Thursday, April 19, 2012

How I Shoot The Moon


After posting some of my moon shots recently, I was asked by several people how I get the photos to turn out the way they do. I'm not a professional by any stretch of the imagination. I basically learned through trial and error. I had a whole lot of bad shots to get to the decent ones I posted. If I had someone to show me, it would have been much easier.

Equipment does play a part in the equation, but the right settings are very important. I realize not everyone has the same type of gear and you may be limited by what you have available. Even so, you may be able to make some adjustments and at least improve the results with what you have.

Typical Shot

A lot of people shoot with their camera in automatic mode. There's nothing wrong with that for many situations. Auto mode doesn't work for moon shots, though. The camera will try to compensate for the dark scene and end up overexposing the moon turning it into a bright blob of light with no detail. All of us have seen photos that look like this one.


That is the moon, but it's grossly overexposed and there's absolutely no detail. It could just as easily be any bright artificial light source. Point-and-shoot cameras and DSLR's set on auto will generally give you this kind of result. The best way to shoot moon photos is in manual mode if your camera is capable of that. This is a situation where you need to tell your camera to step aside and let you make all the decisions.

My Gear And Settings

I use a DSLR and a 500mm lens for moon photos. Not everyone has a large lens like that, but you should use the longest reaching one you have.

I always shoot in manual mode and I also focus manually. Auto focus doesn't do well in a situation like this. It's not like the moon is going to jump up and run away, so you have plenty of time to focus manually and make sure it's dead on. Again, depending on your equipment, you may not have the option to focus manually.

My f stop is normally set from 8 to 11. All DSLR lenses have a "sweet spot" in the f stop ladder where they provide the sharpest result. Generally, that's two to three stops above the lowest number (or largest aperture) of your lens.

My shutter speed varies a bit more, but generally stays in the 160-400 range. If the moon is really bright, I'll use a faster shutter speed like 400 to keep the moon from being overexposed. If the moon is pale or darker, I'll use a slower shutter speed to keep it from being underexposed. This is where experimentation and taking shots at different speeds will show you where you need to be.

A tripod is a big help and it's a good idea to use one if you have it. The majority of my moon photos, however, have been taken handheld. That's because I often get my shots while out driving and I don't have my tripod. I pull off the road and rest my lens on the door frame or get out and lean against my truck for support. If I'm home, I'll use my tripod and a shutter release cable.

Other Considerations

This definitely may not apply to everyone, but if you can do it, it's another way to get the end result you want. I shoot all of my images in RAW format rather than JPEG. You have to have a camera capable of doing that. Most DSLR's will and perhaps some advanced superzooms and newer high end point-and-shoots. RAW format gives you greater ability to tweak your photos during post-processing. You can adjust the white balance and exposure. Your eyes see the moon as white, but sometimes in your photos it may have a colored tint to it. If the exposure wasn't exact during the shot, you can adjust this with RAW images. You don't have as much freedom to do this with JPEG photos. You have to have editing software capable of handling RAW images (like Photoshop or Lightroom). If you own a DSLR, it most likely came with software that will do this if you don't have a third party editing program. Shooting in RAW is not a must-do by any means. It's just another way to help get the desired results.

A second consideration is cropping. Even with a 500mm lens, you aren't going to be able to fill the frame with the moon. It's just too far away. If you want an "in your face" shot that shows the detail on the surface of the moon, cropping is a way to get it.

This shot was taken with my 500mm lens and has not been cropped. There's nothing wrong with this photo and sometimes you may want a shot that gives the feeling of space.



This is the very same photo, but I've cropped it to eliminate some of the space and provide a more detailed look at the moon. This is where focusing becomes very important. Cropping this way only works if your focus is spot on. If the focus is off, cropping will only make it more apparent.



Another tip to keep in mind is the position of the moon in the sky. Full moons low on the horizon often appear very large and brilliant. If you can take your shots while the moon is low, you can get some dramatic results. Your surroundings will play a part in this. Buildings, neighborhoods, trees, and the terrain often block the moon when it's low. I already know the spots I can go to and catch the moon in this position. That's not to say you can't get great shots when the moon is higher. I've taken many photos when the moon is overhead, but it loses that large, looming appearance. And the moon phase also plays into that. Obviously, it doesn't look like that every night.

To summarize, shoot in manual mode, focus manually, and try setting the f stop in the 8 to 11 range with shutter speeds in the 160 to 400 range. I didn't address ISO settings, but I keep mine as low as possible. Keep in mind, pressing the shutter button is free! The great thing about digital is you can take all the shots you want. Experiment with your settings and just keep taking pictures. There's a delete button on your camera for a reason. I'm a firm believer that the more photos you take, the better your photos will become. It requires practice just like anything else.

I don't know if any of this will really be helpful to anyone, but if just one person emails me and says something here was useful and made a difference in their photos, then it was worth it. And, please, if you already get good moon shots, don't screw them up by listening to me.


40 comments:

Pam said...

Simply stunning moon shots, Brian.
Thanks for the info you explained so well.. I wish all manuals and instructions were written by you!
cheers :)

Linda said...

You did a fabulous job with the explanations, Brian. Thank you SO much! I made my notes, which will go in my camera bag. I hope to get a chance to use the information soon (not sure when the next full moon is) and will definitely let you know! I did manage one good moon shot - once - out my back door, but that was totally luck! Thanks again! Your moon shots are gorgeous!

Mary Howell Cromer said...

Excellent advices and sharing of how to go about getting a shot almost as marvelous as your shares. I am signed up for a Nikon course May 12 and just maybe hands on help will also show me how to arrive at what you have shared. For all that I photograph in nature, my understanding of the camera is way less. Thank you Brian!

Coloring Outside the Lines said...

You take such great shots- I appreciate the advice. I have always heard that using good equipment is half the battle- so one day soon I will break down and buy a better camera!

Lisa @ Two Bears Farm said...

Great information here. I'm one of those people with a very nice camera, but only one lens, and not much knowledge of all the functions. One of these days maybe I'll take the time to figure it out!

Carole M. said...

an easy to understand tutorial Brian; well done!

Tanya said...

did you steal that first shot from me lol....i'm going to have to write this down and try it out, thanks!

Meggie said...

Hello Brian....Your directions are very easy to follow. Where I live, I always can see the horizon in any direction. Certain times of the year, when the moon rises, it is incrediably large. Whenever I'm able to upgrade my camera, I will give your direction a try. Thanks...

Betty Roan said...

I'm going to give this a try next full moon. With my luck it will be raining or something. Thanks for the helpful info and, by the way, great shots!

MarmePurl said...

Many thanks Brian. Such well written advice. I have wanted to caputure the Full moon coming up over the mountain and all I ever get it a bright blob. Now I know why. You are a great teacher!

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

If all instruction manuals were written this concisely and understandably I'd be a better photographer. Bookmarked this!

I do know that it's free to take a picture and about the delete button--but the ones I keep are the ones you'd delete ;>)

Tricia @ Bluff Area Daily said...

I like that, tell the camera to step aside & let you make all the decisions! =)

A while back, I was determined to get some decent shots, at least for my point & shoot Power Shot Canon, so I set out on a full moon one night & shot several in different settings & finally got a few... when I posted them, I was asked by a few very unexpected readers what lens I used... I was floored! =0

Michael said...

excellent tutorial

S.R Style said...

cool work ;)

JOY @ http://joysjotsshots.blogspot.com/ said...

Learned lots of tips today. enJOYed

LB @ Bullets And Biscuits said...

Huh...and here all I ever thought you did was shoot the sh*t ;)

gtyyup said...

GREAT tutorial!! I've bookmarked it for the next full moon!! Thank you very much for sharing your tips!

Leenie said...

Excellent info. But how do you get the clouds to move?

TexWisGirl said...

well done - both instructionally and photographically. :)

Deb said...

Brian thank you for the instruction....I'm going to try them on the next good moon we have...I haven't been able to get a good shot...now I know why....love your shots....your right more is better when it comes to taking photos...they can easily be erased...

Grandma Barb's This and That said...

Thank you Brian. I'm going to have to save this info. I wish my manual was as easy to follow. I have been shooting all my shots in auto mode until recently. I am trying to learn what all my little camera can do. Once I learn how to use it, maybe I'll get a better one.

Miss Courtney said...

Beautiful. I love night shots.

Anne Payne said...

Incredible shots! Thanks for sharing you tips to better photography. I can use all the help I can get :)

Denise said...

Thanks for all the great information. So interesting! I have always wanted to take some moonshots.

Gillian Olson said...

Love your moon shots, next time I'll try my manual settings instead of automatic.

Candy C. said...

Thanks Brian for the great info!! I can see lots of moon shots coming to bloggerland soon! :)

bailey-road.com said...

Very useful tips here, Brian!

Nancy Claeys said...

Gosh, who would have asked you to provide this fabulous information? Hmmm --- lol! Thank you so much my friend -- your lunar captures are always some of the best I see. :)

Debbie said...

what a wonderful entry brian, it must have taken you forever to prepare it!!

that first shot looks very familiar ;)))

Sall's Country Life said...

Thanks for your well-written advice! I can't wait to try it on the next full moon! Hmmm, I see a book in your future..."Moon Shots For Dummies"?? (maybe not such a good title)

Carletta said...

You did a wonderful job with this tutorial! :)
I know my first attempts were awful but I was determined. By far the best advice you have given is to practice. Many times I almost gave up but the practice pays off.
I might add, make sure it's a warm night. :)

Bob Bushell said...

Brilliant post, I couldn't have said it better.

Bob Bushell said...

Just thinking, what is the make of your camera.

darlin said...

Thank you for this useful info, I'll have to try it if I ever sit still long enough to play with my night shots. I couldn't agree more, the more photos one takes, the better the pictures get... practice, practice and more practice. One of the reasons I love blogging, is that it's an awareness to shoot photos every single day and it's paying off. I don't take the same photos I did over 3 years ago when I first started blogging with my P356 and it's through watching, asking and sharing that I learn. I've also met some amazing people though blogging, yourself included. :-)

Have a wonderful weekend!

edenhills said...

Thanks so much for the advice! If it weren't a new moon tonight, I'd be out there trying it!

Connie Smiley said...

Thanks, BJ--now I'm inspired to try it again. Your shots are fantastic!

EG CameraGirl said...

Excellent! Thanks!

Liz said...

Brilliant shots and an excellent description of the "how to".
I have found my best moon shots so far are those taken at ISO 100 (best crater detail), f/5.6. 1/250. I also have a 55-250mm IS kit lens as my longest zoom. (these were the settings for my moon shots in my recent post). I also use a tripod and 10 sec timer. (I don't own a cable)
Works for me. I did try the same shots at ISO 200 & 400 without great success... perhaps I should try those with the f stop up a bit??
I also have a basic DSLR (Canon 1100D) so I don't have a great deal of technology to use.

The House at Bluebird Lane said...

Fantastic shot! I'm fairly new to photography and really appreciate your instructions. Thank you so much for sharing!

Spare Parts and Pics said...

Wow, very helpful. Thanks for taking the time to help us figure this out... just wish I would have read your post prior to my photo shoot last night!