How to take photographs of the moon

Photographing the Moon

The moon is a difficult subject to shoot for ones new to photography, but when you get a good shot of the moon, it would automatically find a place in your “best photos” folder. Most of our (meaning: amateurs) first shots of the moon would look like the one below, with a small white fuzzy mass in the middle of huge black space. Welcome to the club!

My First Moon Shot

First, lets try to analyse why we get such a photograph. Moon is far away, really far away. So, to get a full-frame picture, rather than a dot in the middle, we need a good zoom (optical zoom for regular digital cameras(DCs) or a good telephoto lens for SLRs).A tripod is a must if you are shooting the moon at night, though you can get away with a hand held shot if you are shooting at dawn/dusk or if you are using those $$$ lenses with VR(Vibration reduction). When you shoot at night, the camera “sees” lot of black with a small white section in the middle. So, the camera feels that there is lot of “darkness” in the picture and it needs to over-expose the picture to get the correct exposure. So, if we don’t compensate, we would end up with a highly over-exposed white disc in the centre.

So, what do you need to have to get a decent shot of the moon?

  • A tripod (if not, a very steady hand)
  • Good Optical Zoom >=10x(DCs) (Check that the mm specs goes into the telephoto range)
  • Telephoto Lens >=300mm (SLRs) (If you have VR, great. If you have a VR lens, keep VR switched off if you are using a tripod)
  • a clear sky (You can’t do much about this!)
  • Preferably, a camera with at least 4 mega pixels (The more the mega pixels, more the detail and hence the more you can crop the image)

What is the best time to take a photo of the moon?

The best time is dawn, when the moon is still visible and there is sunlight too. Since there is ample light, the issue of the camera compensating for the darkness doesn’t arise and all you have to do is put on auto mode, point the camera at the moon and click, that’s it. You don’t even need a tripod at this time because you can get a decent shot at relatively fast shutter speeds. Of course, if you are not satisfied with the blue background and need a black one, you have to take the photo at night. Then, a tripod is a must. Also, an auto-mode shot won’t work. I shall explain below as to what should be done.

Photograph of the Moon Photograph of the Moon

The one on the left was taken early in the morning while the one on the right was taken on a full moon night. Contrary to what I have said, I didn’t use a tripod for both the shots above. No, i neither have super-steady hands nor the $$$ VR lens, but i do try lot of times before i decide that the shot is ok.

If you have a SLR and a decent telephoto lens (>=300), do the following:

  • Many would advice to go into manual mode (i.e. you set the aperture and the shutter speed), but i have always been in “P” mode and have got decent results.
  • Zoom to the maximum possible on your lens. (Most of the low/medium priced lenses become quite soft at the extreme).
  • Manually Focus to a fraction before infinity
  • Use Spot metering
  • Try to meter on one of the craters (black spots) on the moon.
  • Click the shutter-release button to take the photo :-)
  • You should end up with a over-exposed moon. If you don’t see a circular shape, better use a tripod. Even after using a tripod, you see a non-circular shape, either you are pressing too hard on the shutter-release button (use a remote or self-timer) or you are in a very seismic zone
  • Now starts the trial and error process. Use the exposure-compensation button on your camera (looks like +/- ) and reduce the exposure (the amt depends on the minimum which you can camera supports). Again click. If it is still overexposed, reduce more.Finally, you should end up with a beautiful moon with all its craters clearly visible.
  • That is why experts would advice using the manual mode. But, we are avoiding it by taking lot of shots by trying to override the exposure/shutter speed combination which the camera suggests in “P” mode.

I hope that this “tutorial” was useful. Feel free to suggest changes and i would love to see your attempts too. Enjoy!

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