The Moon: You Don’t Need a Fancy DSLR!

Having trouble shooting the moon?  Are you always getting a blurred or over-exposed (or both) blob?  You are not alone!  Don’t feel discouraged, you don’t need an expensive DSLR to get great moon shots.  A DSLR’s telephoto lenses can get you “closer” to the moon, but the basic exposure is the same for any camera.

Shot with my Kodak Z712

For the best results, make sure your camera has a mode dial with the PSAM (Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual) modes.  Shutter Priority (Tv if you have a Canon) allows the user to choose the shutter speed,  exposure bias, and ISO while the camera chooses what it thinks is the proper aperture.  In Manual, the user chooses the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO (exposure bias doesn’t apply in M, the camera chooses).  Shooting in Manual mode can be daunting at first but once you become comfortable with it, you’ll find yourself using it more and more often.

First, forget everything you know about night photography.  While the sky is dark in the evening after sunset, the moon is a sun-lit object and doesn’t require super long exposures or high light sensitivity.

ISO:   The camera sensor’s sensitivity to light.    When shooting for moon, make sure your ISO isn’t set to auto! High ISO causes noise in a photo, so it is best to keep the ISO as low as possible.  Set your ISO to the lowest value; depending on the camera model, the lowest ISO setting can vary from 50, 64, 80, or 100.  If your camera goes as low as 50 or 64, you may need to adjust your shutter speed to compensate.

Aperture:  Aperture controls the depth of a photo through a circular mechanism in your camera that opens and closes every time you take a photo.  The confusing thing about aperture is that a wide aperture – small portion in focus – corresponds to a small number (f/2.8, for example).  Small aperture – large depth of field to everything in focus – is larger numbers.  So…

  • Wide aperture (also known as wide open) lets in MORE light and creates a small/shallow depth of field (blurry background).
  • Small apertures let in LESS light and create large depths of field.  Good for landscapes or shots when you want everything in focus.
  • Large apertures are small numbers, small apertures are large numbers.

Confused yet? One more thing:

Focal length also influences your aperture.  Basically, a fancy way of saying that depending on how much zoom you’re using, there is a maximum aperture value (don’t forget, the widest the aperture can open) that for that amount zoom (focal length).  Depending on how much zoom your camera is equipped with, aperture when the zoom is fully maxed out will vary somewhere between about f/4.8 and f/5.8.  Don’t worry about this, you’ll want large depth of field for the moon.

Shutter Speed:  Shutter speed controls action and how fast it is stopped or frozen.  How fast the shutter clicks or closes determines how much light is let in and how much the action, if any is stopped.  A fast shutter speed, such as 1/500 will stop most action but depending on the lighting conditions that may be too fast and cause the camera to underexpose, or may not be fast enough and camera will overexpose or the motion will still be blurred.

What about tripods?

Despite what professionals tell you, a tripod is not absolutely necessary to shoot the moon.  Unless you have terribly shaky hands, you can get perfectly good hand-held shots of the moon.  The tripod I have does not work well with either of my cameras so it’s generally more work than it’s worth, besides being one more piece of equipment to carry around.  With the moon you won’t get motion blur from shaky hands but more likely missed focus, resulting in a “blurry” or fuzzy moon.

If you have average to steady hands, a poor man’s tripod will give you the best results.  Here are some great tricks:

 ♦     If there is a tree, post, wall, etc. that you can steady yourself against, use it.
     Get in the habit of pressing the shutter button down halfway to focus before taking the picture.  That way the camera focuses better and there is less movement created than if the shutter was pressed fully in one motion.
    Use yourself as the tripod.  You can brace against yourself by keeping your upper arms down to your elbows tight against your ribs.  You can also sit on the the ground and steady your elbows on your knees.
   Regulate your breathing.  Take a deep breath and hold it, while pressing down the shutter.
    If your camera has a continuous shooting/burst mode (not the Sports setting), the continuous auto focus and several photos in quick succession make it easier to get at least one that is in focus.

Now that I’ve thrown all that at you, let’s try and shoot for the moon!

  1. Set your ISO as low it will go.
  2. Select your aperture.  I shoot at f/5.7 or f/6.3 but that is a personal preference.  If you’re shooting in Shutter Priority mode, the camera will choose the aperture, so you may need to compensate for that with the shutter speed.
  3. Select your shutter speed.  1/100 is a good base to start with and you can adjust up or down if it’s too bright or too dark.
  4. This only applies if you’re shooting in Shutter Priority, make sure the exposure bias is set to 0.  In Manual, the camera will automatically do it for you.

When focusing on the moon, it’s best to put it right in the middle of the frame.  Don’t worry about the rule of thirds or creative cropping, you can do that later. Most auto focus, unless you have a DSLR is center-weighted, which means that the camera wants to focus on whatever is in the center of the frame.  The goal is to get the moon is focus, so subject placement isn’t that important.

Tip:  If your camera has digital zoom, and it’s enabled, don’t use it.  It is essentially the same as cropping, which you can do later when the photo is on your computer.

That’s basically all there is to it.  Don’t be afraid to experiment, and most importantly, have fun!

Happy shooting!

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