Photographing the Moon

Last night, I sat in the garden, mesmerised, wondering what would I need to be photographing the moon right now. The almost full moon was the brightest I’d seen it for a long time. Its brightness isn’t just because it was a clear night, or that the COVID-19 lockdown has reduced the pollution in the atmosphere; it’s because we’re approaching the night of the Pink Supermoon. I thought it’s about time I wrote an article on photographing the moon with a 300mm.

Photograph of the full moon by NASA
Photograph of the full moon by NASA

What is a full moon?

Our moon follows an elliptical orbit around the Earth. The sun shines on the moon as it does Earth, and during the night we can clearly see the light reflecting off it. When the sun is the opposite side of Earth to the moon, we see a full moon (except when it’s precisely the other side, and the light isn’t getting to the moon, that’s called a lunar eclipse).

There’s a full moon every 29 days (give or take a few hours). The sun is directly the other side of Earth to the moon. Sun rays shine on the moon and reflect down to us. It’s like someone with a torch, behind you, shining the light on an object in front of you.

What is a supermoon?

The orbit of the moon is not a circle; the moon isn’t exactly the same distance from us all the time.

The Moon's elliptical orbit around Earth
The Moon’s elliptical orbit around Earth

Sometimes, the moon is nearer to us than others. If the moon is closer to us, it will look bigger and seem brighter. When the night of a full moon coincides with it being closest to Earth, we call it a supermoon.

We have three supermoons in 2020.

Supermoons of 2020

Now and again, the moon, at this time in its phase, is a little closer to Earth. The moon, being closer to us, will naturally look bigger. We call this a supermoon.

There are three supermoons in 2020. The first of 2020s supermoons was on the 9th March, and the third will be at its fullest on the 7th May, the flower moon.

When is the next Supermoon?

Early in the morning of the 9th April 2020 is when the Pink Supermoon is at it’s fullest, and it won’t be pink! So, tonight’s the night.

April’s Supermoon will be the biggest moon of 2020. The moon is in perigee, that is, it’s the closest it will get to Earth this year.

Why’s it called a pink moon or a flower moon?

Many moons ago, our ancestors tracked the seasons by the lunar calendar (rather than the sun). Lunar months, about 29 days, were named after seasonal features that appeared throughout the year.

The Native American’s names for the lunar months stuck with us as the names of the full moons.

The full moons names are:

  1. The Wolf Moon – January
  2. The Snow Moon – February
  3. The Worm Moon – March
  4. The Pink Moon – April
  5. The Flower Moon – May
  6. The Strawberry Moon – June
  7. The Buck Moon – July
  8. The Sturgeon Moon – August
  9. The Harvest Moon – September
  10. The Hunter’s Moon – October
  11. The Beaver Moon- November
  12. The Cold Moon – December
phlox subulata Pink Supermoon
Pink Supermoon named after phlox subulata

The pink moon is named after the pink phlox subulata that blooms in Spring. It’s also called the Paschal Full Moon.

The Old English/Anglo Saxon name for it was the Egg Moon. Easter always falls on the Sunday following the full moon on or after the 21st March (the Christian Church’s date for the Spring Equinox).

How to photograph the moon – setting up your camera

Cloud in the UK is the bane of anyone who wants to gaze at the stars or the moon. However, tonight is looking clear as a bell, so get out there for a peek. I encourage you to take your camera and have a go at photographing the full moon.

Nikon D5300 digital SLR camera
Nikon D5300 digital SLR camera

Equipment you’ll need:

  • Camera – preferably an SLR (but it’ll be interesting to see some iPhone results!)
  • 300mm lens – the Pink Moon was shot using my 70mm lens, tonight I’ll be using my new Tamron AF 70-300mm.
  • Wireless shutter release (I use the Pixel TW-283 Pro 90) – or use the self-timer function
  • Tripod – I use this Manfrotto tripod, it’s small and very light, has a gimbal head on it and there’s a phone clamp.
  • Patience
  • Time beforehand to prepare

Before it gets dark, fix your camera to the tripod. Using a tripod will avoid camera shake, stabilise the camera and make sure that when you take a photograph, the image will not be blurred simply because you’re moving the camera.

Polish your lens and check it for specks.

Switch your camera to full manual mode then set up as follows:

ISO – 100 ISO or lower to reduce grain and noise, don’t adjust this.

Aperture – Shooting at f/11 should give you a clear image without darkening so much that you need to increase the ISO*..

Shutter speed – Start at 1/100th of a second and then move depending on your results. When you’re taking shots in your garden, there will be light pollution. If you’re taking shots of a waning or waxing moon, will have you adjust the shutter speed. Modify accordingly.

* Shoot slightly underexposed (dark) and you’ll be able to pick out more detail in post.

Take a shot and if you need to adjust the exposure, change the aperture or shutter speed.

Point your camera at the moon. Zoom right in, as much as your lens will allow. Make sure you switch to manual focus (M as opposed to A) and focus as best you can.

You’ll see the moon on the screen of your camera. Use the digital zoom to crop in as much as you can, then adjust the focus ring to get the image as sharp as you can.

You mustn’t move the focus ring between now and taking your photograph in the dark.

This method can be used for astrophotography, taking photos of the stars. It’s a bit of a pain in the neck sometimes because, in the mean-time, you can’t use the camera for anything else. However, it will be your best chance of getting a sharp image tonight.

Some photographers put electrical tape around the focus-ring at this point. The tape will eliminate movement in the focus-ring; it also doesn’t leave sticky stuff on your camera like gaffer tape.

Focussing on an object that is 356 thousand kilometres away isn’t easy. It’s virtually impossible to get the moon or stars perfectly in focus. I’m not saying that to put you off, but to let you know that we all have this problem. What you’re doing will be tricky. Crack on, give it a go and shoot for the moon!

This is my full moon ritual, taking looney photographs.

A note on condensation

When a piece of glass has a nice warm camera on one side and moist cold air on the other, condensation will cloud it. You could leave your camera outside for a while to cool, but you need to be careful, freezing temperatures may damage your camera.

Condensation can also form on your viewfinder and back-screen.

Take plenty of tissue out with you in case you need to dry the lens.

Sidestep: Astrophotography – taking photographs of the stars

Following the steps above, you can take great photos of the stars.

Zooming out, or using a wide-angle lens, you can achieve fantastic night-photography images of constellations, planets and landscapes. The moon ruins a photograph of the stars because it’s simply more light pollution so plan your shoot with an app like Star Walk 2 (see below).

Apps to use for planning astrophotography

I use Star Walk 2 to identify stars, constellations, planets and the position of the Milky Way. Star Walk 2 is an excellent app to plan your astrophotography.

The Photographers Ephemeris is an app that shows you the sun and moon phases, and positions, as well as how the light will fall on the landscape. This app tells me that the moon will rise in the East tonight shortly before 7 pm and drops down West in the horizon about 7 am tomorrow. At 10 pm, long after the sun sets, the moon will be clearly seen in the South East. This would be an ideal time to show the kids; they are on holiday after all.

Shooting in RAW

If you have a RAW option on the camera, use it. When you shoot in jpeg, the computer in your camera processes and compresses the image (other compression options exist). Processing and compressing images reduces the quality of the shot. If you’re taking the image to Photoshop, you’ll end up with a crisper image with much more flexibility. If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, skip this paragraph for a later date.

Note that RAW files are much larger than jpegs, which are compressed, and you can’t just upload them to your phone for Instagram. You can usually set the camera to include a jpeg copy as well!

Back to photographing the moon

When the sun is no longer brightening up the sky, most people have turned off their lights and vehicles on the road are at their minimum is the best time to take dark photography.

  • Getting yourself to a dark spot, like in the mountains, would be ideal.
  • Give it a go from your garden.
  • Point the camera at the moon and click.
Pink Supermoon 2020
Pink Supermoon 2020

Here’s the best one I got. It was shot on my Nikon D5300 with an 18-70mm Nikon lens at 70mm. After focussing on the moon I tried different aperture and shutter speed settings at 100 ISO, the lowest ISO setting on the camera. This was shot at an aperture of 4.5 (lowest setting again) and 1/320th of a second.

Next time: I need a longer lens to get closer and pick up more detail. I would also take the photo when the moon is lower in the sky, as the light from the moon passes through more atmosphere at this point the moon looks even bigger.

Now you know how to photograph the moon, why don’t you send me your photos, let’s discuss how they turned out and what we can do to improve them.

Adobe Photoshop

I use Photoshop to edit my images. It comes in very handy on the phone to add some vignette or quickly delete some distracting spot in the photo. It does it much more effectively than the photos app on iPhone and on the PC I could never produce the photos I do for my website and social media.

Keep learning…

Astrophotography – Camera settings for stars

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