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Shooting the Moon

A Lesson in Exposure for Beginning Photographers

Shooting the moon is a really great way for the beginning photographer to practice exposure and really gain a full understanding of how the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) all works together. So, pull out your DSLR tonight and follow this quick, easy-to-understand guide to get an amazing moon photograph regardless of your camera make/model or the lens you have available! 

When you're thinking about photographing the moon, the first things you should be concerned with are the same as when you are shooting any other subject — the sharpness of the moon (your subject) in your final image, and properly exposing the moon (your subject) so that it doesn't just look like a giant white ball. If you take a test picture with your camera in auto mode you'll see what I mean — because auto mode is exposing for the entire scene you're photographing, the moon will be a bright white ball in the resulting image. You have to use manual mode to photograph the moon and tell your camera how to properly expose for its light so you can see all the amazing detail; this is the power of manual mode! 

Before we get to specifics regarding the moon, though, let's quickly go over the three elements of the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) and what they do to ensure we have a solid foundation to build these skills. 

Aperture, commonly referred to as your f-number, is the opening through which light passes through your lens controlling the amount of light allowed to reach the sensor. Your aperture opens or closes at set "stops" commonly referred to as "f-stops". As you lower your f-number you are opening up your lens more and allowing more light pass thru the lens resulting in a brighter image. As you raise your f-number you are closing up your lens more and allowing less light to pass thru the lens resulting in a darker image. This also affects the focus of your image. The lower your f-number, the more foreground/background blur while the higher your f-number the less foreground/background blur. To put it simply:

Lower F-number > brighter > less focus overall
Higher F-number > darker > more focus overall

Shutter speed is how fast the shutter in your camera opens and closes and is measured in seconds, and is the length of time the light coming through your lens will be hitting the sensor. As you raise your shutter speed you are shooting faster and allowing less time for the light to hit the sensor, resulting in a darker image. As you lower your shutter speed you are shooting slower and allowing more time for the light to hit the sensor. Shutter speed also determines the ability to capture motion. The higher your shutter speed, the more motion you can freeze in the image. The lower your shutter speed, the more motion will blur in the image. To put it simply:

Higher Shutter > darker image > freeze motion
Lower Shutter > brighter image > motion blur

ISO measures how sensitive your sensor is to the light. The lower your ISO, the less sensitive you're telling the sensor to be while the higher the ISO is the more sensitive you're telling the sensor to be. ISO really gives you control in darker situations and can allow you to shoot more freely at higher shutter speeds and lower apertures. ISO will effect the amount of grain/noise in your final image. To put it simply:

Higher ISO > more sensitive sensor > brightens your image > more grain
Lower ISO > less sensitive sensor > darker image > less grain

Putting It All Together...

So now that we know the elements of the exposure triangle and the ways that they are going to effect the images we produce we can tell that for a photograph of the moon we probably want a higher aperture so that we have less light coming thru and more focus on the moon. We don't have to worry about freezing motion so we don't need a very high shutter speed, but we want to make sure our shutter is not too low because we don't want to over expose the moon. We also don't need a very high ISO because we don't want our moon to be too bright and over exposed, but we may need it higher than the standard 100.

So what settings should you use? First set your aperture. Since the moon reflects the suns light and can be very bright, especially when full, we can use the sunny 16 rule and set the aperture to f/16 as a starting place. A shutter speed of around 1/125 will ensure no motion blur from hand holding lenses, especially if you are hand holding long lenses, but if you're using a tripod you can drop the shutter speed lower if you need to/want to. Lastly adjust your ISO to achieve the desired exposure. Depending on the phase of the moon and the ambient light surrounding you at the time you are shooting the moon you will need to adjust these settings to compensate for having more light or less light available, and you may need to adjust your settings to allow for a lower ISO if you find that you're getting too much grain.

The First Full Moon of 2018 & the 2018 Full Moon Schedule

For the image above of the January 1, 2018 Super Moon setting at 7:20am on January 2, 2018, I used an aperture of f/13, then adjusted my shutter speed and ISO to expose the moon's peachy orange glow (SS 1/100, ISO 400) on my Nikon D750 with a Sigma 105mm lens attached.

Below, you will find the 2018 full moon schedule according to NASA if you're looking to capture a shot of the full moon this year as part of your photography journey!

  • Jan 31
  • March 1
  • March 31
  • April 29
  • May 29
  • June 28
  • July 27
  • August 26
  • September 24
  • October 24
  • November 23
  • December 22
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Shooting the Moon
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