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How to photograph the moon

The largest supermoon in almost 70 years is coming November 14 – which means on November 15 you can expect a social media feed filled with lots of smartphone shots of a blurry UFO somewhat resembling the moon. The night sky, whether you are shooting for the stars or that rare full moon, is one of the toughest things to capture on camera – autofocus becomes obsolete, and tripods become a necessity. Yet, it’s often the more challenging shots that produce the most striking results. Want to really capture just how spectacular this next lunar event is going to be? Here’s how to photograph the moon on this special day or on any day when it shines bright.

The preparation

Good moon photographs start well before the moon even rises. The time, location, and weather can all play a significant role on the final image. Start by identifying just where in the sky the moon will appear and when. The moon rises in a predictable pattern much like the sun, but how and where you see the moon varies based on what part of the world you live in. If you are thinking of a particular landscape you want in the photo, make sure the moon will actually be in the right position to be included with the rest of the scene. Find out where the moon will rise in your area with an online search or by using an app like the Photographer’s Emphemeris or SkyView.

You don’t need the priciest equipment to get good shots of the moon.

Timing also plays a big role. While lunar events increase the apparent size of the moon, the moon always appears largest when it’s closest to the horizon because of the other visual cues the landscape offers. Look up the time of the moonrise online before you head out (the Photographer’s Emphemeris app will also detail the time of the moon rise). Arrive early and plan your composition before the moon begins to rise; since moon rise is fairly quick, you likely won’t get the chance to move to multiple spots, at least not while the moon is at the horizon.

Of course, you need a clear sky to get a good shot of the moon, so check the weather before you head out to shoot a moon that’s nowhere in sight. While clear skies are ideal, partial cloud cover sometimes create a somber mood if you’re patient enough to wait for the moon to peek through the clouds.

Gear also plays a significant role, but you don’t need the priciest equipment to get good shots of the moon. The most essential thing? A tripod. Shooting a moving moon from a rotating earth already adds plenty of movement to combat, so skipping out on the handheld camera shake will help prevent details from blurring.

A DSLR or mirrorless camera with a zoom lens has the reach and manual focus smartphones lack, and both are essential for photographing the moon. A basic entry-level DSLR is fine – that smaller cropped sensor actually helps by giving you more zoom to work with. Some compact cameras, particularly those with good zooms, will also work if they have a manual focus option. To get close, a 300mm lens or longer would be great, but a 200mm lens is also a good option.

The setup

Photographing the night sky is a job for manual mode – or at least shutter priority mode. Mounted on a tripod, you can use long shutter speeds to get a good exposure without worrying about shake, right? Actually, no. The moon rises rather quickly, and paired with the rotation of the earth, if you use a slow enough shutter speed, you will blur those craters that make up the man in the moon.

Getting a good image of the night sky requires much more than a quick smartphone snap.

The exact exposure settings will vary based on a number of different scenarios, including the time of day that you shoot. Mark Gee, a photographer that has earned several awards for his astrophotography, says he usually shoots with a shutter speed of around 1/125, give or take. For photographers using full manual mode, using a narrower aperture, like f/8, keeps the possibility of manual focus errors down by increasing the amount of the image in focus. The ISO can be set to balance out the exposure — keep it as low as possible, but prioritize that shutter speed to keep from blurring those details in the moon.

Photographers also have to decide what part of the image to expose for. Exposing for the moon by using spot metering keeps all the details intact, since overexposure will turn the moon into a white sphere. Some scenarios using the scene might call for matrix metering to keep that landscape from becoming a silhouette, however.

Before you shoot, turn your file settings to RAW (or RAW + JPEG) to get more control in post production.

The shot

Timing planned, tripod placed, and exposure set, it’s time to focus on the moon. Cameras need light to use autofocus, however, which means manual focus is a must for the moon. Thankfully, using manual focus on the night sky is fairly simple. Turn the camera to manual focus, then twist the focus ring all the way to infinity. Check the viewfinder and bring the ring back a bit until you see a sharp image of the moon. (Using a narrower aperture in full manual mode will also help make it easier to get a sharply focused shot).

The moon typically only spends a few minutes at the horizon before embarking on its path across the sky, so shoot quickly, but check your shots to correct any exposure, focus, or composition errors. The moon looks largest at the horizon, but grabbing some shots as it continues to rise is fine too, particularly if you have a good zoom.

The finale

With a good exposure and focus in-camera, touch-up should be minimal, but most moon shots can usually benefit from a few tweaks. Using the blacks slider in Lightroom or another RAW editor will help darken the sky and bring out more of the details in the moon. Tweaking the white balance may be necessary for more accurate color – or for mimicking a harvest moon glow or creating a mood by giving the moon a hint of blue.

Night sky events like the upcoming supermoon make it possible to snap pictures of another world, from your own backyard, but getting a good image of the night sky requires much more than a quick smartphone snap. Plan the shot, then use a tripod, manual exposure, and manual focus, and you’re much more likely to snap a share-worthy image of the supermoon.