May 7, 2012 moon images


Do your photos of the Moon look like this:

Nikon D7000 with a Tamron SP 70-300mm F/4-5.6 Di VC USD lens shot at F/10 and 1/2 of a second shutter speed.  ISO 100.  Focal range: 300mm. 


Don’t feel bad, as some help is on the way.  With a little effort, they might look like this (click on it for the full rez image):



Nikon D7000 with a Tamron SP 70-300mm F/4-5.6 Di VC USD lens shot at F/11 and 1/30 of a second shutter speed.  ISO 100.  Focal range: 300mm

I took these around Midnight on Monday May 7, 2012.

After the shoot was over, I had these thoughts:

• Don’t trust the meter.  Often times the black night skies and the bright moon messes up the camera’s exposure meter, especially with matrix metering; this is similar to shooting in bright snow, but the opposite of that.  Unless you can change it to spot metering, be careful what your meter tells you.  Shoot an image, and then look at it…repeat as needed…until you have the exposure you want.  A bright, full moon may surprise you with higher than expected exposure settings.

• Shoot in Manual.  Your chances of getting a quality moon image using your camera’s “Program” mode is very small because of the above paragraph.  Your chances of a quality shot go up substantially when you are in control of the photographic process.  So, shoot in Manual (it’s not that hard to do).

• Under-expose.  To get detail in the moon, you have to under-expose it.  Standard exposure will get you a featureless, bright white blob; similar to the first image posted here.  Yuck.

• Use the sweet spot.  Your lens is sharpest in the center of the glass, so center the moon in your frame.  You can always creatively crop it later.  Most consumer zooms (such as my Tamron) are sharpest using an F-stop in the middle of the range.  Most of the time, this is from F8 to F16.  You cannot go wrong using these F-stops.  Shooting wide open can soften the image.

• Tripod, tripod, tripod, but that’s NOT enough.  At longer focal lengths, it’s absolutely crucial that you use either a remote shutter release, or if you don’t have one of those, the camera’s self timer.  The key here is to reduce vibration to the camera; that includes when you push the shutter button.  It’s just amazing how much lens shake happens at 300mm when you touch your camera.  That shake softens/blurs your image.   

 HANDS OFF!  If you use your self timer for a cable release, set it to at least 10 seconds.  A 2 second self timer (like I often use) is not long enough to stabilize the camera at that focal length (after you hit the shutter release, the camera shakes for a few seconds).

• Mirror Up.  If you have a “Mirror Up” feature on your camera; use it.  Wait 5-7 seconds (maybe more) after engaging the MU feature before you engage the actual shutter.  This does make a difference.

• Block out the stray.  Having an eyepiece cover can help with unwanted, stray light getting in through the back viewfinder.

• Some light on the subject.  Bring a small flashlight.  I struggled with the camera controls a bit on this shoot since it was so dark.

• Crop, baby, crop.  In order to bring out worthwhile magnification, you’ll have to crop your original image.  Even a 400mm cropped-sensor, DX format lens (which is 600mm in 35mm terms) and camera will give you a relatively small moon image.  So in this case, the more megapixels you have, the better.  I also suggest the lowest ISO your camera can be set to (plus, as always, shoot in RAW).  NOTE: since you are cropping the snot out of the image to make the moon larger, that will limit how large you can print it.   

• Don’t be afraid.  There is very little pixel data for moon images, so expect very small file sizes.  Don’t be alarmed if they are only several hundred kilobytes or so (versus the multiple megabytes of a normal image).   


I am no expert on this (admittedly, a chunk of this is from John Shaw’s book), but this is what I noted when I did my shoot.  However, this is important; the two images shown at the start of this page were taken at the same time with the EXACT SAME camera and lens!  One image is quite good, and the other is quite awful.  The difference is one used the helpful hints I listed here, and one did not.  Good luck!


all images © Scott Woelm – May 2012