Ever experienced a beautiful moon in the night sky and when you try to capture the image with your camera, you’re much less than thrilled with the result? Taking pictures of the moon can be a challenging endeavor, but with a few steps and the right equipment you can produce images that will wow everyone!
To get a fantastic moon shoot first we need to talk equipment. Most dSLR cameras will be sufficient for shooting the moon. I have used everything from a D40 to D700 with about equal image quality results. The lens is the real key to getting fantastic detail in the shot. My lens of choice (because it is most readily available without having to rent) is a 70-200mm f2.8 on my Nikon D90.
Because the D90 is a cropped sensor it effectively lengthens my range to approximately 300mm. If you don’t have at least a 200mm lens available still give it a try but expect to get less detail in your image. If you have a longer lens….color me jealous and go get great shots!
A tripod is essential to getting a good clear image. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy just stable enough to your camera/lens and allow you to remotely trigger the shutter. If you don’t have a remote, the self-timer in the camera will work just as well. Another good thing to have with you is a flashlight so you can see to setup the camera and adjust settings. Or, if you’re like me the light from your cell phone works just fine.
The two biggest challenges I have when shooting the moon are focus and exposure. The moon is really bright! Even though most of the time you will be shooting the moon at night it is completely different than shooting in low light. On top of being bright the moon is also moving! Use a low ISO and faster shutter speed to accommodate the brightness and movement of the moon even though it is night
Set your camera to manual and manual focus (single focus point). Turn the VR on the lens off (if applicable). Shoot in RAW if you are comfortable with processing RAW format images.
I recommend the following camera settings:
SS 160-250 (remember the moon is bright and it’s moving!)
F8-11 (somewhere in there you will find your sweet spot)
Play a bit with the different combinations within these ranges to find what works best for your camera/lens combination. Aim for images that are slightly underexposed. Bumping the exposure in post processing will bring out amazing detail and ensure you get a completely black sky which will make the moon really pop out in your image.
With your camera/lens set to manual focus turn on the live view. Center the moon in the LCD screen and zoom in on the screen until the image of the moon fills or nearly fills the entire display. Center your focus point directly on the center of the moon and take a deep breath because this is the part you will squint until your eyes hurt and feel like pulling your hair out. I like to start by slowly focusing until I find the range where the moon looks “more in focus”. This takes really watching the detail (which is hard to see because it is so bright). If it is available on your camera turn down the brightness on the LCD screen. Once I find the range where the image appears more in focus I take several frames adjusting the focus just a little bit with each capture. One of these is bound to be better focus, or we can hope at least. You’ll find that one shot seems to stand-out during post processing more than the others. Don’t forget to use a remote or the camera’s self-timer to trigger the shutter. Pushing the shutter release on the camera can cause blur. Since the moon is moving you will have to periodically readjust to keep it centered in the view.
(SOOC moon shot)
Once you have captured the images import them into the editing software of your choice. I use Lightroom 3 but most photo editing programs will have the basic functions (exposure, contrast, etc) required to process the images. The focus is the first thing I check for after importing. One of the images is going to have better focus and I select this image for my final edit. Next crop the image to the desired size. I keep the crop ratio the same as the original unless I have a certain print/display size in mind. Even at 200-300mm it is a very large crop.
Once the image is cropped to the desired size the next thing to look at is the exposure. The SOOC image should be slightly underexposed and by bumping the exposure and adjusting the contrast you will be able to bring out the detail and ensure the sky is completely black. This will make your image really pop. The amount necessary to adjust the exposure/contrast will depend on the SOOC image you captured. A few other things to play with in post processing are desaturating the image or adjusting the white balance to create different looks. At this point it is all personal preference and how you want the final image to look. Play, experiment and have fun with the processing until you find what works for you.
This process can be used on any phase of the moon. Don’t be afraid to play with different phases as sometimes a partial moon can be easier to shoot and capture the detail because it is not as bright as a full moon. The biggest thing to remember is to just get out there and give it a try. Have fun adjusting the settings to see what produces the best images and don’t get frustrated if the first few attempts don’t produce the best images. Keep at it and you will soon have a gallery full of great moon shots.