The Art of Night – The Photography of Mark Gee

To the Moon and Back

I have always been fascinated by the night sky and have spent many hours in my life trying to capture it. It may seem easy to just point your camera at the sky and capture an image of it, but believe me it’s not always that effortless. We are travelling through space on planet earth at a speed of around 67,000 mph as well as rotating at close to 1000 mph, so the stars and the planets of the night sky are always on the move.

In early 2012, I came up with the idea of capturing the moon rising behind a lookout in my city of Wellington, New Zealand. The cool thing about this idea was that there are usually people up on the lookout both day and night, and if I could time it perfectly and find the right position to photograph from, I thought I might be able to capture their silhouettes against the rising moon. It doesn’t sound too hard to do right? Well let just say it took me nearly a year to get it right. So why did it take me so long, and how did I go about finally getting a successful shot?

A sequence shot of the moon rising over Mount Victoria in New Zealand - click to view larger image.

A sequence shot of the moon rising over Mount Victoria in New Zealand – click to view larger image.

My First Attempts

I’d seen the moon rise above the lookout many times before, so I though all I had to do was find the right spot the night before and then go back to shoot from that spot the next night. As I quickly found out, the moon’s position and timing changed from day to day, so the night I tried to shoot it, the moon no longer rose behind the lookout. I tried all kinds of different things, with lots of research online to calculate where I needed to stand to get the shot, but kept failing month after month – I really needed something simple but accurate to plan my shots with, and I wanted to be able to take it out in the field with me, so I could adjust my positioning perfectly on the go, in relation to where the moon was to rise.

The Breakthrough

Finally I came across an app called PhotoPills that potentially could be what I was looking for. It was much more user friendly than some of the other apps and software that I tried, and also had other great features built in, including a really powerful planner that calculates where the sun or moon will be for all possible dates and from any given position. You can also save your plans and share on social networks or via email straight from the app, and PhotoPills even has 3d augmented reality viewers built in so you can visualise the path of the sun or moon though your phones camera. That isn’t all though – there’s a time lapse calculator, equivalent long exposures, DoF, FoV, a star trails simulator and an exposure time calculator to use when you want to prevent star trails in your images. I instantly fell in love with this app and now use it all the time in planning all of my astrophotography shoots. So what’s involved in getting a shot like my winning Astronomy Photographer of the Year Moon Silhouettes image? Well it all starts with planning…

Moon Silhouettes photographed by Mark Gee

Moon Silhouettes – my winning image of the People and Space category of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013

The Perfect Plan

As I have learnt many times over, to capture good astro-photos you usually need to plan the shot. Sure you can head out one night and just get lucky with a good shot, but I find that if I’m not prepared, I usually rush to set up the shot, and make simple mistakes that could have been avoided if I had taken the time to plan. It took me over a year to capture the moon shot I was after, and that included a lot of trial and error – and planning.

So how did I plan for my Moon Silhouettes shot? Well, first of all I had a location in mind and a technique that I wanted to use, so the moon would appear large enough behind the silhouettes on the lookout. The technique was to use a super telephoto lens and shooting in a position a few kilometres away from the people on the lookout. By doing this, the moon would look large in the frame, as you are using pretty much the lens equivalent of a small telescope, and the people would appear relatively small, as you are so far away from them. I borrowed a Canon EF 800mm f/4, onto which I attached a Canon 1.4x extender, giving me a focal length of 1120mm. That gave me enough magnification to pull off the large moon, small people technique. All I had to do now was find the right location far enough away from – and in line of sight of – the lookout, and work out at exactly what time and position the moon would rise behind the people on the lookout.

Moon Silhouettes Setup

My technique and set up of earlier attempts of capturing Moon Silhouettes.

PhotoPills is my Friend

Working all of this out may sound quite complicated and difficult, but with the PhotoPills app, all it takes is a few short steps and you can get an accurate position and plan together. Firstly I had to pick the best day for my moon rise. I wanted it as close as possible to full moon, but I also needed it to be dark enough so I would get a black sky as well as people silhouettes and a bright yellow moon. Weather also played a big part as I wanted no cloud on the horizon, nor any wind as the slightest lens shake at that focal length and magnification will ruin your shot.

Moon Silhouettes Technique

Notice the size of the moon rising on the back of the camera compared to the moon I was seeing with my own eyes.

First I went to my PhotoPills app to find the correct moon phase. I could see that my next best chance was the full moon was on 27 March, but because the moon rose just before sunset that day, the sky would not be dark enough to get the silhouettes against the moon. So I chose the night of 28 March, as the moon rose after sunset and it was dark enough to get my silhouettes. The other advantage for me on this day was that the weather was forecast to be clear with little wind which was essential in pulling off this shot.

Next up I needed to find the location I was going to shoot the photo from. The location had to have a good line of sight of the lookout, and it also had to be in the correct position for the moon to rise exactly behind it, silhouetting the people. Great accuracy is necessary for this as you only need to be a meter or two out and you will miss the perfect positioning of the moon. PhotoPills will give you this accuracy, and on the day it even gives you your position by way of a blue dot so you can walk and line up perfectly with the spot you need to be in to get the shot.

PhotoPills Moon Silhouettes Plan

Planning the PhotoPills way – Click on the image for a larger view.  Left – the PhotoPills menu page. Centre – the Moon phase calander.  Right – red pin is where I am photographing the Moon Silhouettes shot from, and the black pin is where the people on the lookout are.

So I have my position for taking the shot, but the other thing I must take into consideration is altitude of the lookout in relation to my position. I need to know this because even though PhotoPills tells me moon rise is at 7.31pm, I won’t see the moon until a little later since from my vantage point the lookout is much higher. This is where PhotoPills and it’s geodetic information comes in handy, because I can simply move the geodetic pin to where the people are on the lookout. This will not only tell me the altitude of the lookout but also the difference in altitude and degrees of my vantage point to the lookout.

Now with all of this information plugged in, it’s easy for me to use PhotoPills to tell me exactly what time and where I will first start to see the moon rise from my vantage point. I simply scrub through the timeline and as I get past the time of moon rise, I will see a dotted blue line appear on the screen. This tells me that even though the moon is already rising on the horizon, I won’t see it from my vantage point until the dotted line becomes a solid line. This is where PhotoPills is really powerful and I can work out the perfect position and composition for my moon shot.

A Real World Example

Below are some screenshots of my PhotoPills plan for capturing my ‘Moon Silhouettes‘ shot. I have already found my position to shoot the image from as discussed earlier on. My position is 2.1km from the lookout, so with that kind of distance you can see how important accuracy is.

In the first screenshot below, the thick blue line represents the direction of  moon rise from my vantage point. The moon will begin to rise at 7.31pm, but I won’t see it at that point as I am located much lower than the lookout. The black pin is the geodetic pin and is centred on the lookout where the people are standing. As you can see PhotoPills tells me the altitude of the lookout is 179m, and that the difference in height between my vantage point and the lookout is 115m or 3.1 degrees.

The dotted blue line represents the direction of the moon from my vantage point as it rises. When it is dotted, it means that the moon is not visible to me, but the instant it becomes a solid blue line like in the second screen capture at 7.51pm, I will see the moon beginning to rise over the lookout.

Now I worked out by watching the moon rise the day before, that it takes close to 2 minutes from the first moment I see the moon rising behind the lookout, until it is high enough to silhouette the people and give me a good composition. You can see this in the third screen capture at 7.53pm which is the exact moment I took my final Moon Silhouettes photo.

PhotoPills Moon Silhouettes Plan

The PhotoPills plan for ‘Moon Silhouettes’ Click on the image for a larger view.


I never get tired of photographing the sun, moon and stars. It can be challenging and this is where planning plays a big part. I never forget those moments when I finally do nail a shot like Moon Silhouettes. It puts me on a natural high knowing that I’ve successfully captured what I had imagined in my mind. PhotoPills is an invaluable tool which I use every time I plan a shoot, and I have only just shown you a small part of what the app can do for you in your planning.  Go check PhotoPills out on the web and make sure you watch some of their great tutorial videos.

Want to see more from me? You can find my work at and make sure you check out the blog and video of Full Moon Silhouettes while you’re there.


Mark Gee is an award winning photographer & digital visual effects artist based in Wellington, New Zealand. He has worked on many high profile and Oscar award winning feature films, and his love of the New Zealand landscape is a big part of the inspiration for his photography.

Full Moon Silhouettes from Mark Gee on Vimeo.


Japanese travel tv show, Through The Hotel Window, travelled to Wellington, New Zealand to film me attempting to re-create my 2013 Full Moon Silhouettes film for a second time. Fortunately everything went to plan, and I was able to capture the moon rising in front of silhouetted people, all in front of their cameras.

Photographers Moonrise from Mark Gee on Vimeo.

33 Responses to “To the Moon and Back”

  1. Andrew Busch says:

    Very informative!

  2. Great image and thank you so much for the story behind it.

  3. […] Shooting for the moon. Have you seen my Full Moon Silhouettes video? Well it was no stroke of luck that I managed to capture the moon rising behind the lookout with the people silhouetted in front of it. In fact, it took a lot of precise planning and over a year of attempts and failures to get it right. So how did I calculate the moon was going to rise right behind the people like that? Well I had some help from another app. Again, there are a couple of apps out there which will help you with this precise planning – one of them is called The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) . Or if you have an iphone, I can personally recommend an app calledPhotoPills , as it does so much more than just calculating the positioning of the moon. If you are interested, I’ve written a more comprehensive blog of taking you through a real world example ofusing PhotoPills here. […]

  4. John Rumball says:

    Great article Mark! Thank you very much Mark! I used PhotoPills for the first time to attempt to plan my Supermoon shoot this past weekend. I didn’t take time to learn it beforehand, but I will now! I am inspired, thanks to you. 🙂


    • markg says:

      Thanks John, and glad it was helpful to you. PhotoPills is a great app which has saved me a lot of pain trying to work out where I had to shoot from to capture these moon shots. Good luck with capturing that moon!

  5. Chakoo says:

    Great article. I’ve to try PhotoPills.

  6. […] To the Moon and Back – The Art of Night – The Photography of Mark Gee – […]

  7. […] Video realizado por Mark Gee. Los detalles del video aquí. […]

  8. […] of this shoot, I highly recommend my article I wrote called ‘To the Moon and Back’ I use the same techniques and planning as I did with my Full Moon Silhouettes video back in […]

  9. […] you’re concerned about studying the way to shoot this sort of shot your self, take a look at this walkthrough article Gee […]

  10. […] If you’re interested in learning how to shoot this type of shot yourself, check out this walkthrough article Gee […]

  11. […] If you’re interested in learning how to shoot this type of shot yourself, check out this walkthrough article Gee […]

  12. […] Now that Super Moons are a factor, and we see so many moon pictures, a few of us may discovering ourselves a bit jaded. But each as soon as in a whereas a picture will come up and cease even probably the most ambivalent photographer of their tracks. The creativity of the brief movie under made by New Zealand astrophotographer Mark Gee and the way he incorporates his Super Moon picture is fairly superb. Mark invited a few of his native images pals to be a a part of his particular undertaking, “Photographer’s Moonrise” and completely captures not solely the phenomenon of a lovely moon however in a method not seen fairly often. Except perhaps a few years in the past, when Mark launched a tutorial and one other video the place he created a comparable shot. He shares how he captured pictures of silhouettes towards a beautiful rising moon. You can see that submit right here. […]

  13. […] If you’re meddlesome in training how to fire this form of shot yourself, check out this walkthrough article Gee […]

  14. […] you are interested in learning how to shoot the moon, Mark has a great tutorial on the subject, going from gear through composition, camera settings and planning. Mark heavily […]

  15. […] If you’d like to learn how to constraint extraordinary visuals of a moon like these, Gee wrote a highly minute educational about his sharpened technique on his blog. […]

  16. Zoe says:

    Wow, I am so in love with this film. It’s inspirational for a beginner photographer such as myself. So feel-good, yet technically accomplished at the same time. Thanks so much Mark, for telling us more about it. I hope some day I can film something half as good. Will definitely get the app now too.

  17. […] um vídeo semelhante chamado de “Lua, silhuetas ao todo”. Você pode acompanhar os detalhes no site do fotógrafo (em inglês) Confira abaixo o vídeo feito:  Fonte: […]

  18. […] lengthy article about how to shoot a giant moon, and it’s filled with useful tips and insight into how time-consuming finding the right angle […]

  19. Victor Kong says:

    A few of us are trying to do similar shots for 6 to 7 times now but the result image are grainy because we have to use up to 12800 ISO because it is dark and go only 1/2 K away from subject. What ISO and F stop did you use for your Still photo shot? Any suggestion to get a better quality of shot?

    Here is my last shot:


    • markg says:

      Hi Victor, I always expose for the moon and never the foreground. If I want more light in the foreground, I’ll shoot the day before full moon when there is still some light around. Otherwise I just go for silhouettes. For my Moon Silhouettes photo, I shot that with a 1/125 second shutter, with an aperture of f/9 and ISO of 400.

  20. Yasmin Khan says:

    I love it all! You have taken stunning shots.

  21. Luckyshot says:

    What makes me astonished is how fast it raises while people walk normally… how is this possible? I mean if I were a person looking from the lookout I don’t think I would see the moon moving so quick. What an amazing video!

    • markg says:

      Yes that is how fast the moon is rising. It’s far more apparent here as you have a point of reference of the people on the lookout, where as when it’s high in the sky it doesn’t seem to move at all as you have no point of reference. My advice is to go watch a moon rise over the horizon and time how long it takes from when you first see the moon to when the moon just clears the horizon. It’s only a matter of a few minutes 🙂

  22. Sarah Kershaw says:

    Absolutely mind blowing !!! Great video , I have just brought a canon d1300 DSLR camera with a 300mm zoom lense kit! I want to get in tonyaking photos of the moon and sky lines at night .

    Very inspirational .

    I will take your tips in to consideration , thank you for posting all that information .

  23. michael tock says:

    MY problem shooting the moon is that there is no detail of the surface just a big bright ball.. Why? Is it a problem with my light meter?

    • markg says:

      You will need to expose for the surface of the moon. The best way to do this is to use manual exposure settings and expose it with a faster shutter speed until you see detail.

  24. Francois Guay says:

    Awesome info!
    If only there was more people sharing their tricks of the trade…
    Quick question: you are talking about the set up for the shot of the moon rising. Will the same setting and advice work for a setting moon and the sun starting to rise?
    Keep up the great work!

    • markg says:

      Techniques are going to be the same, but the settings as far as your exposure will be different due to the additional light around from the rising sun. But the same applies and that is you still need to expose for the moon so it isn’t blown out in your photo. It’s a good time to photograph the moon as you will have the extra light lighting up any foreground interest, but you will probably also find you wont be able to capture as much detail on the moon surface as you would when it’s dark.

      • Francois Guay says:

        Thx for your reply Mark.
        I did make an attempt last Wednesday during the Supermoon.
        The moon was setting and the sun had not risen yet.
        When exposing for the moon the buildings in the skyline I was putting in the composition were way to dark to be recovered in post. The dynamic range of the camera (even my Sony A7RIII) was not able to register information for both the foreground and the moon.
        Any advice?
        When the moon was higher up, I could have used a grad ND to reduce the exposure for the sky and adjust my setting for the buildings. But when the moon was touching the buildings, I could not get details in the moon and foreground.
        Tricks are welcome!
        Thanks for any help you van send my way!

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