June 22, 2013
A lot of you will have heard of the super moon on Sunday. It’s when the moon appears larger in the night sky because it’s actually closer to Earth than normal. This particular super moon is the best of the three super moon events of 2013, because it will be closer than the other two. People will be seeing links to this in their social networks and news they look at. There will be many nice pictures of the moon to look at. At some point, if you do a bit of photography already, you’ll think about taking a picture of the moon yourself.
Unlike other night sky subjects, the moon and planets don’t require tracking to take pictures of them. This is because the sunlight is reflected so brightly off of them that you’ll be using a fast shutter speed to fight through the glare to get any detail of their surface. Unlike the planets, when you’re photographing the moon you won’t need the magnifying power of a telescope to see surface detail. You can see a lot of detail with just a pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens. Also, unlike the planets, you can take a picture of the moon during the daytime. Your best choice of camera is a DSLR. There are also good point-and-shoot cameras, but a lot of them don’t process light as well as a DSLR, so they’re not the best choice for night shoots.
The most important thing is not to use automatic camera settings when taking a picture of the moon! If you shoot on automatic camera settings, your camera will look at the dark night sky and assume it has to open up the shutter for longer. The result is a picture of a bright, white blob. Another important thing is to ensure you charged your battery before you head out and carry an extra one if you have it. It’s never fun to show up somewhere to do photography with dead batteries.
If you know how to change your camera’s metering, change it from evaluative metering (default on most DSLR’s) to spot metering. That way when you do your metering, it will be based on the moon and not the entire sky. If you don’t know anything about metering you can still take a decent shot.
I like to use my lowest ISO; ISO 100 in the case of my camera. A higher ISO will give it a grainy look and while the moon does move, it’s not moving fast enough relative to the movement of the Earth and the shutter speed I’ll be using to make me want to use a higher ISO factor. Depending on cloud cover (or pollution) and what phase the moon is in, you’ll want to use a shutter speed somewhere between 1/60 and 1/300 of a second. 1/125 is a good shutter speed to start shooting a full moon. If it’s your first or fifth time out taking pictures of the moon, I recommend you take multiple pictures at different shutter speeds to find out what works best in the conditions you’re shooting in, and what balance between detail and lighting you like best as a photographer. You’ve taken the time to go out and take pictures of the moon, so why not take a few and use it as an opportunity to learn more about how your camera works? For your depth of field, it depends on your composition. If you’re just shooting the moon against the night sky, F11 will work fine. If you’re shooting the moon as it rises over a hill, you might want to shoot at F16 to get more detail of the hill (which means you need lower your shutter speed to compensate for closing the lens). If you lower your depth of field number too much, one part of the moon will be in good focus and the rest blurry (plus you’ll need to increase your shutter speed to keep the light from being too bright). If you put it up too high, it will require you to drastically lower your shutter speed to the point where you need a tracking mount to keep the moon’s motion from affecting your picture. F11 is generally where you want to set your depth of field for lunar photography.
For lunar photography, if you want any surface details without having to over-crop in post-production, you’re going to need at least a 300mm lens. Bigger is really better in this case. When you crop an image in post-production, you’re losing the pixel resolution you paid for. However, if you’re using a telescope as a lens, this is one time that bigger might not be better. This is because once you get to around 2000mm (8”) of aperture you can’t see the entire moon in the picture anymore without ‘dumbing’ down your aperture with a focal reducer. Something more like the 102mm (4″) BK 1025 refractor would work fine. In short, you don’t need a big telescope to look at the moon. You could also use a digital camera adapter or adapter to connect your camera to a spotting scope. Again, with the moon, you won’t need anything with tracking to keep it in focus while you shoot because of the high shutter speeds you’ll be using.
Getting perfect focus can be difficult when you’re squinting through the viewer at distant objects at night, be it city lights or objects in the night sky. If your camera has a “Live View” or equivalent function, where you can view your subject on a screen in real time, you can use the “+” buttons to magnify details and get a much cleaner focus. Always focus manually, or the camera will focus on whatever it wants and not what you want.
If you want a good picture you should always shoot with a tripod and remote trigger (or timer). If you feel that hauling a huge tripod is too much of a chore, there are some very small, portable tripods out there that work well for this type of photography. Anytime your shutter speed is slower than 1/mm of your lens you shouldn’t be doing handheld photography. When you use a tripod, always remember to turn off the stabilizer on your lens (if it has one). If it’s on when the camera is perfectly still, the lens will introduce artificial shaking because it just assumes you’re using it handheld if it’s on and you couldn’t possibly be holding it that steady. Timers are acceptable, although the button mashing will mean that for a few seconds, depending on how sturdy your tripod is, the tripod will be still shaking. You should be fine if you wait ten seconds, but if there are clouds moving around the moon and you have everything timed perfectly, a remote shutter trigger is always the best option for photography (unless you’re wanting the time delay to give you a chance to get into the shot). Use a remote trigger and tripod to get the least vibrations. If there are people walking around the tripod or you’re next to a busy road, you might also want to put vibration suppression pads under the legs of your tripod. This is even more important for longer duration exposure night shots. If you get caught without a tripod and remote trigger, in a pinch you can crumple up a jacket to form a supportive nest around your camera and use the timer. It’s probably best not to ask for someone else’s coat though, if you want to be well thought of. You’re the one who forgot the tripod.
A lot of people forget about composition when they photograph the moon. If you’re shooting it between the branches of a prominent tree or as it rises over a majestic hill, it can really add to the shot. Sometimes it’s just being in the right place at the right time. If you want the perfect shot though, you may want to carefully observe the movements of the moon across the night sky a few nights in advance and then wait for it to get into position on picture day. Another option is to use planetarium software and a compass to plan your shot location well in advance. A fun thing to do is to have a model (friends are less expensive) interact with the moon – such as pretending to hold it in their hand, balance it on their head, or any other pose you can think of.
Another technique to consider is paint the foreground with a flashlight or a detachable flash. Because the moon is so bright compared to the dark ground, this extra light will help to provide some detail to the ground so that it appears to be more than just a dark shape. Practice this technique beforehand, especially if you don’t have a lot of time when you’re doing your photograph of the moon.
If you really want to get fancy, take two photographs, one of the moon and one of the foreground, and then combine them in post-production. Or do what some astrophotographers do: take a series of pictures and use software to stack them into a single image.
Most importantly, while you’re out there taking pictures of the moon, don’t forget to take a moment and have a long look at it. It’s an amazing feature in our night sky that is often taken for granted.