If you’re the type who gazes upward at night, you’ve probably heard about the next big celestial event: the super blue blood moon on Jan. 31.
Let’s break that down. “Super” means the moon is at perigee, the closest point in its orbit to the Earth (so it looks huge and is brighter than usual); “blue” means it is the second full moon within the same calendar month; and “blood” means there will be a total lunar eclipse—at its culmination, the moon takes on a reddish tinge.
Unless you live in western North America, Alaska, or the Hawaiian islands, though, you probably won’t get to see much: the eclipse starts at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. (NASA will have a live feed running on its website for people in other locations.) But we think any time you can see the moon in the sky is a good opportunity to try to photograph it.
Taking a picture of the moon can be a challenge. When it’s near full, the moon can be hard to photograph, because its intense glare tends to wash out detail, especially in brighter areas of its surface. (At a full moon, the Earth is located between the sun and moon, and sunlight is reflected straight back at us, with no shadows to provide contrast.) A fainter crescent moon may require a slightly longer exposure or a darker background sky to show it in its best light, so to speak.
There’s no one magic formula for getting great moon shots. So much depends on your camera and lens, the phase of the moon, the time of day or night, and local conditions. Here are some methods I’ve used over the years to get better moon photos.
1. Shoot in Twilight When Using a Camera With Automatic Settings
When trying to take a close-up of the moon (at least as close as your zoom will allow) with a compact camera, it may be tricky to avoid overexposure. If your camera lacks manual control settings, your best bet may be to shoot in twilight. You can get some decent shots in the daytime, though the relatively low contrast between moon and blue sky tends to wash out finer detail. In twilight, the moon is bright enough to reveal more detail, and the sky is still bright enough to keep exposures relatively short—you can usually do fine just sticking with automatic settings.
If the moon is nearly full, and the sky is already dark, you can still get close-ups of the moon with a point-and-shoot—the trick is to enable your camera’s flash. Obviously, this isn’t to illuminate the moon; using the flash keeps the exposure time very short, which can prevent overexposure. For a close-up, you’ll want to use the highest optical zoom setting the camera allows, but be sure to disable digital zoom (which I don’t recommend ever using).
2. Tweak Your Settings
Set the ISO to low; 80 or 100 if there’s a numerical setting. If your camera has an “infinity” setting (with a mountain icon) for distance, choose it. (Most point-and-shoots are limited to “macro”—the flower icon—and “normal” when in automatic mode, but some will add infinity if you switch to manual.) If not, you can usually simply autofocus on the moon. If you do use manual focus, use the magnified image of the moon your camera should provide (by enabling a setting titled “zoom magnification” or the like), rather than relying on the lens’s infinity focus setting, which is often mis-calibrated. My favorite lens for astrophotography reaches focus for the moon and stars not at infinity but when set to about 37 meters!
3. Brace Your Camera
When photographing the moon in twilight or at night, it’s a good idea to brace your camera (either with a tripod or against some fixed object like a lamppost or windowsill) to minimize any effect of shake, even with an image-stabilized lens. Even the tiniest jostling can effectively ruin the image. Bracing the camera lets you use a longer exposure time, which may be necessary for relatively faint, thin crescent moons.
For lunar close-ups with a DSLR, you’ll want to use a telephoto lens. Either image stabilization or mounting the camera on a tripod can help minimize blurring—a telephoto lens will magnify not only the moon but the effect of any motion or jostling of the camera—but you may not need them if the exposure is short enough. If you lack a tripod or IS, you may want to boost the ISO to 400 or more so you can take a shorter exposure without the image coming out too dark. The price of a higher ISO is increased noise, so be careful not to increase it more than you need to.
4. Bracket Your Shots
With today’s cavernous memory-card capacities, you can take multiple shots with impunity, and there’s no better time to do so than when shooting close-ups of the moon, especially with a DSLR with a telephoto lens (or superzoom with manual exposure settings). Taking a series of images with varying exposure lengths increases your chances of getting shots that are to your liking. You can also tweak aperture and ISO settings. (With a moon near full, I start with a low ISO, usually 100, a aperture of f/6.6, and an exposure length of 1/100 second, and gradually increase the exposure length until the image of the moon starts to darken.
5. Choose an Interesting Foreground
Especially in wide-angle photos that include the moon, your foreground can make or break the shot, so take the time to set up your shot before snapping away. Fortunately, the moon moves slowly across the sky, so you may be able to move around to be sure that the building, tree, or other object you want in the frame with it is in the right position.
6. Edit Your Photos—Judiciously
Once you’ve downloaded your moon photos to your computer, you may want to edit them in Photoshop, Lightroom, or another image editor. You’ll probably want to start by cropping out much of the black background. Then try manually adjusting brightness and contrast (and, in Lightroom, the histogram) until your image is to your liking. Judiciously applying sharpening to an image can do it a world (moon?) of good. Most effective is the “unsharp mask” that you’ll find in Photoshop as well as some other programs.
For more, check out the gallery below, which features 10 moon shots I’ve taken with various cameras.