Shoot the Moon!

It's one of those shots that all photographers want in their portfolio, the ubiquitous full moon. After every significant full moon event, such as last night's Summer Solstice Strawberry Moon or the Blood Moon we saw in September of 2015, you will find scores of moon photos on all the photography sites, and no one wants to be left out, right?

Blood Moon, September 2015


Of course, I am guilty of dragging out the tripod during these "special" events, since I likely won't be around for the next time some of these things happen. It almost feels like an obligation. After all, I am a photographer, and this is a significant event, even though likely my shot will often look like everyone else's. You can't really get a unique view of the moon, we all have the same vantage point, and if the moon is high and there are no clouds, it's really difficult to make your shot unique. Nevertheless, I still drag my equipment out in the yard at odd hours of the night (I'm sure the neighbors must wonder sometimes, what the hell I am doing), because I don't want to be the only photographer who missed it.

After posting my version of last night's moon, I was asked by a Facebook friend for some advice on how to get good moon photos. So, let me first give you the caveat that I am, by no means, an astrophotographer, my specialties lie in a more Earthbound direction, but one of the things every good photographer must be able to do is to adjust, adapt, and make what you do have work for you, no matter if you are shooting the moon, landscapes, portraits, or macros. Knowing your equipment and how things work is important to being able to adjust on the fly.

So, even if your attempts don't always turn out so well, you have gained experience, and you know your gear a little bit better every time. I have found that photography, in general, is a constant learning process. Make a commitment to learn something new every time you take out your camera. Challenge yourself.

First, as I mentioned, I am not really set up, equipment-wise, for astrophotography. If you really want to commit to that, you will want to check into the big, 'mo-hunkin' lenses, some of them look like bazookas, and not exactly light to lug around. This is one reason I am neither a astrophotographer or a wildlife photographer. I'm not sure I would ever want to have to carry one of those suckers around all the time. Plus, handholding these big lenses is very difficult, if not impossible. Impossible for me, because I'm such a weenie!

When using a zoom lens, it's important to note that even the slightest movement is magnified. I look at it much the same way as target shooting. What may be only a minuscule movement where you are, can become several inches by the time the bullet gets to the target. The further away the target, the more potential for being off. What may only be a tiny vibration of the camera can make a big blurry mess of a subject far away.

Summer Solstice Strawberry Moon, June 2016


Manual Mode: For any type of night photography, you are going to need a lot of control of your camera. It needs to do what you need, so automatic anything usually fails in this arena. I usually shoot in Aperture priority mode for most of my work, but for night shots or any subjects that require some experimenting, I want full control, the reason race-car drivers want a clutch and gear shift. You have to be able to adjust each setting independently.

Lens: I shot this image last night, of the Strawberry moon with a 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens at the focal length of 300mm then cropped in a bit. If I were going to do this a lot, I would probably want to look more towards a 500mm capable lens. But, we are making do with what we have, so lets move on to the next element.

ISO: The ISO for this image was set at 200, and I probably could have gone to 100. The moon is bright, so there is no need for a long exposure. In fact, I tend to overexpose the moon more often than I underexpose. If I were shooting the stars or Milky Way, I would likely need a higher ISO, but the moon, especially when its full, doesn't require it. High ISOs create more noise (graininess), and if you don't have that 'mo-hunkin' big lens, you will need to crop in. Noisy photos become very noticeable the closer the crop, so keeping it to a minimum will help with that.

Aperture: The aperture was f/22. I moved to a smaller aperture because shots at wider apertures were blowing out the white of the moon. (Again, if I were shooting just the stars, I would probably want a wide aperture to pull in all the available light I could get.) Instead of closing up the aperture, I could have also increased the shutter speed.

Shutter Speed: The shutter speed for this image was fairly slow at 1/3 sec, one of those things, after analyzing, I might work on next time. We are learning each time, right? A faster shutter speed would have allowed for a more open aperture, and had a similar effect of preventing overexposure.

Photographic Triangle: There are multiple variations of the photographic triangle (ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed) that will yield good results. It's important to know them and how they affect your image so you can adjust them accordingly to achieve the right balance and get the look you are trying to achieve.

Tripod: Regardless of your Photographic Triangle settings, you are going to need a tripod for most any kind of night sky photography. Remember the small shake increases as your subject gets farther away. The moon is pretty far away so small shakes make big messes of the moon or stars. Yeah, I know, I hate carrying it around, too. But, it's a necessary evil if you want good shots. It also intrigues the neighbors when it's out on the lawn after midnight. :)

Shutter Release: If you have the tripod, you definitely want to get a remote shutter release. It hooks to your camera and allows you to press the shutter without touching the camera itself. This reduces the chances of you shaking the camera on the tripod. You can use the self-timer if you don't have one (usually be the time it clicks, any shaking has stopped). You can also get wireless versions, though I find I keep loosing them in the dark. A corded one is always hanging off the side of your camera.

That's just a quickie list of tips for getting your own moon shot. Kudos to you, if you get creative and make yours stand out from the crowd. At least make your neighbors wonder. Happy Shooting!

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