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The Basics Of Mesmerising Moon Photography

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Read Time: 6 min

Moon photography can be one of the most fun, yet one of the most aggravating, projects to tackle. You've probably seen those gorgeous photos on calendars, wall posters and all over the web. The moon, full as can be, hovering over a wonderful landscape. While some of them are put together in Photoshop, most you will find are real photos.

If you are endeavoring to take your own photos of the moon and are looking for a little help in getting started, this article will shed some light on the mysteries of moon photography and help jump start your efforts.

Moon Phases

It is important to know the phases of the moon to understand what you're photographing. This may be elementary to some, but I want to make sure the basics are covered. In short, the moon goes through its phases based on where it is in the Earth's orbit compared to where the sun is. The diagram on Moon Connection does an excellent job of showing us how the moon appears at different points in its orbit.

moon photographymoon photographymoon photography

Copyright Luis Argerich

Timing Is Everything

Lucky for you, the moon keeps a very regular schedule. And that schedule is available online as well as in the sky. I would first suggest getting accustomed to the moon's cycle by observing it for a month. Use the link above, or others, to learn which phase the moon is currently in. Then find out when the moon is going to rise and set for your location on the planet by using a tool such as Time and Date

Armed with that data, which phase the moon is currently in, and when it will rise and set, you can now start planning your moon photo shoot.

moon photographymoon photographymoon photography

Copyright Peter West Carey Photography

Get It Early

Let's start with one of the more popular moon phases; full. Full moons have been mesmerizing humankind for millennia. But how best to capture it? If you have ever taken a photo of the full moon when it is directly overhead some time in the middle of the night, without a zoom lens, you have probably been frustrated with your results.

The reason is, while our human eyes do a wonderful job of adapting to the difference in brightness between the light reflected off the moon and the apparent darkness of space against which is sits, our digital cameras are far more limited.

moon photographymoon photographymoon photography

Copyright Chuck Coker

To humans, the moon does not look too terribly bright. But think about it; that big ball up there, even while it has a mainly gray dust covering, reflects a lot of light from the sun. So much so, that when our cameras try to adjust the exposure to make the black background brighter, the moon turns into a big white dot. It is like taking a photo of a lightbulb at times. And that is not a half bad analogy.

So what is there to be done? Your best bet is to catch the full moon when it is rising. The moon is fullest when it is in balance with the sun, meaning the moon will rise approximately at the same time the sun is setting. Which is actually perfect for photography if you understand the Golden Hour principle.

moon photographymoon photographymoon photography

Copyright Tambako The Jaguar

However, there may be obstacle in your way of viewing the moon directly at the time the Internet has told you it will rise; buildings, mountains, trees. Any of these things will delay your viewing. In this case, it is best to get your shot of the moon the day before it is full. This way the sunlight in the foreground will be more evenly matched with the intensity of the sun reflected off the moon.

Crescent moons are a different story. They will, by nature, come up either in the dark or during the day. Again, the calculator is your friend. You will still have some of the same lighting problems with night photos of a crescent moon as a full moon, if shooting at night. Even that little sliver reflects a lot of light. It is best to get crescent moon shots during the day when a variety of foreground objects can add a sense of place to the photo (explained in a bit).

moon photographymoon photographymoon photography

Copyright Alan L

Proper Exposure

Exposing for the moon can be a bit tricky. First, start with the lowest ISO your camera can handle. Then, if you have spot metering, use it! Aim the spot to cover the moon as much as possible for an accurate reading.

If you lack spot metering, expose as if on a sunny day. The moon might not look very bright to you (or maybe it does if it's pitch black outside) but remember; your eyes and brain do a much better job of exposure control than your camera does.

If you are not going to be capturing many foreground objects, an aperture setting around f/4 will work, otherwise you are going to want us something closer to f/11 or f/16.

With your aperture set to take advantage of the whole scene, you may find it necessary to use a tripod. As a matter of fact, you are probably going to want to start with one. With the ISO low to cut noise, the aperture small to get depth of field and your lens zoomed out to at least 100mm, you are safest when using a tripod.

While hand holding a camera will work for full daylight photos (such as the second photo in this post), anything less than full day light will benefit from the use of a tripod.

Zoom In

Most point and shoot cameras are not up to the task of getting great moon photos because it is often imperative that a close zoom be used. Our eyes play tricks on us at times, and moon viewing is a prime example.

The human is roughly equivalent to a 50mm lens on a full frame sensor camera. A lot of point and shoot cameras start far back from that, around 30mm or so. This is why the moon often appears as a small speck in many photos.

moon photographymoon photographymoon photography

Copyright Peter West Carey Photography

To get to the moon, so to speak, you need to zoom in. Start with at least a 100mm zoom and keep going longer if you can. Lenses such as Canon's 100-400mm L and Nikon's 200-400mm are very handy for moon photography.

Those will get you in close to help the moon fill more of the frame. The image above was taken by me at 300mm with a full frame Canon 5D and then cropped to fit. But the moon alone is a boring subject after a few photos. And that is why you'll want to...

Bring In Other Elements

If you are shooting the full moon, or even a crescent or half, bring in something to the picture to spice it up. A shot of the moon itself is impressive but only so many shots are needed before they become boring and all the same.

Shoot the moon rising over various objects; mountains, the sea, cities. Shoot it hiding between branches of a tree or reflected in building windows or the glass smooth surface of a lake.

moon photographymoon photographymoon photographyCopyright Luz A. Villa

Have Fun!

As is the case with any new experimentation in photography, have fun. Play around with different times of day and lenses. Bring in people and props. And if does not work out one night, you are in luck! The moon will be with us for a long time to come.

moon photographymoon photographymoon photography

Copyright lambda_X

Preview photo Copyright Mike Baird

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