Why photograph the moon? / by Zachary Hayes

Waxing Crescent PHOTO BY Zachary Hayes

Waxing Crescent PHOTO BY Zachary Hayes

The Moon is debatably the most recognizable celestial body. It’s been studied, abstracted and symbolically depicted for as long as people have looked up to the sky. While it’s visible to us nearly every night, it only really gets attention during the occasional Super Moon, Lunar eclipse, or even rarer Solar eclipse. Which is such a shame because the Moon is interesting and deserving of you and your camera’s attention. Here are a few reasons why…

The Moon is dynamic

The Moon is constantly changing, as the lunar cycle is approximately 27 days. Which means it rises and sets an hour later each day. The percentage of illumination or ‘How full it is’ changes 3-10% per day, and travels 2,288 miles per hour (3,683 kph) as it circles the Earth. If you were to photograph the moon daily you would get a different image every day and see the changes as the sliver of Moon grows and the shadows shrink.

The Moon is a convenient subject to photograph

It doesn’t even have to be dark out! Unlike most astrophotography subjects, such as the milky way, distant stars or nebulae, you don’t need dark skies that can only be found by driving two hours away from the nearest city on a moonless night. I find my best images come from photographing the moon around Twilight. I can make all the exposures I need in a few minutes, and don’t need to stay up until midnight.

The moon is visible nearly everywhere, if you see the sun during the day you will be able to see the Moon at night. Most of the time I photograph the Moon I am doing from it my driveway or backyard, so the travel time is nearly zero. Then, it only takes a couple of minutes to pull my camera out, change lenses, setup my tripod and shoot.

You don’t need expensive gear

You don’t need the latest mirrorless or DSLR with high ISO capability or a super fast f/1.4 lens. A full moon is really bright, it reflects enough light from the sun to cast shadows in the middle of the night. This means you don’t need high ISOs, I typically try to shoot as low as possible Somewhere around 320-800 ISO. And, because you are trying to capture a lot of detail and sharpness of the Moon’s features you are going to shoot at a smaller aperture, approximately f/8 to f/11.

Long focal length is key to being able to capture the Moon with a lot of detail. A long telephoto lens helps, and I would recommend a minimal focal length of 200mm. But you can find kit lenses that will have a range up to 200 or 300mm.

Almost full PHOTO BY Zachary Hayes

Almost full PHOTO BY Zachary Hayes

Photographing the Moon is a challenge

Its big, bright, and you can make a fair bit of detail with the naked eye, but have you actually tried to photograph it? It’s quite a challenge. The dynamic range between the lit portion of the Moon’s surface and the sky is impossible to capture in one exposure with today’s camera technology. So whether you are going after a frame full of Lunar landscape with tons of detail, or a more traditional nature landscape accented by the moon you will have to bracket your exposures, or use one of the other creative techniques out there.

Photographing the Moon is practice for celestial events

It’s never a good idea to try a new technique, or try a new piece of gear during a once in a lifetime event. The chances of getting everything right is slim. The duration of these events is usually 5-20 minutes, and when you’re on site and exposing away, it's only going to feel like the blink of an eye.

The first time I tried to photograph the moon was during the Super Blood Moon of September 28, 2015. I borrowed a 300mm f/4, and was going to use it on my new Nikon D810. I assumed it would be easy...oh how wrong I was! First, during the lunar eclipse the Sun’s light that is normally reflected by the Moon is being blocked, and refracted by the Earth and its atmosphere. So the moon, while still very bright in comparison to the other sky objects, is quite a bit darker than normal. To get a good exposure requires turning up your ISO, leaving the shutter open longer, or opening up the aperture. I got images, but the shutter speed was too long, and I lost most of the detail to blur.

Full Moon PHOTO BY: Zachary Hayes

Full Moon PHOTO BY: Zachary Hayes

So, I encourage you to get outside and photograph the Moon. The next Super Moons will occur on October 16, 2016 and November 14, 2016. Be sure to check back for future articles including a beginning to end tutorial on ‘How to Photograph the Moon’ and some tips to take taking your Moon shots from okay to outstanding.