Astrophotography doesn’t get the same press as other, more lucrative, genres as portraiture or wedding photography, but it can be every bit as challenging and rewarding. Even if you don’t plan on going whole hog (investing in an expensive telescope and a converter that allows you to mount your camera, for instance), if you have an SLR and a reasonably long lens, you can still give it the old college try. A 300mm lens won’t resolve the rings of Saturn, but when it comes to our celestial next-door neighbor, it’s more than adequate to the task. What follows are a few simple tips for photographing the moon.
• The longer the lens, the better. Wide-angle lenses aren’t useful here for two reasons. First, unless the context (say, a landscape or cityscape) is as important to capture as the moon itself, you won’t need a very wide field of view. Second, the magnifying power isn’t going to be sufficient to give you much more than a white blob.
• High ISO isn’t necessary. Even though the moon is a source of reflected light – albeit a very bright one – it’s sufficiently bright that a high ISO isn’t necessary, and can even be counterproductive. The addition of image noise, and the loss of detail that can result, end up outweighing any benefit you’d otherwise have gotten. Turn off Auto ISO, since the camera’s going to be metering all the darkness surrounding the moon and push the ISO into its upper reaches.
• Ignore your meter.
• A tripod helps. You can, believe it or not, get handheld shots of the moon (see the photo accompanying this post). However, using a support is absolutely vital if you want to use longer shutter speeds.
• Use a shutter release cable or remote if you’re using a longer shutter speed.
• If you plan to use a longer shutter speed, check your camera’s noise reduction settings. While it helps to have NR turned on (longer exposures tend to be a bit more noisy), bear in mind that too much noise reduction is going to reduce not only noise, but also detail.
• Use the highest resolution possible. If you usually shoot RAW, now would not be the time to stop. Conversely, if you shoot lower-quality JPGs because you can fit more images on the card that way, figure out the highest resolution JPG setting on your camera, and use that. Though you will fit fewer images per card, it will mean having images of higher quality. If space is an issue, just back your images up more frequently. Since you’ll want to crop many of your images to bring out even more detail, you’ll appreciate having the added resolution.
• If you’re envisioning a shot that includes not only the moon, but also something else – a landscape, for instance, or a skyline – don’t even bother trying to get both in the photo exposed perfectly. Take two shots, one of your foreground subject and one of the moon, and composite them. The reason for this is that the exposure settings and field of view will be different for both; generally speaking, a shutter speed that’s long enough for a nighttime shot of a skyline is going to result in the moon looking like a klieg light, and a proper exposure for the moon is going to leave the skyline a silhouette, assuming you even get that much. Sometimes, of course, it doesn’t matter; if you’re framing the moon through a gap in the trees and you’re just looking for the outline of the trees, one exposure will do you just fine.
One last thought: Feel free to experiment. The moon isn’t going anywhere any time soon (I hope; if you know something I don’t, let me know), so there are plenty of opportunities to perfect your technique. I would also suggest, as part of your experimentation, photographing the moon in its different phases, since a full moon won’t show as many interesting details as a moon that is waxing or waning. The reason for this is that a waxing or waning moon is being side-lit, which adds shadows and throws surface features into somewhat sharper relief. Have fun!