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How to Photograph the Moon – 6 Tips

Author: Collaborator - Printique by Adorama

It’s a full moon and that means lots of shutterbugs and stargazers are heading outside to capture the astrological delight.

While you can see this spectacular astronomical event with the unaided eye, a pair of good binoculars or a small telescope, it should be noted that a full, super-bright moon isn’t really the best time to see the surface features. The sun’s full-on shine on the moon’s surface obscures much of the details; for astronomical observations, better to wait for all the other nightly lunar phases and train your binoculars on the line between bright and shadow. That’s when you can see mountains and valleys in topographical relief.

Beyond observing, amateur photographers will want to record the momentous event. So here are six tips for capturing it on your camera’s sensor.

1. Focal Length

Use the longest focal-length lens you own or can borrow. If you have the kit zoom that came with your camera, a 55-100 or a 50-150 or thereabouts, zoom out to the 100 or 150 end. The fabulous images you see of a gigantic moon over the skyline or the prairie were probably made with 200 to 500 or longer focal-length lenses. (Unless the moon was inserted and superimposed on a night shot with Photoshop.)

2. Focus Mode

Shoot in manual focus mode. The moon will be more than 216,000 miles from your camera and that’s way far enough to set the focus dial to infinity. If you’re including foreground detail (see Tip #4) you can back off infinity just a little, assuming you’re using a small aperture setting, like f-16. If you have an aperture ring on your lens (many don’t), set the infinity focus point to the right-most aperture setting, like f-11 or f-16 or smaller, and that will keep your foreground in focus. If you must use a wide aperture, like 2.8, 4, or 5.6, just focus on the moon at infinity; though beware, your “foreground” objects will need to be pretty far away, like a mountain or cityscape, otherwise they’ll be a little soft (not sharp).

3. Exposure

Expose for the moon. Don’t stay on Matrix Metering, which tries to algorithmically balance all shades of lightness and darkness to provide an average exposure. If you stay on Matrix, all the sky’s blackness will fool the meter and overexpose the moon’s surface. Use spot metering and point the focus point directly at the moon. You want to expose for the incredibly bright moon that’s reflecting back totally unfiltered sunlight. I suggest that once you’ve gotten the correct spot-metered exposure for the moon’s surface, switch to manual exposure so the setting won’t automatically change when you recompose to put the moon where you want it in the frame.

4. Context

I don’t think a picture of just the moon will do. Void of context, the moon’s size really won’t be apparent. The moon rises in the New York area at 5:14 p.m. and sets at 6:26 a.m. the next morning. Those two times won’t be the darkest times of the night, obviously, but try to strike a timely balance between darkness and low-in-the-sky moon so that you can include recognizable foregrounds, like a city skyline, mountain range, your own house or leading lines of a road or highway that draw the eye to the moon. The foreground will provide a sense of place and, importantly, a sense of scale.

If your foreground is close enough, try a burst of your flash to throw some light on that part of the image. Experiment. Look at the pictures on the back of your camera as you shoot, and bracket your exposures.

5. Use a Tripod

If you use a low ISO, like 100 to 400, and if that and a relatively small aperture force a slower shutter speed, use a good tripod. For sharpness sake, you should use a tripod for all astrophotography.

6. Timing

Shoot quickly. The moon is moving, the sun is moving and the earth is moving. The higher the orb climbs in the sky the harder it will be to include other interesting, place-setting elements in the frame.

If you get some great shots, don’t just upload them to social media. Make some prints, create greeting cards, make a poster,  frame the best one for your kid’s room or think of friends or relatives who’d like a metal-printed version of your moon captures. For more photography ideas or tips for creating products such as metal prints, click here.

By John O’Connell