How to Photograph a Silhouette in Front of a Giant Moon

Swiss photographer, Philipp Schmidli, got it into his mind that he wanted to photograph the full moon with a subject walking in front of it so to give the moon scale. He began scouting locations from the comfort of his office using Google Earth and was eventually able to settle on the perfect location after making a couple trips to are in person. What he didn’t know at the time was that his adventure in full moon photography would carry on well into the summer and evolve from an image of a friend cross country skiing through the scene into a replication of sorts of the popular film ET’s movie poster which is shown below:

Doesn't this remind you a bit of ET?

Remind you a bit of ET?

After a few failed attempts to further perfect the image he captured in January, the photographer carried on his quest. After a few failed attempts in February and March due to uncooperative weather, Schmidli rounded up a friend in April to act as the subject of his photo, this time bicycling through the moon rather than skiing. When he posted April’s image to his blog, readers instantly began comparing the image to the movie poster for ET. While not his original intention, Schmidli noticed the similarities and vowed to make yet another full moon photograph, this time with the famous ET scene on his mind.

Wen August rolled around, Schmidli was ready to take a crack at getting the ET replica shot made. Since the moons exact location in the sky is ever changing, after making some slight modifications to the location in which the shoot would take place, Schmidli asked three cyclist and some assistants to make the trek to the remote location.

The photoshoot required some heavy lifting across the mountainside.

The photoshoot required some heavy lifting across the mountainside.

This time, with three cyclist and ramp involved in the shoot, preparing the set was no easy task.

This time, with three cyclist and ramp involved in the shoot, preparing the set was no easy task.

To get the shot, Schmidli set up his Canon EOS-1D XCanon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USMCanon Extender EF 2x II, tripod, and a useful Garmin GPS eTrex 30 unit in a second location.

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The red circle indicates the location of the moonrise and cyclists.

The 800mm zoom lens paired with the 2x teleconverter gave the photographer a combined focal length of 1600mm. In an effort to make the moon appear even larger than in his first attempts at the full moon photo, Schmidli increased the distance between the moon and the subject by 1000 meters from 300 in the January image to 1300 meters for this shoot.

The addition of the basket on the bike was also new to the August image and was intended to replicate the basket that ET rode in.

The addition of the basket on the bike was also new to the August image and was intended to replicate the basket that ET rode in.

Adding a stuffed animal to the basket created the perfect silhouette.

Adding a stuffed animal to the basket created the perfect silhouette.

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Test runs were made continuously throughout the quick moonrise.

Each cyclist made about 3 runs up the ramp before the moon had risen too high. Luckily Schmidli was able to get the shot in time. Using a lot of planning, preparation, and critical thinking Schmidli was able to pull off the final image without using Photoshop.

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10 responses to “How to Photograph a Silhouette in Front of a Giant Moon”

  1. Jim says:

    The planning, trekking, ramp setup, etc. seems so time intensive. Why not simply photoshop a shadow image onto a picture of a full moon. Everyone’s doing it.

    • R'laine says:

      But Jim, where’s the fun in that, I’d much rather go to all the effort Phillipp did than do it in photoshop, no challenge in that.

    • Rahimi says:

      That’s like saying “Why do people even go for marathons? All the training and discipline seem like too much work. We have cars now.” It’s the feeling of satisfaction. The effort that he puts into making this photo is what makes it impressive. Simply photoshopping would just make people go “meh”.

  2. Sandy says:

    You list the gear that you used to make this image, but I was curious as to what your camera settings were for the shot. Awesome image by the way!

  3. Chris says:

    Poorly researched picturecorrect. He’s Swiss not German!

  4. Neil says:

    Well actually he is Swiss and not German! Anyone who checks out his website would notice this.

  5. Jacques says:

    Nice photos and story, just disappointing that the title is misleading, because I have been busy with photos of the moon and such and was hoping to see how to do this.

    • Well, there was still a lot of information in there! What you need is to know exactly where the moon will rise (look for The Photographer’s Ephemeris), find a spot with a good clearance (like an elevated spot) and a clear line from your vantage point, and estimate the distance you’ll need to be from your subject to make it look the size you want compared to the moon. For the size of the moon, it’ll depend of the focal length you’re shooting with. Test your gear on a full moon previous to the one you want to do your silhouette shot to see how much of you frame the moon will fill and with which lenses. Then find a vantage point, and find what distance you should stand from it with your camera for your subject to have the proportion you’re looking for. Keep in mind that the further you are from the subject, the harder it’s going to be to reframe if it’s not well aligned with the moon. But then again, you shouldn’t need much reframing, cause you’ll most likely miss your shot if you have to reframe. You could also possibly use a shorter focal length and crop later to be able to take your shot from a closer distance from your subject. But it’s nicer if you can do it without croping. Lastly, if your subject is a person, you’ll probably want to use talkie-walkies or phones to help position the person in your frame. A good pair of binoculars might help for that.

      I know this is an old comment, but I wanted to reply in case someone else reads this page. I haven’t done it yet, but I’m planning to, and that’s how I’d do it.

  6. Rafael says:

    To take this photo you first need to know when the moon will be where you desire… The tool I use to plan the moon is photopills (http://photopills.com), very useful.

  7. Ah yes, the joys of planning for the “BIG BANG” in anticipation of grandeur. Reminded me of the last annular eclipse here in California several years ago. I drove 200 miles to be in perfect position on that fall day and…
    WHAT, summer clouds and even some rain in the middle of a California summer day? Geesh! And of course, this sort of thing would never happen on a stunning horizon moon shot, until to fog starts to appear. Or when I had everything perfectly dialed in with TPE and as the moon started to appear in the distance… BANG – a construction crew turned on a handful of huge lights to do night construction on a bridge – arg!!! And of course we could all tell stories “till the cow jumped over the moon” about gear disasters.
    Kudos on getting a great shot with the sweet $13K lens!

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