Beginner’s Guide To Photographing The (Super) Moon Like A Pro

The mid-November supermoon of 2016 is the closest the moon has been to earth this century, and the closest it will have been for the next 18 years. The year 2016 actually ends with three supermoons, but the November full moon is the biggest and brightest in 34 years and is known as the Perigee moon in astronomy speak. But, regardless of whether you prefer perigee moon or supermoon, it’s sounds like the perfect time to take up moon photography!

Taking well exposed and sharp photos of the moon requires a unique process, but who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Prepare yourself with our guide to moon photography, so don’t miss out on the your opportunity to photograph a moment in astrological history. Let’s get started!

Supermoon by Ulrich Peters
Photo by Ulrich Peters

Moon Photography Preparation and Practice

With the right preparation, shooting the moon is easy. As the supermoon  approaches, preparation and practice are the keys to getting that great shot. Here’s a checklist of equipment I recommend. Some of it’s optional, but there are some things, like a tripod, that are necessary. Take a look and make sure you have all the necessary equipment:

Checklist of Equipment

  • DSLR or Mirrorless camera
  • Telephoto Zoom Lens:
    • Minimum 200mm lens, although you’ll need to crop your photo in post-processing to get a dedicated shot of the moon.
    • 400mm and above is ideal. I shoot with a 70-200mm lens, and a Canon EF 2x Lens Extender. You can also rent one for about $50 for a week.
  • Tripod: this is an absolute requirement. Any movement when using a zoom lens is enhanced significantly, leading to blurry photos. When tripod shopping, always try to buy the best quality your budget will allow.
  • Torch/Flashlight: you’re going to be shooting at night, so bring a torch along with you. Even with the bright supermoon light, you’re going to need extra illumination for setting up. Just remember to turn it off before you start your exposure!
  • Remote shutter release: this one is optional, but highly desirable. We need to do everything possible to decrease camera/lens shake, and a remote shutter release is second only to a tripod. I use a cheap corded release. If compatible with your camera, you can get wireless shutter releases for a few dollars.
  • Laptop: also optional, having a laptop handy will help in previewing your shots out in the field. It can assist in getting the focus and exposure right.

When is the Supermoon Rising Near You?

Sequence picture of the moon travelling across sky
Photo by Jake Hills

Depending on where you are in the world, the actual date for the full supermoon will vary. It’s very easy to tell, you just need to know which hemisphere you live in!

  • Northern hemisphere: 14 November 2016
  • Southern hemisphere: 15 November 2016

Moonrise is at different times in different parts of the world. To find out the exact moonrise time near you, use timeanddate.com’s moonrise calendar. Search for your town or city, then make sure to set the calendar to November 2016.

For example, I’ll be photographing the supermoon in a remote rural area just south of the Barrington Tops National Park, about 3 hours drive north of Sydney in Australia. The moonrise calendar for November 2016 in Newcastle (the closest city that shows up on timeanddate.com’s search) shows the moonrise will occur at 8:14PM on 15 November. The calendar even gives the moonrise direction, which in my case, is east-northeast.

Don’t Forget The Ephemeris!

For the most precise moon photography planning, many pros choose to use an ephemeris. These handy little tools can pinpoint the exact path the moon will travel through the sky from any coordinates you enter into it.

Mark Gee, a New Zealand based astronomy photographer, is just one of the many pros who use an ephemeris during planning and pre-production. He’s written a great article on his blog, The Art of Night, where he goes into great detail about how he used an ephemeris to plan this awesome time lapse shoot that ended up going viral a little while ago.

Practice

In the nights leading up to the full supermoon, practice your skills. Moon photography is quite different from other kinds of photography.

Don’t rely on beginner’s luck. Taking the effort to practice, then finally getting a stunning shot, is a very rewarding experience.

Get to Know the Location

Choose a location far away from city lights, in an area not affected by light pollution. Light pollution from cities and towns creeps into your lens, producing unwanted haziness and discoloration.

Aim for a location with low humidity. Dryer areas have less water vapor in the sky. That’s one less obstacle to shoot through, helping to get a sharper photo of the supermoon.

Once you’ve found a location, practice shooting at least one night before the full supermoon. Not only will this help you get the technical skills and camera settings right, you’ll also become familiar with where the moon rises and how it tracks over the sky during the night.

unsplash photo of moonrise over lake and mountainscape
Photo by Ales Krivec

Camera Settings for Photographing the Supermoon

Don’t be scared to shoot out of automatic mode. To shoot the moon you need to go manual. Start with the settings below, then tweak as described to get the right exposure.

The supermoon is super bright against a dark sky. So our aim is to take a fast and sharp photo where details of the moon can be seen.

Shoot RAW, White Balance Settings

Shooting in RAW format assists in keeping as much detail as possible. Set the white balance to day or cloudy. Unfortunately cameras don’t have a “moonlight” white balance setting.

If Your Camera Can’t Shoot RAW…

Set all image quality settings in your camera to their highest. You need the finest, highest quality, largest JPEG possible.

Lowest ISO

Higher ISO leads to more grain which results in less detail and loss of sharpness. Set your ISO to 100, or whatever the lowest your camera can achieve.

Picture of moonrise over cloudy mountains.
Photo by Anton Repon

Aperture

Use a small aperture. I typically shoot on f/13, since it’s where my lens is sharpest. This will help us twofold. First it will restrict the amount of light and, second, it will assist with focusing.

Fast Shutter Speeds

The moon moves, it’s also very bright, so we use fast shutter speeds to capture a sharp photo of the supermoon. Start with a shutter speed of 1/250.

Moon Too Bright or Too Dark?

Take a test shot, then adjust the aperture or shutter speed, depending on the exposure of the moon. If the moon is too bright, it’s will look like a white blob with no detail. If it’s too dark, we lose the brilliant brightness of the supermoon. Either way, it’s bad news. Here’s how to correct each issue:

If the moon is too bright:

  • Start by increasing the shutter speed. As we began at 1/250, step up to 1/320 then test and review. Continue to 1/400, 1/500 and even faster if required.
  • Shutter speed alone should bring the moon into a proper exposure, but in the rare case it doesn’t, choose a higher aperture. We started at f/13, so go for f/14, then take another test and review. Then f/16, f/18. f/20, etc., until the exposure is right.

If the moon is too dark:

  •  Similar to the above process, start by altering the aperture first and then the shutter speed.
  • Open up the aperture to a lower value, stepping down to f/11, then test and review. Don’t go any lower than f/8.
  • If the moon is still too bright, slow down the shutter speed. Step down to 1/200 then test and review. Don’t go any slower than 1/125.
Photo by Tommy Shellberg
Photo by Tommy Shellberg

Remote Shutter Release (or Timer Delay)

The simple act of pressing the shutter release actually causes fairly significant movement of your camera and lens, increasing the chances of blurring your photos.

I use a cheap (under $20) cable release. You can find wireless remote shutter releases for just a few dollars. A remote shutter release, combined with a tripod and use of mirror lockup, is the best way to get sharp photos.

If you don’t have a remote shutter release, set your camera to a 10 second timer.

Turn on Mirror Lockup

Movement is magnified when using a zoom lens. When using a DSLR, the camera’s mirror flicks up, exposes the light onto the sensor, then flicks down. It’s the “flicks up” part that can cause camera shake.

Mirror lockup works by holding the mirror up before the sensor reads the light. When mirror lockup is enabled, here’s how we take a photo of the moon:

  • Fully press the shutter release–just like you’re taking a photo. This locks the mirror in the up position. Wait a few seconds, so any camera shake disappears.
  • Then for a second time, fully press the shutter release. This exposes the image onto the sensor, then the mirror flicks down. The photo has now been taken.

Auto Exposure Bracketing For HDR Photos of The Supermoon

Taking a bracket of photos could help bring out detail in the darker areas of the moon. This results in some amazing supermoon photos. However, for this part, you’ll need a remote shutter release.

Only use auto exposure bracketing if you have a remote shutter release, and combine it with mirror lockup enabled. Without a remote shutter release and mirror lockup, camera shake is exponentially worse.

When using a timer delay, the 3 photos of a standard bracket are taking sequentially (when the timer goes off, the first, second then third photos are taken automatically). The second and third photos of a standard auto exposure bracket will feel the impact of the mirror movement of the previous photos.

The Shoot

Photo by Anders Jildén
Photo by Anders Jildén

Focusing

A small aperture helps get more of the scene in focus, but we still need to lock onto the moon. Start with auto-focus on and try to get your lens to focus on the moon. If you get locked on, then turn focusing to manual (if your lens/camera can do this). This will prevent you from triggering the autofocus every time you take a shot. You could also use back button focusing. Once you’re in manual focus, take a test shot and then zoom in on the preview. Alternatively, zoom in on live view before you take the shot to check focus and adjust as needed.

As the moon moves, refocus every 5 minutes to maintain a sharp image.

For shoots like this, I bring my laptop along in the field. My camera is tethered via WiFi to my laptop, or I quickly take the SD card out and load up a few shots. Then I review the photos on the laptop. I find this a much more accurate way to check if the focus is right, as the preview on the camera’s tiny screen can sometimes be misleading.

Related Article: Best Memory Card for Camera

Aim for Sharpness, Be Still

A great shot of the supermoon is razor sharp. The kind of photo where the craters and ridges of the moon’s surface are visible in detail. Keep the following in mind to get a crisp and detailed shot:

  • A tripod is an absolute must. If you don’t have one, you’ll be surprised at how cheap they actually are. Without a tripod, unless you can rest your camera on an immovable object, you won’t get a sharp photo.
  • Give your camera and lens time to settle. Every time you handle the camera/lens/tripod, to preview shots/adjust settings/reposition, don’t touch the setup for at least 10 seconds before taking a photo.
  • Take a few minutes to research mirror lockup, checking your camera’s manual to get it working. Practice a few shots to get the hang of it.
  • Always aim for the lowest ISO. Don’t be afraid to shoot in manual mode.

Timing

In your practice nights leading up to the supermoon, experiment with photos at different times of the night:

  • If the moon is up just after sunset, the blue hour can produce unique shots. Result is the bright supermoon on a rich dark blue.
  • A few hours after sunset, when the sky is very dark is most ideal. Result is the bright white supermoon contrasting nicely on a black background.

Don’t Have the Zoom Range?

The moon doesn’t need to be the subject. Experiment with composition. If you’re shooting with a lens under 200mm, you’re not going to be able to get a dedicated shot of the supermoon taking up the entire frame. Even between 200-400mm it can be tricky without cropping.

Supermoon at Turret Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, USA. Photo by Jacob W. Frank.
Supermoon at Turret Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, USA. Photo by Jacob W. Frank.

Luckily, moon photography isn’t always about a single shot of the moon taking up the entire frame. When the moon is low in the sky play with composition using the surrounding environment. The supermoon is not only bigger but also brighter, so look for parts of the environment which are well lit (mountains, trees, etc.) and take a wider shot.

One alternative is to try composite photography. Using this approach, you might need to take one photo exposed for the moon (as explained in this article) and another photo exposed for the environment (which can be a much longer exposure). Take these two photos and blend them together in post processing.

Post Processing Tips

Once you’ve got the shots and loaded them into your post processing software of choice (e.g. Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture), only a few minimal adjustments need to be made to create the final image.

Don’t reduce noise: Mentioned in this article a few times, because it’s so important, by keeping the ISO low in your photo, you don’t need to reduce noise. Reducing noise has the effect of reducing sharpness and detail.

Sharpness and clarity: Increase the sharpness significantly and clarity just a little.

Decrease the highlights: The supermoon is very bright, decreasing the highlights will recover some of the detail in the near-white areas of the moon.

Crop: Unless you plan to produce a huge print of the moon, it’s very safe to crop your photo. This is especially useful if you’re shooting at 200-400mm. Almost all social media and photography community websites display photos at a maximum size of about 2000 pixels wide. Many modern cameras produce a photo three times that size (my Canon EOS 6D’s photos are 5472 pixels wide by 3648 pixels high).

Get Creative

Before we go, we thought we’d leave you with a little more inspiration to get out there and shoot pictures of the moon. Watch this clip of some very inventive supermoon shots. They were taken by photographers in 21 different locations around the world.

Think we can team up to take even more supermoon photos than that? Remember to create a blog post and tag it with supermoon so everyone can see what the supermoon looks like where you live!

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About the author

Dean Wormald

Dean Wormald is a Australian digital nomad, working in photography, website user experience and blogging. Dean's Japan travel blog is the main destination where photographs are published, as he travels the country annually.

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