American Cinematographer - June 2018 - 14

I

Shoot the Moon
By Jay Holben

At some point in every cinematographer's career, he or she
will likely have to point a lens at the sky and get a shot of a celestial
body. The last time I was tasked with shooting the moon was for the
opening title sequence of a series called Femme Fatales, and my last
sunrise was for a feature I directed titled Before the Dawn,
photographed by Kaity Williams. As ubiquitous as the sun and moon
are in our lives, it can be a challenge to photograph them.
Let's start with the moon. The first thing to understand is that
the way we see the moon with our eyes - especially when it's close
to the horizon, and it appears large and looming - is an optical illusion. The moon is not actually larger when it's near the horizon; it's
not a trick of the atmosphere, either. It's just the way our brain interprets what we are seeing.
Although not a perfect parallel, it is akin to the Ponzo illusion,
whereby two identically sized parallel lines will appear to be two
different sizes when they're placed at different points over converging lines. This happens because our brain interprets converging lines
as parallel lines going off into the distance; when we see the horizontal lines across the converging lines, our brain sees the one closest
to the convergence point as being larger because it appears to be
farther in the distance.
This is similar to what happens when you see the moon on
the horizon. The depth cues from buildings, trees, mountains or
whatever else is on the horizon signify to the brain that the moon is
bigger than it really is. If you roll a piece of paper into a tube, close
one eye and look through the tube, you can break the illusion and
see the moon as being its actual size. You can also accomplish this if
14

June 2018

you close one eye and make a circle with your fingers around your
open eye. As you close down the circle you've made with your
fingers, you'll see the moon shrink to size.
The camera, however, does not suffer from this same optical
illusion. So if we just casually try to photograph the moon, we'll be
horribly disappointed when it appears in the final image as a small
ball instead of a gargantuan glowing orb in the sky.
Photographing the moon in all its glory requires a long lens
- the longer, the better. The long focal length gives the impression
of compressing the distance, magnifying the moon so it will look in
the image the way we think we see it with our eyes. For example,
I've used a Canon L-series 600mm (f4) lens on my EOS 7D, which
got me plenty close to that mystical ball in the sky.
The moon's exposure can also be a surprise. Even though it's
nighttime and it's dark outside, the moon is bright - you're essentially photographing a light source. It's a big reflector in the sky
bouncing back sunlight, so it takes a shorter exposure than one
might imagine. With my 7D, I set my ISO to 320, and my aperture
to f9.5 (aka f8½) at 24 fps with a 180-degree shutter (1/48 of a
second exposure). This keeps good detail and texture in the surface
of the moon. You also want to make sure you're focusing manually,
as auto focus can be confused and often isn't sharp on the moon
itself. And don't necessarily trust the infinity mark on your lens -
look for good, sharp eye-focus.
In addition to a long lens and a deep exposure, you're going
to need some careful planning, as timing of the moon's rising and
setting can vary by as much as an hour each day. Planning ahead will
save you a lot of frustration; there are apps, software and books to
help you with this planning, and I'll discuss them later.
Shooting the sun is another challenge in and of itself. First of
all, without specialized equipment it is nearly impossible to photograph the sun and get any texture - it's just too bright. It's also difficult to hold any color in the sun itself. More than likely, it will burn
out or clip to white in any ordinary situation. Therefore, what you're
really exposing for is how you want to render the sky and any foreground objects. To render detail in the sky during sunrise or sunset,
you're likely going to be looking at silhouetted objects in the foreground.
If you're shooting the sun at 24 fps, you're in for a challenge.
At 100 ISO, a solid sun/sky exposure is about an f64 or f90. As it's
difficult, if not impossible, to find any lens that closes to that small
of an aperture - there are three Arri macro lenses that close to f64,
and a small handful more from other manufacturers that close to
f32 - you'll be employing filtration. Things get tricky here because
additional glass on the lens increases the potential for flaring - and
when you have the brightest source of light in our solar system looking right down the barrel of your lens, you're already going to be
struggling with flares. Internal or behind-the-lens ND is helpful in this
situation. If you do employ filters, you'll want to use as few as possi-

American Cinematographer

Images courtesy of Jay Holben.

SHOT CRAFT



Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of American Cinematographer - June 2018

Contents
American Cinematographer - June 2018 - Intro
American Cinematographer - June 2018 - Cover1
American Cinematographer - June 2018 - Cover2
American Cinematographer - June 2018 - 1
American Cinematographer - June 2018 - 2
American Cinematographer - June 2018 - Contents
American Cinematographer - June 2018 - 4
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American Cinematographer - June 2018 - Cover3
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