Sep 22 2009

Shooting the Moon: A Quick Guide for Photographers

What photographer hasn’t wanted to shoot the moon at some point in his (or her) career? Yet how often do the results disappoint? More often than not, if my experience is any guide. I don’t blame myself, however. Photographing the moon is tricky. For one thing, she’s much brighter than you might think—bright enough to throw off some cameras’ exposure meters. Deciding on ISO and focal length is fraught, too. Choose badly, and the moon will appear as little more than a bright dot. Or—the other extreme—she might be an immense, featureless blob.

But don’t give up. Digital cameras make it cheap and easy to experiment, and practice definitely makes perfect. Let’s begin at the beginning, with…

Sensitivity Settings. If you set your camera’s ISO (aka Exposure Index) as low as it will go—generally in the 100-200 range for digital cameras—the resulting images will be sharper and less likely to be plagued by “noise,” a particular problem in the darker areas of a scene. Here’s a typical noisy shot:

Noisy Moon

This is a one-to-one reproduction of the rising moon, shot shortly after dusk, cropped from the original picture. I hand-held my point-and-shoot Canon PowerShot A550, racking the lens out to its maximum extent and then making use of the digital zoom for an extreme telephoto effect. The sky was a deep cerulean blue, but that’s not how it looks here, is it? The combination of high ISO (400, in this instance) and digital zoom conspired to muddy the heavens.

The moral of the story? Don’t try to push your lens beyond its limits. Digital zoom is a snare and a delusion. Which brings us to a discussion of…

Cameras and Lenses. Inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras can take good photos of the moon. You’ll do better with a digital SLR and a sharp telephoto, but if a point-and-shoot camera is what you’ve got, there’s no reason not to make the most of it. Here’s a second look at the moon shot you saw above. Now, however, it’s been reduced to fit the webpage. I also spent a little time in the digital darkroom to bring out its best qualities.

Orange Moon

That’s better, isn’t it? And it’s a pretty faithful rendering of what I saw at the time, too.

Next, let’s look at another photographer’s work:

Moon at Dusk

Writer and kayaker Bob Angel hand-held a point-and-shoot camera to make this photo of the moon rising over Lake Monticello, South Carolina. It would be a good shot anywhere and anytime, but for a shot made at dusk—and from a drifting kayak, no less!—it’s great.

Of course, you don’t have to wait for the sun to go down to shoot the moon. You can also make…

Moon Shots During the Day. But you have to know where to find her (I recommend the free planetarium software Stellarium), and you have to look sharp. Nor can you expect to be successful every time. The sun will always outshine the moon, so if they’re too close together in the heavens, you’re simply out of luck. When you do strike lucky, though, consider using a polarizing filter to deepen the color of the sky and reveal some of the fine detail of the moon’s surface. Here’s a shot of the waxing moon, high in the sky on a February afternoon:

Moon at Midafternoon

It was taken with my digital SLR and a 200 mm telephoto. A polarizer darkened the sky and helped to bring out the moon’s topography. Forgot your polarizer? Well, don’t give up yet. Sometimes you can achieve the same result in the digital darkroom, simply by diminishing the brightness of the photo and increasing its contrast.

Another way to improve your odds with moon shots is to bracket your exposures. Choose Manual mode on your camera, select the shutter speed you want, and then ring the changes with aperture so that you underexpose and overexpose in half-stop intervals till you have shots ranging from +1.5 EV to -1.5 EV. Later, when you’ve downloaded the pictures to your computer, just pick the photo that looks best. Here’s a shot of the rising moon, taken late in a July evening:

Moon at Dusk

It, too, was taken with my digital SLR and telephoto. This time, though, I left the polarizer off, and I underexposed one full stop (-1.0 EV). I also hand-held the camera. The picture needed no post-processing except cropping.

What about…

Moon Shots at Night? Can you shoot them without a tripod? Yes, you can. This shot was made later in the same evening as the last photo:

Moon at Night

And the only digital darkroom magic I needed was a (very) slight sharpening and a one-to-one crop—the latter for purposes of Web display only. As before, I underexposed so that the gibbous moon’s brilliance wouldn’t overwhelm the sensor and wash out all the surface detail. Would I have gotten such a good result had I not used Manual mode? See for yourself:

Moon at Night

This shot was made on another day, using my point-and-shoot camera in Auto mode. The color is good, but the image is a constellation of blurs.

And what’s the cure for this disease?

Keep Her Steady as She Goes! In other words, use a tripod, employ a cable release or remote shutter release (or self-timer), and lock the mirror up (SLRs only). Long exposures magnify the slightest tremor. Do anything you can to kill the shake.

But that may not be enough in itself. The problem? When you shoot the moon, you’re shooting a moving target. Take a look at this:

Moon Doubled

Yes, the shot is overexposed. I was using the Bulb setting to yield a long exposure. And damned if the moon didn’t move on me! But that wasn’t the only problem. I also forgot to cover the viewfinder—my cupped hand would have done the trick—and this allowed enough moonlight to trickle into the camera body to produce the doppelgänger you see in the photo above.

Now here’s another illustration of motion-induced blur. In this shot, I stopped down the aperture and attempted a long exposure, hoping to capture a nearby star in the frame. But this was what I got:

Moon Blurred

A rather blurry image of the moon. And I didn’t get the star I wanted, either. In fact, I had the worst of both worlds: My exposure was long enough to blur the moon, but too short to reveal the nearby star. A lose, lose scenario, in other words.

Of course, blur isn’t the only way to spoil a moon shot. There’s also lens flare. At least the cure is simple. Just center the moon in your viewfinder. This doesn’t guarantee that you’ll avoid flare altogether, but it certainly improves the odds. And what happens if you don’t center? Here’s an example, cropped to fit the webpage:

Moon and Lens Flare

What did I tell you? While the colors are interesting, this isn’t the shot I wanted.The photo would have been much better without the pink and green drapery.

A final word, now, on the subject of…

Focal Length. Your choice of lens affects what your camera sees. And your camera’s “normal lens” (about 35 mm for most digital SLRs) is almost certain to disappoint when shooting the moon. Fortunately, a long telephoto lens brings the moon closer, so it’s the center of attention, just as you want it to be. But a short focal length wide-angle goes the other way, pushing the moon far into the background, until she almost disappears. Can you see her in the photo below?

Moon in Upper Corner

Give up? She’s in the upper right-hand corner. The photo was shot in late morning, using my point-and-shoot. The moon was not the subject. Good thing, too.

OK. That’s enough. Fall is in the air, and there’s no better time to begin shooting the moon. Happy hunting!

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