Moon shot

A full moon has been celebrated in both fact and folklore. The moon gravitational field affects the Earth’s tides. There have been reports of an increase of crime during full moons. Romantic scenes depict couples parked at lovers’ lane under a full moon (granted, it’s often in some type of slasher movie and bad things happen to the young lovers). Werewolves are said to transform under a full moon. The ancient Greeks named Artemis as the goddess of the moon. It’s been immortalized in film (“Moon Over Miami” starring Don Ameche and Betty Grable – 1941) and song (“Blue Moon” by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart 1934) and even in a breakfast foods (Denny’s Moon Over My-Hammy meal) Any way you view it, once (or twice during “blue” moon periods) a month a full moon comes out to haunt or enchant us.

According to, using a 100mm lens (considered a mild telephoto or portrait lens) the moon will take up only 0.3% of the frame, so getting a tight shot of the moon requires a very long lens. To get a photo with very little or no cropping something in the order of a 1000mm to 1500mm lens is needed, but that could be costly for the average person. I would say the equivalent of a 300mm lens would be the minimum requirement. The moon would be still be small in the frame, but you could crop the picture using a photo editing program with acceptable results. Teleconverters (sometimes called tele-extenders or doublers) are optical devices that fit between the lens and camera which, depending on maginfication, can extend a lens’ reach by half again to double. The downsides are they cut down the lens’ light gathering abilities by their order of magnification (a 2x extender will decrease the amount of light by 2 f/stops) and there can also be a slight loss of sharpness. There are camera mounts for telescopes that can get close shots of the moon as well (the Japanese blog posted surprisingly decent photos of the moon shot with an iPhone taped to a telescope!).

Being in the middle of the night, most people think getting a shot of the moon one needs to use a long-time exposure.  Actually it’s just the opposite. Think about a bright cloudless day, say around noontime. It  may be hard to believe with it being shrouded in darkness but that’s the same amount of light falling on the moon (well, at least the side that we see from here). To get it properly exposed, you can follow what’s known as the “sunny 16” rule. The rule, which is used for exposures on bright sunny days, states that your camera’s aperture should be at f/16 while the shutter speed should be set at the nearest ISO number (for example at ISO 400 the shutter speed would be 1/400th of a second). You may think that when we see the moon it’s farther away from the sun than we are, so there must be some loss of light. That’s true, but the difference is negligible. The sun is about 93 million miles from the earth. A full moon is “only” another 250,000 miles or so further from the sun, a drop in a bucket distance-wise.

A lit full moon is thousands of times brighter than night on earth, even if the foreground is a bright urban setting. At best your camera can handle 2 or 3 times the difference. You should use your camera’s manual exposure setting, not automatic.The surrounding darkness will fool the camera into thinking the moon is darker than it really is, and you’ll over expose the picture.

Because you can either get the correct exposure for the moon or the surrounding area but not both, you’ll have to make a choice between the two. If you’re taking a close-up of the moon with a long lens, then the “sunny 16” rule should be followed. It won’t work for an overall scene with a wide-angle lens. The moon will be just be a tiny — though well-exposed — dot in a sea of inky blackness. You’ll have to use a longer exposure to capture the foreground and let the moon be overexposed. That’s not entirely a bad thing. An extremely overexposed moon will appear several times larger than it is, a boon when using a wide-angle lens.

There are two notable exceptions to the either-or scenario. The first is to shoot a double-exposure. One shot with a well exposed moon and another without the moon at all. It was a bit of a pain to do this back in the days of film, but now in the digital age, it is as easy as cut-and-paste.

The second exception is that occasionally the moon will rise just before the sun sets completely. The moon will be low on the horizon so the Earth’s atmospheric haze will cut out some of the its brightness while the ambient light is bright enough to capture the foreground. You’ll have to figure out when this is going to happen (usually by checking out weather almanacs on sunsets/moonrises). You’ll have to be prepared to shoot quickly because the window of opportunity to shoot is fleeting, sometimes only minutes.

All these techniques will work with the moon in almost any phase, but it’s the full moon that tends to capture our imagination and fascinates us and and provides us with inspiration.

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