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Picture This: Shoot the Moon

Lunar photography provides its own set of special challenges.

By Earl Nottingham


Throughout the ages, a rising full moon has captivated lovers, poets and artists as the epitome of romance — or a harbinger of evil. Whether or not it’s true that things get crazy during a full moon, it is a certainty that a full moon will draw photographers out (and will often drive them crazy from not getting the photo they envisioned of that luminous orb).

Typically, there are two general categories to fall into when photographing the moon. The first is to simply take a close-up photo of the moon itself — filling the frame and showing the details and texture of the surface. The second (and more of a challenge) is to include the moon as part of an overall landscape photograph that includes terrestrial objects in the foreground.

Let’s start with the first situation when the objective is just to get a good detailed close-up of the moon. Although serious lunar photography is typically done via a camera adapted to a telescope, it is possible to get detailed images with a typical DLSR or mirrorless digital camera. Here are the basic ingredients needed:

  • A clear and dark night sky with full moon
  • Camera with manual exposure settings
  • Tripod
  • Long lens (300-600mm range)
  • Cable release or delayed shutter

One of the biggest disappointments of moon photography is that the moon doesn’t appear as big in the final photograph as was expected. Although a rising moon appears large to the human eye, it still needs quite a bit of magnification to fill a camera frame. Even with a 600mm focal length equivalent lens, you still may need to crop the image. A byproduct of a long lens’s magnification is vibration — hence the need for a tripod and cable release or delayed shutter.

Davis Mountains moon

The moon rises at the Davis Mountains.

Another disappointment comes when trying to properly expose for the moon. What often results is a white blob against a black sky, which usually happens when using automatic or programmed exposure modes on most cameras. The key is to set the shutter speed and f/stop independently. A good rule of thumb and starting point for exposure is to select a shutter speed that is equivalent (or close) to your ISO and then set the aperture to f/11. For example, with an ISO setting of 125 you would set your shutter speed at 1/125th of a second at f/11. With ISO 400 it would be 1/400th at f/11. From those starting points you can vary your exposures on either side of that initial setting (called bracketing). Because of the moon’s intensity, there is really no reason to shoot at high ISOs. A range of ISO 100-200 should be plenty.

Whereas photographing the moon against a black night sky is mostly a technical exercise, photographing it closer to twilight as part of an earthly landscape adds the artistic/romantic components. Whether the foreground includes rivers, trees or mountains, these elements give the viewer the sense of depth and space — as well as a sense of awe.

The ingredients for a good full moon photo in a landscape setting are similar to the previous setup:

  • Camera with manual settings
  • Lens with focal length greater than 100mm
  • Tripod
  • Cable release or delayed shutter

You will notice that the lens length in this situation is not as long as when trying to get a close-up of the moon’s sphere. However, it is a compromise between trying to magnify the moon as much as possible and including as much of the landscape as needed. It is very easy to render a rising moon as just a small dot, especially when using a wide-angle or even a normal focal-length lens. A focal length of 100mm is a good starting point, but longer is better.

The key to a great image with a rising moon is the proper ratio of exposure between the moon’s luminance and that of the landscape it is rising above. The goal is that sweet spot where the moon’s details can be seen as well as those of the surrounding area.

Too often we may get a good exposure of the moon but the land has gone black, yielding only a silhouette. Generally, the day immediately preceding the full moon will give just enough ambient daylight to balance with the luminosity of the rising moon. There are only a few minutes of time to achieve this balance. You may find that on the day of the actual full moon the surroundings have gone too dark relative to the moon. But all is not lost. This is the prime time for shooting urban settings with city lights against the moon.

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For more on TP&W magazine photography, go to our Photography page

 

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