Another Super Moon is upon us and I hear many of you are having a difficult time getting a decent image of it, or any moon shot for that matter. With a few tips, just about anyone can capture a nice shot of the full moon that would make Lon Chaney jealous!
Use the Right Equipment
I won’t say you can’t get a close-up shot of the moon with your point and shoot (P&S) camera but I will tell you it’s going to be very difficult and you probably won’t be happy with the results. The moon is 238,900 miles away, give or take a few feet, so you need to magnify it as much possible. A DSLR with interchangeable lenses is really the best way to shoot the moon, though you can buy adapters that let you mount a P&S camera to a telescope or spotting scope. You need a lens that will zoom to at least 200mm and something in the 300-500mm range is great. And the better the lens, like Canon L Series lenses, the sharper the image. Of course the tradeoff is the cost of pro glass but you can still do just fine with less expensive lenses.
At 200mm the moon won’t be the focal point of your photo but will still show well. Lenses less than 300mm work well if you’re shooting a landscape illuminated by the moon and want it featured in the shot. With a 400mm lens, the moon fills more of the frame and is prominent in your composure. At 800mm and above you’re talking werewolf quality moon presence! Rather than running out and buying an expensive 800mm lens, you can shoot at 400mm and crop the image, or buy a high quality 1.4x or 2x converter to stack with a less powerful lens.
You definitely need a tripod. When zoomed in as tight as required for a moon shot, your photos are much more susceptible to camera shake and vibration. A good tripod will save you a lot of frustration and by “good” I mean strong and sturdy, not one of the flimsy little travel tripods that seem to be so popular. If you’ve got a lightweight model you can increase its stability by hanging some weight, like a milk jug of water or sand, off the center column, or as close to the center of gravity on the tripod as you can, with a bungee cord. Just be sure you don’t put more weight on the tripod than it can safely handle with your camera and lens.
The Best Time to Shoot
Early morning and evening hours, known as the “Golden Hour” is the best time to shoot in daylight but the same can apply to photographing the moon. For a better composition, you want to catch the moon as it rises above the horizon, when you can frame it with other elements like skylines, mountains, and clouds. You can get apps for your Android and iOS mobile devices that will tell you moon stages and when the moon will rise and set, and even what path it will take in relation to your location. I personally use “The Photographer’s Ephemeris” (free for PC) on my laptop, and Google Sky Map and SkEye on my Android phone. There’s also a ton of free moon phase apps for Android and “Moon Phase” for the iPhone/iPad.
How to Capture the “Man In The Moon”
The “Man in the Moon” (lunar pareidolic images of a human face) is what we see from a distance on the moon’s surface because we cannot see the details and nuances of the surface without magnification. In order to get awesome images like we’ve seen on the web, we need to do some work. Because the moon is a bright area on a dark background, using a camera’s automatic settings result in poor focus and exposures and the brightness will wash out the details. Spot metering on your camera will provide the best exposure and tells the camera to correctly expose what’s in the center of the image. It ignores the darkest areas of the photo that fool the light sensor. Manual camera settings are a must for the best image and most control.
You can try the bracketing feature of your camera, which takes a defined number of photos at different exposures, or you can do this manually. Also try setting your exposure under by 2 stops (EV -2) to underexpose the image slightly. Then adjust underexposed images later in a program like Photoshop or the free, open-source GIMP program. Remember, if moon is overexposed you’ll lose detail in blown highlights. You can’t get detail back when the highlights are too bright so you’re better off going a bit underexposed. In fact, when I shoot in daylight, I always have my exposure compensation set to underexpose by 1 stop (EV -1) just to be on the safe side.
It’s best to shoot in manual mode when taking pictures of the moon or the Milky Way. Start with an ISO 100-200, f11 aperture and 1/125 second. Focus manually to infinity but remember most lenses focus past infinity. Make a test shot and examine it zoomed in on your LCD screen to check focus and details. Then adjust the shutter speed until you can find the best exposure for your composition without overexposing the moon. BE SURE TO TURN OFF THE AUTO-FOCUS AND AUTO EXPOSURE! The tricky contrast and scene will fool your camera into the wrong settings and the results will suck. Also, if your camera or lenses have a stabilization feature, YOU MUST TURN IT OFF WHEN SHOOTING FROM A TRIPOD! I know I’m shouting with all caps a lot here but these are the two most important camera settings besides focus. Image stabilization features work by compensating for camera or lens movement and if no movement is present, some cameras will introduce slight vibration as this feature works and it will cause blurriness. Just be sure you turn it back on when you shoot in the day time!
A Note on Focusing to Infinity (and BEYOND!)
Anytime I say “to infinity” I have to follow it with “and beyond!” thanks to Buzz Lightyear. But seriously, most all current lenses that have autofocus capability focus just slightly past infinity. This allows a lens to rack focus back and forth when seeking the correct focus plane in autofocus mode and prevents damage to the focus motor. It is best to focus your lens to its sharpest infinity during the day and then mark the setting on the lens with either a small piece of tape or a white or yellow china marker. You can find glow-in-the-dark tape that works great for this! Then you can easily focus to infinity in low light without having to squint, review test shots or constantly dig for your glasses that I seem to always leave in the truck!
Shooting the moon close to the horizon, or placing it between some trees or other landscape features adds a point of reference and interest to your photos. Although often those features are in silhouette, you can shoot two (or more) images and combine them in your editing program allowing detail in the underexposed area of a scene. You do this by first taking a photo with the moon properly exposed, then, another shot with a slower shutter speed so the rest of the scene is correctly exposed but the moon overexposed. The same rules for composition apply in shooting the moon as they do for anything else. Make it interesting and don’t just place the moon dead center in your frame, unless, of course, you just want a centered close-up of the moon’s surface. Use your imagination and remember, when combining images you can shoot all sorts of subjects from cars to people by combining images.
Post Processing and Editing
If you camera allows it, you should definitely shoot in RAW. No other format allows you such control over an image. Shooting in RAW allows you to manipulate everything in an image except focus and composition. While shooting JPEGs can produce decent results, you’ll be more satisfied with RAW. If you do shoot JPEG make sure the settings in your camera don’t over-process your image. Having the Detail settings on “Portrait” instead of “Landscape” (not all cameras have such features) will result in a slightly softened look to the image. I’d suggest shooting with no such JPEG settings, or at least a minimal sharpening and/or noise reduction, and making all adjustments in your image editing program.
A special thanks to fellow photographer Jamie Strickland who produces some of the best moon shots since NASA, at least from down here!