How to Take Photographs of the Moon
Ever since I was a kid I've had a fascination with the moon, the planets, and with space in general. I grew up when the Apollo moon program was in full swing and remember very well my parents waking me up to watch Neil Armstrong become the first person to walk on the moon. Those were exciting times.
As an adult I still hold this fascination with the moon and the stars, and have always wondered how people captured those stunning pictures of the moon and the planets. Certainly, to photograph the planets you will need something more than your average digital camera, but quality pictures of the moon can be taken if you know how to do it.
When most folks take a picture of the moon they usually point their camera at it and fire away. What they wind up with usually looks like a small white blob. Not exactly what you had in mind is it? If their camera has a zoom they’ll most likely give this a try and wind up with just a bigger white blob. Still not so good. Bigger, but still just a white blob. Because the moon is so bright and the background of space is so dark most initial attempts at photographing the moon come out very overexposed.
Small White Blob
Big White Blob
Next up is usually an attempt at using some of the camera’s auto settings, such as night shot or the fireworks setting.
Unfortunately, the results are no different and you’ll have the same white blob for the moon. Is it time to give up? Don’t despair, with a little know-how and the right equipment you can get quality photographs of the moon similar to this.
Quite a difference! So how do you do it? The first thing to understand is what causes most moon pictures to be so overexposed.
One of the most common mistakes photographers make when first attempting to get lunar shots is underestimating the brightness of the moon. Your camera simply cannot adjust for the contrast between the brightness of the moon and the dark background when set to its auto mode. Your first shots will almost undoubtedly come out overexposed with an ugly bright circle where the moon should have been.
To get pictures without this overexposure you will need to make some adjustments to the settings on your camera.
It helps immensely to have the right equipment when attempting to photograph the moon. A digital SLR or a digital super zoom camera is necessary as in order to get a shot that fills your frame properly you will need at the very least a camera that allows you to zoom in to 200mm (4X digital zoom). A 400mm to 500mm zoom capability will allow you get some really nice close up shots of the moon.
If your lens can accommodate a teleconverter and you have one then use it. A 1.4 teleconverter will increase the focal length of a 200mm lens by 40% to 280mm. I should also mention that you will need a tripod to do this. When you zoom in as much as you’ll be zooming in, your images are much more susceptible to camera shake. A good tripod will save you a lot of frustration and some blurry pictures.
Choosing the correct moon photography settings is critical, and can be one of the hardest things to get right. Because of the variety of shooting conditions, there are no one-size-fits-all camera settings that work in all situations.
Set your camera to its lowest ISO speed, usually 100. Since you are going to be using a tripod anyway then there is no need to boost the ISO speed, just set it to the lowest value possible as this will give you the cleanest picture your camera can give you.
The preferred aperture for moon shots is f/8 but this will also depend on your lens, so a range of say f/5.6 ~ f/16 is OK. You’ll have to play with this to find the right aperture for your camera and the conditions. As a general guideline use an aperture f/11 for a full moon, f/8 for a half moon, and f/5.6 for a quarter moon.
Start with a shutter speed of 1/250 to 1/350 and take some test photos. You may have to adjust the shutter speed depending on the phase of the moon and its brightness. Remember that the moon is moving in the night sky as you are photographing it so using a slower shutter speed increases the chances of a blurry image. Also, remember that the longer you leave the shutter open the more light you are letting in and the chances of overexposure increase.
While our inclination is to leave the camera on auto focus it is best to take your camera off of this setting and switch to manual focus. In the manual focus mode set the camera to the infinite setting.
The best time to photograph the moon is usually just before sunrise or just after sunset. At this time the moon is close to the horizon and the residual light from the setting or rising sun can provide some different colors to the clouds and sky. For those crisp, clear shots of the moon against a deep black background shoot at night well after the sun has set.
August 10, 2014 Super Moon
Next time you get a clear evening and the moon is out grab your camera and give it a try. There is a certain amount of trial and error involved in getting this just right but once you do it can be a very rewarding experience. Good luck and remember, practice makes perfect. Happy shooting.
© 2012 Bill De Giulio