At some point in time most photographers, not to mention budding astrophotographers, have photographed the moon.
The moon has always held a special fascination for me. As a kid I looked up at it in awe and wonder. In my twenties, on Wednesday, July 20, 1969 to be precise, I watched television with countless millions of others as astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. I think in a way I was as envious as I was amazed. I also think that was when I first developed what has become a lifelong hobby/habit/fascination with taking photographs of the moon.
So here are some things that I’ve learned over the years about trying to capture a decent image of the closet extraterrestrial body to planet Earth.
First and foremost, you need to use a good, steady, heavy-duty tripod. While relatively well exposed, hand-held images can be attained with today’s cameras, they will likely not be sharp. You need a tripod – it’s that simple. For most images of just the moon, I use a telephoto lens (300 mm at least) which enables me to fill the frame. I use a moderate wide-angle lens (18 mm) to capture panoramic landscapes with the moon hanging somewhere overhead in the sky.
While many digital cameras these days have an automatic setting for night shots, you will achieve a much more detailed photo if you set your ISO, shutter speed and aperture settings manually. Start with an ISO of 50 or 100.
Remember that the moon is also the light source. It is brighter to your camera’s sensor than you might think. Set the aperture to about f/11 (the higher the aperture, the less sharp the image) and start with an exposure of about 1/60 of a second. This is only a starting point. You will have to make some fine adjustments to these settings to attain the best exposure for the particular phase of the moon and nighttime sky conditions you are shooting. As for focusing, I find it easier and more precise to use manual focus.
Since you will be photographing at night, long exposures are a given. If you ever so slightly underexpose your images, it will allow you to adjust the density and contrast later during post-processing. One should also always keep in mind that as the moon moves across the night sky, your camera will record this movement of the moon in the form of a slight blurring.
I like to shoot all the various phases of the moon. What I might miss one week because of clouds and/or the weather, I can always shoot the following cycle. Remember to adjust your exposure accordingly – a longer exposure is required for a quarter or half moon phase than would be needed during the full moon, simply because a quarter- or half-moon throws proportionately less light than the full moon. And if I am going to go through all the effort of driving out to an area where there is little or no light pollution, I figure I might as well take shots of the moon at its various positions/stages in the night sky as well. Somewhere along the line I figured out that when the moon is closer to the horizon, it appears larger to the naked eye and therefore to the camera’s lens, due to the magnification effect of the atmosphere combined with the curve of the Earth.
For the past couple of years I have shared what limited knowledge I have about astronomy with a number of elementary classrooms here in town. When I show them images of the moon, I sometimes see in their faces the same sense of awe and wonderment that I once felt. When I mention that some of them may one day get to set foot on the moon, that’s when their eyes really light up.
Once again, I cannot help but feel a little envious.