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The Moon Illusion & How to Fix it

It's always tempting to whip out the camera when you see a spectacular moon rising, but the results are often disappointing.

Did you know there's a recognised phenomena relating to viewing the moon? Have you ever noticed how, upon rising, the moon appears huge on the horizon, but when you take a photo, or it rises higher, it seems to diminish in size? Now I could swear the moon was much bigger when I took this photo ... but somehow it's tiny when I've downloaded my shot??

It's not just my imagination - the apparent viewing of the relative size of the moon is definitely a thing!

From Wikipedia:

The Moon illusion is an optical illusion which causes the Moon to appear larger near the horizon than it does higher up in the sky. It has been known since ancient times and recorded by various cultures.[1][2] The explanation of this illusion is still debated.[2][3][4]

You can read more about it here.

And here.

So what does this mean for us photographers? Well... I guess it means your eyes can't be trusted and the camera doesn't lie! (Well it does a little - for instance it always makes me look fatter and older than I actually am 😂 ).

So how do photographers get those huge moon shots? In truth, they probably don't...

The usual method by professional/experienced photographers is to use two (or more) photos combined to get that beautiful big AND detailed moon look, and also a correctly exposed landscape, the technique of which goes something like this:

Take a nice photo of the landscape, exposing correctly. Then take a photo of the moon - doesn't have to be taken from the same spot or even on the same day. A friend of mine has a whole folder full of moons ready-to-go to use in these composite shots!

Expose to bring out the details of the moon, which will dramatically underexpose the landscape, usually around f11 and about 160th second at 200 ISO, but does depend on available light.

Then combine the two photos in Photoshop or Affinity Photo (I use Affinity) and voilà, there's your big moon shot!

Here is the same photo as above, but I've enlarged another photo of the moon taken at the same time and plonked it into the shot. It's a pretty standard practice these days:

The trick is, for a realistic image, don't go too far with the moon enlargement. It can look at little too E.T. ... if you get my drift. But of course it's really up to your personal taste!

I prefer natural looking images, but I have to admit the massive moon does look pretty good, albeit a little fake sometimes .. but these days with AI breathing down our necks, setting the bar to ridiculously fake, who really cares anyway!

I also like to add a little transparency to the moon image to blend it better into the background.

Here's another shot from my recent trip to Mungo. The moon wasn't even in this shot, but I've added it for creative effect to capture the feel of being there on a full moon:

You can find many tutorials for both Affinity and Photoshop on Youtube - here's a couple I've pulled up you might find helpful.

But it is possible to do a single shot of the moon and make the moon look sizeable! By zooming in on the landscape you can get the moon up bigger in the frame. You'll get the best results if the moon is rising before the sun has set, or not long after or else it gets tricky as there's not enough light to illuminate the landscape. It's not the easiest shot to pull off, and it does help if you are a distance away from the horizon to give you 'zooming room'.

Single shot from Mungo, taken before sunset with a 12 - 100mm lens at 57mm.

ISO 200, f14, 1/40th second:

Another option for moon photography and to get a nice big moon is to forget about illuminating the landscape and take a silhouette shot. This is a fun and easy way to take a moon shot and you can still get a good result. Look for some interesting detail to silhouette such as delicate tree branches. Don't be afraid to experiment! This shot I used my birding lens 150-400mm with the teleconverter, and did a little pan on it for creative effect. It's a bit kooky but I really like it! ISO 400, 500mm, f5.6, 1/5th second.

Another one taken around the same time through a tree in my backyard:

Although half the time my shots are terrible, I'll never stop bringing the camera out to photograph the moon. And most of the time I'm too lazy to grab the tripod and fuss around with composite shots, but at the end of the day, the real fun in photography is the doing, and playing around in the moon light is a lot better than sitting in front of a screen IMHO.

Happy Mooning!

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