Thursday, July 31, 2014

Guest Post: How to Shoot the Moon

These days we hear the term "Super Moon" all over the place. What does this mean? To me it is a great opportunity to get a good photograph of the moon. Scientifically in astronomy it is called a perigean full moon,that is, a full moon closely coinciding with perigee – the moon’s closest point to Earth in its orbit. The Moon follows an elliptical path around Earth with one side ("perigee") about 50,000 km closer than the other ("apogee").  Full Moons that occur on the perigee side of the Moon's orbit seem extra big and bright. On August 10th it becomes full during the same hour as perigee— making it an extra-super Moon.

Everyone wants to capture this photographic experience for themselves. Unfortunately, photographers are often disappointed because the pictures capture only a bright white dot on a black sky and no detail in the moon.

I will break down step by step how I get good results. If you have a DSLR camera this information may be basic but I want to make sure I share all of the important information for all levels of learning.

You will need:

A DSLR  with at least a 200 mm to 300 mm lens. (or any camera with manual settings)
A tripod (optional).
A manual setting on your camera.
A full moon and a fairly clear night.  August 10th, and Sept. 9th 2014

Some helpful terminology:

f-stop is the measurement of the aperture setting on the camera lens. This setting determines the amount of light allowed to enter the lens and pass through to the digital sensor. It also determines how much in front of and behind the subject is in focus aka depth-of-field.
Shutter speed in a still camera sets the length of time that the shutter is open, exposing the digital sensor to light for a single image.
ISO Many DSLR cameras have an ISO range from 200 to 6400 or higher. The higher the number the more sensitive the camera is to light. ISO stands for International Organization for Standardization. An organization that sets international standards, founded in 1946.
Exposure bracketing means that you take two more pictures: one under-exposed (usually by dialing in a negative exposure compensation -.3), and the second one slightly over-exposed (usually by dialing in a positive exposure compensation +.3).

The advantage of using a DSLR is that you can experiment with the ISO and exposure and see your results as you go. I start by setting my camera on M for Manual. I extend my zoom lens to the maximum of 300 mm. Since the moon is so bright I do not use a tripod. This is an optional choice.

I pick a starting point of f 6.3 1/15 of a second at ISO 400. As you can see from the photographs this one is too light but I can now change my f-stop and shutter speed.

Now I set my camera  f 13 1/250 of a second at ISO 400 and notice this is too dark. This means that I now did not let in enough light.

Having both of these exposures is really helpful to zero in on what I need. Now I take a photograph at f 11 1/200 of a second at ISO 400 and it works out really well. This exposure is similar to how I would set my camera for a photograph in the daytime hours.

Another night when the moon was large in the sky I notice that there is a really nice cloud formation gliding in front of the moon. I set me camera at f 8 1/250 of a second at ISO 400. I really like the feeling and slight color in this photograph.

When you hear on the news that there will be a Super Moon you will now have technical data to set your camera. Although rare, when there is a lunar eclipse you can apply the same principles and record the eclipse in all of its stages. You may have to play around with exposure as the moon starts to disappear but now that you have the understanding of exposure you can enjoy this rare amazing experience seen below.

For me, the first moon shot was in 1970 when I was working on my senior photography thesis in college. The first night I attempted to photograph, the moon was almost full. I set up my camera on a tripod with my 200 mm lens and loaded my camera with black and white film. The film was considered fast with an ASA (now called ISO) of 400. I took some photographs and went into the darkroom to process the film and see if I was successful. I was really excited as I developed the film. I held the film up to the light before I hung the film in my film dryer. It did not look promising and when I made a print it looked like a white dot on a piece of black paper.

The next night my teacher and mentor, Larry Colwell, came to help me. He assured me that it was not that hard if I got the exposure right. First, he explained that the moon was much brighter than we think and just because it was dark out did not mean that I needed a long exposure. This time I used a hand held light meter because my camera was not able to zoom in and get a proper exposure like today's DSLR cameras. I was surprised at how bright the moon was. I kept the camera on a tripod and followed Larry's advice to bracket my exposure (see above). When I developed the film this time I was happy with the results and that this was a successful learning experience.

If there is only one thing that you take away from this article, whether you are using an iPhone or a DSLR camera, it is that you should always set your exposure as if the night sky is much brighter than you think it is.

Have fun shooting the moon! The dates are August 10th, and September 9th 2014.

About Beth Shepherd Peters:

Photography has been my lifetime career and passion. You can see updates of my photography on Tumblr or purchase prints on Etsy.  I also have a blog where I am retelling the love story between my grandparents in real time using my grandfather’s love letters. Each one is posted exactly 100 years after it was originally sent. It is a wonderful look into the world they shared. Check it out!


  1. You don't really need an expensive DSLR camera. My Canon sx30is takes
    pretty great Full Moon pictures with great detail as well as a DSLR. But
    your tips are useful thanks for sharing. Sometimes I forget how to set
    the camera settings for Moon shots. :P

  2. Yep, you are right. Even my old point and shoot camera benefits from these tips.


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