How to photograph a supermoon

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ISO200, f2.8, 1/450th, 140mm. Hand held, stabilised against my car. 5.30pm 29 Jan 2018.


General supermoon photography guidelines

Exposure

1. You can't shoot the night sky on an auto exposure mode. Remind yourself how to shoot on manual mode. If you're shooting the moon, meter off the moon itself - that's the thing you want correctly exposed.

2. Don't be afraid to let the ISO climb to whatever it needs to. That's what it's there for.

3. Because you will be using longer shutter speeds, you will find that any ambient light starts to creep in. If you are shooting near streetlights or anywhere with car headlights, they will start to over-expose on your final image. 

This website has a world-wide map of light pollution. You can zoom in to see where the best darker skies are locally to you: Light Pollution map

Composition

1. If you've not done night sky photography before, concentrate on just getting your exposure right to start with - don't worry too much about composition.

2. Once you are confident with the controls, think about where you will place things in the frame. We all know what the moon is, but if you can include any kind of foreground interest (trees, buildings, people), it helps with the sense of scale. Check the elevation of the moon before you set out - you need it to be near the horizon for those shots where it is rising behind the trees.

 ISO200, f2.8, 1/480, 50mm. Handheld but resting on my car.

ISO200, f2.8, 1/480, 50mm. Handheld but resting on my car.

Practical tips

1. Take a red torch to preserve your night vision.

2. If possible scout your locations in daylight. 

3. Stay warm, take spare batteries.

4. Pay attention to where you can see the moon from your house before the full moon itself - you might be able to shoot from home.

5. Make sure your lens is clean. Use specialist, non-abrasive cleaning cloths. 

How to shoot the moon

The supermoon that we will see this week (January 31st, 2018) is so-called because it is at it's closest point to Earth in its monthly orbit at the time it is a full moon. (This month's is also a blue moon, because it is the second full moon in a single month.) 

It will appear larger in the sky, and will be slightly easier to photograph, than a normal sized moon.

1. Use the longest lens you have, at least a 50mm, but much longer if you have one. If you use a wide angle lens, or a phone, the moon will appear tiny in the frame. If you have teleconverters, use them to extend the focal length of your longest lens.

2. Shoot RAW, so you can rescue detail in processing.

3. Use manual focus to focus on the moon itself. Beware of simply focussing on infinity - it's more accurate to focus on the moon. Use Live View zoomed in if you have it. 

4. Use Manual mode. Although it moves slowly, the moon still moves, so keep your shutter speed over 1/60th. A full moon is very bright, and a supermoon is even brighter, so don't be surprised if you end up using "daylight" settings. Start with something like ISO400, 1/250th, f8. Check your results at 100% magnification - you want to check for a "smear" at the edge of the moon (shutter speed too slow), whether the moon in over/under exposed, and whether it is sharply in focus. Try wider apertures and lower ISOs if you are getting on OK with those settings. Watch out for camera shake if you are using a long, heavy lens.

5. Use an app like PhotoPills or the Photographer's Ephemeris to plan your shoot. Or if you prefer desktop, something like timeanddate.com will give you the moon's cycles for your location. In London, the supermoon full moon occurs at 13.28 on the 31st January, but in Adelaide Australia, it isn't until 23:56. PhotoPills tells me that in London sunset is at 16:50 and moonrise is at 16:57. So I can start planning to go out after about 5pm, or much later if I want darker skies (up until moonset at 08:13 next morning). 

6. If you are in the Pacific region, you will be in line for a total lunar eclipse as well. You can see the path of the eclipse here: timeanddate.com. If you want to shoot the whole eclipse, the basic principles stay the same, but as the moon falls into shade, you will have to increase your exposure. And then decrease it again as it comes out of the shade. To take a series of images, work out how long the eclipse will last (4-5 hours), and then space your shots out regularly (leave your camera on a tripod in between). Take spare batteries and stay warm. I strongly suggest you practise a couple of nights before the eclipse, so you know what settings to start with. 

7. Use a local meteorological forecasting site to get predicted and live cloud cover, to plan where you might have to be on the night. If you are lucky, you can shoot the moon from your bedroom window, staying warm and having tea on hand. 


This blog post is based on one of the more advanced projects tackled by the A Year With My Camera graduates' camera club. If you need help with the basics - shutter speed, aperture, metering - you can join the beginner's A Year With My Camera workshop here. It is entirely free via email:

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