Gibbous Moon Composite 72%

Shoot the Moon

This guide will run through how to get the best from your camera whilst shooting Earth‘s only natural satellite, our moon. It will cover camera settings, tips and different compositions that will give your moon photos the 'Wow' factor.

Please note this guide concentrates on camera/lens photography of the moon and NOT telescope. 


Ok firstly, just a few important and fun facts about the moon. Whilst informative they will have some relevance with lunar photography:

- The Moon is Earth's only natural satellite and is the brightest object to see in the night sky.

- The moon was formed 4.6 billion years ago when huge collision tore a chunk of Earth away (current theory).

- We always see the same face because the Moon rotates (on its axis) at the same rate the Moon orbits the Earth - this is called synchronous rotation. 

- The Moon rotates exactly once every time it circles Earth.

-  The Moon is on average 238,855 miles from Earth (ranging from 225k to 252k miles on its elliptical orbit).

- The Moon is 2159 miles in diameter (A quarter the size of Earth) & takes approx 1 month to orbit Earth (27.32 days)

8 Phases of the Moon

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- The moon has only been walked on by 12 people.

- The moon has no atmosphere (no sound can be heard and the sky is always black).

- Half the moon's surface is always illuminated by sunlight. How much of the light we can see varies each day and this is referred to as a Moon phase.

- The moon has 8 phases:- New Moon, Waning Crescent, First Quarter, Waxing Gibbous, Full Moon, Waning Gibbous, Third Quarter and Waning Crescent.


That last point regarding Moon phases is really important from a photographers perspective. The most popular and timely phases to see and capture the moon occur between New and Full. Think of it like a birth that happens each month. The moon is born just after New Moon, where it is starts to grow in size from a Crescent, and continues to grow each day until it reaches maturity at at the Full phase. If you start looking out for the crescent moon each month this is when to start dusting off the camera!

There are plenty of night sky apps on the market for IOS and Android that provide you with all the dates of when the moon (and other heavenly bodies) appear in the night sky. For example  Star Walk, Stellarium, LunaSolCal,  Moon. All good for planning exactly when and where to look in the sky.

In addition, without clear skies we have no subject to see. Obtaining a heads up on the weather forecast is also a pre-requisite when planning. Plenty out there UK Met Office and BBC (UK) very good start. Personally, I use the WeatherPro app (MeteoGroup) which is very accurate, in my experience.

To assist you during the winter period (and which will be Lockdown for many) here are the next 6 months of dates (2020/21) when the crescent is born (when we get the first visible waxing slither of a Crescent Moon in the night sky) together with Full Moon. 

2020

- 1st Crescent November 16th, Full Moon November 30th

- 1st Crescent December 16th, Full Moon December 30th

2021

- 1st Crescent January 14th, Full Moon January 28th

- 1st Crescent February 13th, Full Moon February 27th

- 1st Crescent March 14th, Full Moon March 28th

- 1st Crescent April 13th, Full Moon April 27th

- 1st Crescent May 13th, Full Moon May 26th

That'll keep you busy for the next 6 months :-)


Me with camera gear

Behind the lens

Behind the lens

Me behind the lens, armed with Night sky camera gear.

Olympus OM-D, EM-1 mk3
300mm pro lens
Sky Watcher Star Adventurer tracking mount
Manfrotto tripod

Now you have sufficient lunar information to target let us look in more detail at the photography. A reminder that this guide is all about shooting without a telescope, and utilising just a camera, lens and a few accessories.

Gear - Let us look at the gear I use and which will give you a good starting point:-

Camera: Olympus O-MD, E-M1 (mk3). This is my main camera but do also use some of the older versions such as the E-M5 when having more than 1 camera on the go.

Lenses: 300mm, 100-400mm, 12-40mm, 7-14mm. Good focal length or zoom lens is a must for getting up close. In contrast, always carry a wider lens for the moonscape scenes.

Tripod: Manfrotto. A solid tripod is a must for keeping camera gear rock steady and still. Any camera movement with high focal length work will be accentuated (out of focus)

Remote shutter release: As mentioned above keeping the camera still when shooting is important. Even the touch of the shutter button with a finger can cause vibration. Do use a remote cable. Alternatively if you don't have one of these set a few seconds delay on the shutter, allowing the camera to settle down before it triggers

Tracking Mount: Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer. This is the most expensive accessory for my night sky work. It will cost about 300 quid but a fine piece of kit & worth every penny. It essentially sits on the tripod and once setup (easy) tracks/rotates with earth's rotation. This allows the camera to move with earth's rotation and stay fixed on the subject matter. It's fab for eliminating movement in night sky objects as subject is fixed and tracked. A definite investment in my opinion. This is really useful when shooting the crescent moon and achieving Earthshine with longer exposure time (without the blur). More on this later.

Composition

Far from being a single mundane object, the moon offers many opportunities to create differing compositions. This is the key really, to get creative. Here are a few composition scenarios to give you some ideas or possible moon projects (more on settings later) :-

High Focal Length (Zoom) - The simplest of all, use a good zoom lens and focus on filling the frame with the moon. This will apply to all moon phases, whether framing a crescent or full.

Landscape - Framing the moon in the background with an interesting foreground image. A wider angle lens will be used here.

Moon Phase Composite - Capture some or all of the 8 moon phases and pull together in a single composite. This offers many opportunities to get creative (see my examples below)

Lunar eclipse - These occur more often than you think and when the moon moves into Earth's shadow, blocking the sun's light. Total lunar eclipses can be quite dramatic with some striking colour (red/orange).

Multiple Exposures - This is a really simple and clever way of capturing the moon in any number of creative compositions. It is also a really useful tool in-built with the Olympus camera which processes all in-camera. See below images on the variety I have put together. It ranges from moons alongside each other to the moon trail.

Earthshine - This is the dim glow on the dark portion of moon and is an interesting and effective composition with the crescent moon phases.

Settings

I'm a firm believer in Composition first, settings last.  I get asked many questions on which are the best camera settings for Night sky work. Many photographers seem to obsessed with high ISO or exposure times! The key to a good photo, or piece of art is composition. Put some time into how the subject will frame and look then logically look at settings to suit.

When I'm shooting straight forward high focal (zoom) of the single moon subject settings will indeed change depending on the moon phase. Crescent moon has little surface area and brightness whereas full moon has lots of both. So let me share how I shoot both of these:-

Full moon - Gear, E-M1 (3), 100-400mm or 300mm, tripod, tracking mount, cable release. Using the 300mm lens the bright moon will allow a good fast shutter speed over 1000 or 2000s to be achieved on a low to mid ISO of 400/500 and minimum aperture (f4 - 300mm) Note this will come down much lower with a slower lens. With such a bright object the tracking mount is probably not required but I do tend to get into the habit of using it, because i have it!

Crescent moon - same gear as full. With very little of the moon to see (and brightness to lock onto) exposure times will be longer, much longer. Down to 1/100s or below, depending on crescent phase/size and ambient light. This is where the tracking mount comes into its own. It moves with the rotation of Earth allowing longer exposure teams and retaining sharpness (no movement blur). This will be paramount if taking long exposures of Earthshine. See the example exposure time image below comparing times.

If you follow the links to the below images you will find a full explanation of how each of these images was captured, with settings.

Multiple Exposure work - The Olympus OM-D, EM-1 (latest models) has a fantastic tool built into the camera menu/settings to produce multiple exposures. Here's a link to one of my latest pieces of Multiple Exposure work - Lunar Multi which explains how it was done. If your camera does not have an in-camera tool post processing can be applied using editing software.

Composites & Montages - This is one of my favourite pieces of lunar work. Using some creativity a single moon image can be turned into a composite piece of art. Examples would be capturing all (or a number) of the moon phases throughout the month and bringing all the images together in a single composite. Similarly with a lunar eclipse. To produce these composites will require all work being done in editing software, post processing. There is no real limit to these. My only advice here would be to think about the composition you would like to achieve. The creativity will flow once you get all the single images into editing software, whether creating a single line of moon images or shaping the phases. I have included a number of images below which will give you some ideas on the different types of composite and compositions.

Examples - There are plenty of moon examples shown below to hopefully inspire you. All the technical info is detailed in each image. 

Further examples are included in my Sky at Night gallery

Do get in touch and share your work.

Clear skies & stay safe.

Moon Photos

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