiful blue sky IS possible one or two days each month. Another problem comes from depth of field. Having the moon with other subject all in relatively good focus is no easy task, especially if the second subject is moving. Getting the moon to fill the frame requires a long lens. Getting all of the elements in focus requires great depth of field, which comes at the price of high ISO (introducing noise) and/or slow shutter speed because of a small aperture. In other words, don’t expect to get a crisp shot of a Peregrine Falcon crossing the moon.

Digitally manipulated shot - the focus on all subjects (especially the moon) is too sharp. This was made from the next two photos - California Condors, BTW

Now that I’ve established how difficult it is to come by great shots of the moon with wildlife, let’s look at how you can get such a shot in the real world, without the help of a software program. If you know what situations ARE possible, you can put yourself in a position to get some pretty dramatic photos. As I mentioned before, a few days before the moon is completely full, it rises before sunset. That isn’t perfect, but it can be close enough. Another thing that works to you benefit in these conditions is that the sun will be at your back, which IS perfect for many shots. You might be lucky enough to just find yourself in the right place at the right time, but you can dramatically increase your chances with a little planning. Find a table that tells you when the sun and moon rise and set and circle those days when the moon rises an hour or two before the sun sets to capture a nearly full moon against a blue sky. Alternatively, if you want silhouettes against a full moon, you’ll want to be in position while the moon is still low in the sky. The best time of year is often winter when the air is cold and haze is at a minimum.
       I didn't follow my own advice - I focused on the moon. The Condor was too close and ended up out of focus.
I’ve had the most success with the nearly full moon against a blue sky which occurs just before sunset. The reason for this is that it is still light enough to see the birds coming, which allows enough time to react and shoot. Also, monsters come out after dark, especially when the moon is full. Everybody knows that. Another advantage of shooting in the late afternoon is that many birds are flying at this time of day in order to get to where they plan to spend the night. I have had the best luck with ducks and geese as there tend to be lots of them, improving the chance of success. That pretty much covers “what” “where” and “when,” leaving us with “how?”
Condors in better focus - no moon

If you’ve ever taken a photo of the moon, you know how small it will appear in the picture. To make the moon appear large, you need to use a long lens. I recommend 400mm at a minimum, but preferably longer – as long as you’ve got. You’ll also want to use a tripod and a remote shutter release. The idea is to mount the camera on a tripod and watch for birds that might cross the moon. When they approach, you hit the shutter release, but first things first. As mentioned earlier, you want plenty of depth of field to have the moon and the birds in fairly good focus. Ideally, shoot in manual mode.  Try to get and exposure that provides an aperture of about f/9 or better and a shutter speed of 1/500th or faster. You’ll need to adjust the ISO to get the overall exposure right. Take some test shots and check the histogram. Where to focus is a challenge. If you focus directly on the moon, the birds will be soft and vice versa. Focus manually (you don’t want the camera hunting when it counts), take some test shots and adjust as necessary. Error towards having the moon in focus if the birds are silhouettes and focus more on the birds if it is light enough to see detail on them.

Sort of a bonus shot - Snow Geese Flying in front of setting sun
Once you have everything set up, stand back with the camera pointed where you want it and watch for birds approaching the moon. With the camera set to take continuous shots, start shooting before the birds get to the moon and continue shooting until they are past. You might have to adjust a bit if you have a low burst rate. Keep checking your histogram. It is very easy to mess up the exposure as the moon rises and the sun starts to set. This isn’t going to be easy, but it will be fun and when you do finally manage to nail a couple of shots, it will be worth the effort that went into it.

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  1. Steve- very cool post. The Cape May posse has an unofficial open challenge to photograph birds in front of the moon, mostly from the Higbee Beach dike (and then mostly during fall migration). Of course, there's also the Cape May Lighthouse... and if you can get the lighthouse AND the moon AND the bird... well, you win the unofficial unspecified prize.

  2. Thanks for this post...
    Fans of the Bakersfield Condors will forever appreciate your photos!