Let’s confess. We are all guilty of being enchanted by those millions of shimmering celestial objects, up in the night sky. Moon being the closest, gets most of our attention. Countless stories and images of the moon have struck human imagination since time immemorial. Especially around the full moon.
I am sure, you all have tried to photograph this white beauty at some time, or the other. And would like to take that skill a notch higher. I will share a step-by-step process on how to photograph the moon with a DSLR camera so that you don’t miss that stunning shot next time.
Before photographing the moon, It helps to understand it’s cycle and different phases. Moon is on an elliptical orbit around the Earth, so at some points during the month, it a tad closer to us than usual. The duration between two new moons is 29.5 days, and it is about 238,000 miles away from us. We always see the same side of the moon, due to its synchronous rotation with our planet.
Be sure to check out the weather before starting out. Look out for clear skies. But if you want that dramatic moon shot in between clouds, then go for it. Colder nights with low humidity gives best results.
Find a remote place, if you can, away from city pollution and lights. An elevated place also helps. Slimmer the atmosphere between you and the moon, sharper the image.
When the moon is closer to the horizon (moon rise or moon set), we may not get the sharpest picture. Because close to horizon, light gets refracted as it passes through a larger slice of atmospheric layers. Better results can be achieved when the moon is high up in the sky.
There are many apps available to help track moon phases and timings. For iOS users, there is an app called Photopill. Android users have ‘Photographers Ephemeris’ app. Whatever location you choose for the shoot, reach there before time, scout it well, so that you get time to set up your gear, and experiment with different compositions.
Longer focal length is essential to fill the frame with the moon. A long telephoto lens like the kit 70-300 mm or the 55-300 mm is a good place to start.
Any camera body will do the job. Preferably a crop sensor, as the crop factor will help to increase the equivalent focal length by 1.5 times (if Nikon/Sony) or 1.6 times (if Canon). Additional teleconverters (like 1.4x) can be used to further increase zooming capabilities.
With long focal lengths and not-so-high shutter speeds, camera shake is inevitable. So a sturdy tripod goes a long way to get that crisp shot.
A cable release can be used to further reduce camera shake, but that’s optional. Carrying a flashlight will be helpful, while you fiddle around with camera settings in the dark. Don’t use any filters on your lens.
Let’s see what settings work best.
When shooting in auto mode or any of the semi-automatic modes, together with metering mode as matrix/center weighted, the moon will seem like a white blob in the entire frame. As matrix metering will try to expose correctly for the entire scene, which is mostly dark. Thus It will end up overexposing the moon.
Better to take control of a situation like this, and switch to manual mode. Set the aperture to f/8 and ISO as low as possible. Begin with shutter speed 1/125. If exposure needs correction, adjust the shutter speed.
Use the self-timer mode, If you are on a tripod, and not using a cable release. The aim is to not touch the camera, while it is taking the exposure. You may also lock the mirror up and avoid camera shake during shutter release.
Shoot in RAW, as no matter how accurate your settings are, you will need to bump up the clarity and sharpness in post.
2. Focal length
Your desired composition will decide the focal length. If you want to take pictures of the moon along with a foreground element, you need a wider angle. Moon will look smaller in the frame, in that case. To fill the frame, zoom in max. You may crop in later to get a tighter composition.
A rather expensive option would be to use 400 mm or 600 mm lenses. Astronomical telescopes can be used as well, with a camera mount.
3. Focusing mode
Try autofocusing on the moon, if its bright enough with no clouds around. But for most cases, switch to manual focus, and turn the focus ring all the way to focus at infinity. Shooting with live view ON will help to get instant feedback.
If you are zoomed in tight, and the moon is filling the frame, try spot metering, first. For all other framing options, don’t trust the camera meter. It will overexpose the moon as discussed earlier.
Looney 11 rule
This is a method to estimate the exposure for lunar photography. set the aperture to f/11. set the ISO to base ISO of your camera. Set shutter speed to 1/ISO. For example, if your base ISO is 100 then set the shutter speed as 1/100. This is a good starting point, adjust shutter speed to correct the exposure if required.
5. White Balance
Moonlight is nothing but reflected sunlight, so yes, daylight white balance is safe to stick with. But, experiment with other color temperatures as well, get creative with various tones.
Experiment with different framing options. Place the moon off center. Place it along with interesting foreground elements. Get that reflection in the water. Plan and shoot other moon phases (gibbous, quarter and crescent) as well. They all look super cool.
If you are placing a foreground element (cityscape or landscape) along with the moon, It is impossible to get both of them properly exposed and sharp, in one exposure. Single exposure will always result into a silhouetted foreground, as we expose for the moon.
To have everything in the frame adequately exposed, you have to take multiple bracketed shots. Expose correctly for the foreground in one shot, then expose for the moon in the next shot. Blend those different exposures in Photoshop using exposure blending, and get the desired result.
David Peterson explains exposure blending in this cool video.
For shooting on colder nights, don’t forget to acclimatize your camera first. Leave the camera in your camera bag for some time, when you move from a warmer area (house or car) into a cooler environment (outdoors). Don’t take it out of the bag at once. Let the camera stay in the bag for 5 to 10 mins.
This will allow the camera to gradually adapt to its surrounding temperature without the risk of condensation. You don’t want foggy lenses on a moonlit night, or otherwise. Do the same when getting back to a warmer zone after shooting. Let the camera sit in your bag for a while.
Add to your calendar
Plan the next night out. Need not be a full moon. All moon phases make interesting pictures. Try out creative compositions. Take different exposures, blend them in. Add the moon to other photos. Don’t miss that next lunar eclipse, it’s a different challenge. De-saturate the color, create a stunning black and white lunar landscape photo.
Share your tips to photograph the moon. Please leave your comments and thoughts below.