To The Moon, Alice!

When I teach my photography classes this is one of those things that seems to stun my students. The moon. This is our closest neighbor and most people don’t think of trying to photograph it. This is in all photographers reach with a couple of pointers. The first question I ask is how you would photograph this? I get all kinds of answers. Some even tell me that it can’t be done because their camera just makes it a white ball in the sky with no detail. As you can see from the thumbnail, it can be done. Click on the thumbnail for a larger view. Let’s go over the best way to photograph this orbital wonder and still have detail.

1) Get Steady…
First and foremost I recommend a tripod. It doesn’t have to be one of those hundreds of dollars carbon fiber tripods. Any tripod will do. If you don’t have a tripod, you could get a coat or sweater and put that on the roof of your vehicle and prop the camera up. The main thing here is to have a stable platform so the camera won’t move during the exposure.

2) Fingers Off…
This next step will aid in the most sharpest photo possible. Use an electronic cable release. These are relative inexpensive and all major camera manufactures have them available for all models that they make. I also use this on ALL of my shoots, no matter if it’s daylight or not. If you don’t have a release for your camera, use the self timer. Most camera’s will allow you to choose how long to set the delay. I like 10 seconds. The reason for this is after you press the shutter button down, it gives the camera a chance to settle down before the exposure happens.

3) Size Does Matter…
If you own a DSLR and have a variety of lenses, use the longest focal length that you have. For example, I use a 18mm-200mm lens for some of my shoots. However, I also have a 80mm-400mm lens that I like to use for airshows and sporting events. In this case, since the moon is a fair amount away, I used the 80mm-400mm lens. I cranked the lens out to the 400mm setting. Since I’m using a Nikon D300, it has a 1.5 crop factor, so in reality I have a 600mm lens attached! If you only have one lens or a point and shoot, just zoom it out as far as it will go.

4) Focus, Captain!…
Being really dark, you camera may have trouble focusing. I switch my focus mode to “spot”. I put the focus indicator on the center of the moon. Usually the camera will find focus this way. If it doesn’t, then manually focus the lens. If your lens has a switch on it, turn it to M. On the focus ring turn it until you see the infinity sign. It looks like a sideways 8. With some lenses, the best focus is just on the other side of the focus stop. How you do this is turn the focus ring as far as it will go, then back it off a couple of hairs.

5) Daylight Exposure?…
This is the one that get’s my students all the time. If we think about it, the light that is lighting the surface of the moon is from the Sun, hence daylight. This is why most cameras will give you a white ball of light when you just point and shoot. The camera is seeing all of this black area of space and is trying to expose for that. This is why the moon is blown out. This is where our friend manual mode is your best friend. You will be driving the camera, the camera won’t be driving you. If you have never used manual mode before, don’t sweat, I’m going to give you the numbers to use. First, be sure to put your camera in manual. Then, put these numbers in the appropriate places in your camera model.
ISO: 100
f/stop: 16
Shutter Speed: 1/60
Please note that this formula if for a FULL MOON. If your camera does not allow you to go to one of these specifications, you may need to adjust it slightly. For example, if your ISO only goes to 200, you will probably need to adjust your shutter speed to 1/125 of a second to account for the higher ISO. Try varying the shutter speed and see how it effects the exposure.

6) Finding The Details In Post…
At this point you have images that you have taken. If you are using a image editing program like Photoshop, Elements or Lightroom, this will be a breeze. The first thing I like to do is use a “S” curve. This can be done in Camera RAW or within the actual program. This will help snap the contrast in. If you need to adjust the midtones, this is the time. Lastly, I sharpen my image. I like using Nik’s Sharpener Pro. This gives me much more control versus using something like “Unsharp Mask” however, if this is all you have access to, this will be just fine. Don’t forget to save your file as a Photoshop PSD.

At the end of the day…
This might sound complicated and lots of steps, but it doesn’t take that long. Give it a try and you’ll be amazed what your camera can see and will record. I have also used this technique for the recent eclipse that happened in December 2010. I have submitted this image to Fox News and was surprised that they actually aired it. Cool!

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean

Spencer

P.S. I was at the local camera store one day and the clerk took the call. His response was,”No, no, I’m sure, Yes, I’m sure, Sorry.” and hung up the phone. I asked what that was all about. He said that the customer asked what setting to set their flash to, to photograph the moon. At that point we all busted out laughing. Flashes are only good for about 10-30 feet depending on what kind of flash. It would take nothing short of a nuclear explosion to get just a blip of light to reach the moon. Funny!

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