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Just like werewolves, the tides, and the U.S. government in the 60’s, photographers have often been obsessed with the moon. Being such a dominant body in the night sky, it is only common sense that we would want to figure out the best ways to get the perfect moon image onto our sensors or film. That being said, throughout this article I will give you some tips and tricks on how to photograph the moon for yourself. First I’ll outline a few ideas about using the moon as an addition to an image (not necessarily part of the main picture). Then I’ll give you some tips on how to capture it with just a camera and a tripod. Next I’ll talk about attaching a camera to a telescope, and finally I'll give you a couple ideas to get you started.
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The Moon as a Secondary Subject
I know you are all excited to get into the nitty gritty about detailed moon shots, but first you should think about adding the moon into some nightscapes. When you are taking wide angle shots at night, you are going to be much too wide to get any detail in the moon itself, but that does not mean you should ignore its impact completely.
One thing you can do is make your nightscape image as you would normally (often consisting of a long exposure) and let the moon overexpose in an upper corner. Similarly, to give a bit of punch to your image you can stop all the way down (high f/stop number) and give that moon a starburst look. What to take away here is that, even though the moon may be a minor detail in your image, don’t hesitate to allow it to give a bit of punch to your photo.
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The Moon as a Primary Subject
The minimum equipment that you will need is a camera and a tripod to get great moon shots. Preferably you should have a long lens to get up nice and close. In most cases, even when using a 200mm+ lens, you will still have to crop your image down for an image solely of the moon. A tripod is essential to reduce camera shake and get the most detailed image possible.
When we first try to figure out how to photograph the moon, we are usually surprised. Moon photography is usually (and rightly so) associated with night photography, which is often associated with longer shutter speeds. No. The first thing to realize is that the moon is really bright. So if you are planning on photographing the moon as the primary subject you will actually need a fairly fast shutter speed. Similarly, the moon is moving in the sky (well, the earth is rotating, but I digress) and if a longer shutter speed is used it may have moved, thereby blurring the image. Finally, despite using a sturdy tripod (you are using a tripod, right?) there is always going to be the possibility of a little bit of shake. Putting it all together I would suggest a starting shutter speed of 1/200s or 1/250s given an aperture of f/8 or f/11. You can work from there and see what seems to be best for your current environment and set up.
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The next trick with getting a great moon image is detail. Admit it: when you want to hit up the moon for some great photography you are thinking getting razor-sharp detail of impact craters and the moon's “seas.” The first tip is to use a cable release (or the 2 second timer) when snapping off the shot. This reduces any vibrations you may incur with the pressing of the button. Also, if your camera has it, use the mirror lock-up function to further reduce vibrations. Since you are already on a tripod you may be able to get away with using your camera’s autofocus function. If you are lucky enough to have a camera with a live view function, you are going to want to go with manual focus on this one. Bring up the live view, digitally zoom in to the moon as far as you can go, then tweak your focus manually in order to get the best possible focus, and fire away!
Taking your moon photography to the next level may not be for everyone but it sure can be rewarding. If you have, or have access to a telescope, you can get phenomenal detail in your images. You first need to get your camera connected to the telescope. To do this, you often need to use a T-mount and/or T-ring for your camera (check with your local camera/astronomy dealer or the web to find out what works for you) and the telescope becomes your camera’s lens. Follow the same procedures as above to get even closer shots of the moon. Depending on the size of your telescope available you may be able to fit the whole moon into the frame or even just a corner. If you really want a big image you can stitch together multiple frames from these telescope images and get even more detail in a full moon shot. The image to the right was taken by stitching 25 images from a Canon 450d attached to a 16in Meade telescope. The large full version can be seen on Flickr here.
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Ideas and Conclusions
Here are just a few more interesting ideas to consider when taking moon shots or including a moon in your shot.
- You can make an image of the moon close to the horizon with a silhouette of an object in the foreground.
- Try shooting the moon when there is only a sliver of it visible.
- Take a longer exposure shot and you will see the dark part of the moon (lit up through earthshine) and blow out the portion lit by the sun.
- Merge multiple exposures of a lunar eclipse.
- Put the moon and the sun in the same shot.
If you have your own creative or interesting ideas on how to photograph the moon, put them in the comments below!
Just remember the basic rules of photographing the moon: Do not use long shutter speeds, make your camera as sturdy as possible, and get as close as possible.
Credits: All images by the author.
How to Take Pictures of the Moon
In this series you will find articles to satisfy your creative night photography needs. You will learn tips, tricks, and ideas on how to photograph the moon. You will learn the ins and outs of taking pictures of constellations. Finally, you will learn how to photograph satellites.