Full Moon Photography Basics

Full Moon Photography

There will be full moons on August 3 and September 2. Why not take the opportunity to get out your camera and a long lens and try your hand at full moon photography?

Avoid Light Pollution

Start by getting away from light pollution to have a clearer, sharper, contrastier view of the moon without worry about streetlights and hazy skies from urban areas. If you can’t get out of the city, take pains to avoid as much earthly light as possible by flagging the lens from bright sources nearby.

In summer, the moon stays relatively low to the horizon, and when it’s low and full it looks larger too. It’s not in reality any larger; it’s just an optical illusion. But taken together, the moon becomes easier to photograph in conjunction with earthbound objects in the foreground—a great way to add interest to moon photos by placing them in context with the earth. This juxtaposition with things like mountain peaks, trees and landscapes, along with the use of a long telephoto lens, makes the moon look even bigger in pictures than it will to the naked eye.

Using a Super-Telephoto Lens

Speaking of super-telephoto lenses, this is the best tool to photograph the moon short of a telescope. If possible, pair a long focal length—the longer the better—with a full-frame, high-resolution camera sensor. The combination of focal length and megapixels will make it easier to enlarge the image in the finished frame. Ideally a 600mm or 800mm extreme telephoto is great, but most of us don’t carry one of those in our standard kit. You can rent one, of course, and while you have it you can also take advantage of the focal length to get close-ups of athletes playing sports or birds and wildlife in your area.

Full Moon Photography
The 150-600mm lens that shot the moon image below.

Still, you don’t have to have one of these extreme lenses to photograph the moon, particularly if your camera has a high-resolution sensor. A zoom lens that reaches to 400mm or even 300mm can pair nicely with a 40+ megapixel sensor to deliver very nice images of the moon. Some compact cameras with superzoom lenses deliver 20x or 30x zoom ranges that work great in this pursuit too.

Get Steady

No matter how long the lens you’re using, since you’re shooting at night you’re definitely going to need to steady it, and that’s done ideally with a tripod. Not only does a tripod make it easier to compose and hold the frame steadily on the moon, but it also allows you to eliminate the camera shake that’s most likely to lead to a blurry image. It’s not impossible to photograph the moon without a tripod, but you’ll want to take extra precautions to get the camera as steady as possible—with a monopod, for instance, or by steadying the body on a fixed object like a table or wall. At the very least, rely on a lens with image stabilization to help steady a handheld shot.

When it’s time for the camera settings, you’ll want to start with a very sharp aperture, something like ƒ/8 or ƒ/11. This will ensure the image is as sharp as possible, maximizing your gear’s ability to produce sharp shots. Pair that sharp aperture with the lowest ISO possible to minimize noise—with one caveat. If you’re at ƒ/11 and ISO 50, the resulting shutter speed might be too slow to produce a sharp picture—especially if you’re handholding. “But what if I’m on a tripod?” you might ask. Sure, the camera might be steady, but don’t forget that the moon is in motion. If your shutter speed is slower than 1/125th you may start seeing motion blur. Try to match the focal length to the shutter speed; at least 1/400th with a 400mm lens, for instance.

Full Moon Photography

So if you need to up the ISO a bit to enable a sharp shot at 1/250th at ƒ/11 then you’re going to have to bite the bullet and do it, relying on noise reduction in post to clean up your (hopefully RAW) image file. Put the lens in manual focus mode to prevent AF searching and ensure it’s tack sharp, then use live view and an enlarged preview to dial in the manual focus accurately. Set the camera’s metering mode to spot or center-weighted to largely disregard the blackness of outer space and focus on the moon itself when determining an accurate exposure. When in doubt, start with an exposure somewhere in the vicinity of 1/250th at ISO 400, ƒ/11 and adjust based on what you’re seeing on the camera’s LCD.

Lastly, be sure to shoot RAW and quickly fire off a handful of frames. If you’re working at a higher ISO, you can layer multiple frames in post and average them together to more effectively eliminate the noise from higher ISO shooting. 

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