Moon Photography: Finding the Right Balance
The 24th of June was supposed to be the only day of the year 2021 that was supposed to have a Super Moon, although I swear we had one a few months ago. Knowing that the moon is going to be big and juicy on this day, I set out to take the best photo of the moon that man has ever taken.
The photography equipment I had with me were my Canon M50 mirrorless camera, a 70 - 300mm lens, and my trusty old tripod. Not sure if you knew this, but the moon is really far away. So you would need a telephoto lens to take a good photo.
I did a bit of reading the day before, and a lot of people have recommended to go with at least 200mm. However, in my experience 200mm would not be enough. I was barely able to work with 300mm. But you know what they say, big is always better.
A day before the big day, I set out my equipment to do some test shots, and oh boy am I glad I did that. I tried different combinations of settings and what surprised me the most was that the camera setting should be adjusted to high amounts of light. That is low ISO with a wide aperture and quick shutter, or small aperture with a slow shutter speed.
The biggest takeaway from this observation was to never trust the photo you see on the camera display before going into editing. Although it is very clear that the photo with the wise aperture and quick shutter is the better one, they both looked a lot similar at the time, until I looked at them on the computer.
Also, another reason for the terrible turnout of the second photo was wind. Since I am at 300mm focusing on the moon (which is really far BTW), even a small amount of wind would introduce some noticeable amount of shake no matter how stable my tripod was. So combining the long exposure with wind was really a recipe for disaster.
I shared the photos on Instagram and Twitter, and asked for people’s opinions on shooting the moon. People on Instagram agreed that the better settings of the two is clearly a wide aperture and quick shutter.
I asked for people’s opinions on Twitter as well, and got some interesting responses as well. One of the interesting suggestions was to use the Looney 11 rule, which ended up showing the best results.
Doing my research, I was ready for the big day. I woke up the next morning hoping for clear skies in the evening. It did rain during the day, but by the time the moon came out, the sky started to get clearer.
Learning from my mistakes the day before, I set up my equipment next to a wall on my rooftop to stay clear from the wind as much as possible. It was around 6.30 PM when the moon came out. The sky was still lit at the time, and I took my very first photo.
I was happy with what turned out, and was ready for the big shoot. One of the most annoying parts of taking photos of the moon was having to keep readjusting my tripod because the moon kept going out of frame.
Just for the fun of it, after taking some test photos, I rearranged the tripod so that the moon appeared at the bottom of the frame, and started recording until it reached the top. It took exactly 10 minutes for the moon to go all the way from the bottom to the top. Good job moon! Anyway, here’s a video that I took speed up to 60x.
Now that I had some decent protection from the wind, I decided to give the ol’ small aperture with a slow shutter another chance to see if it would improve anything. There was still a bit of light in the sky. I wanted to compare it with the other setting and see if there was any improvement. Unfortunately, the image still turned out to be more blurry and blown out compared to the first one.
So I gave it some more time and waited till the sky became completely dark to give it one last chance. I realised that this could be improved by making the shutter a bit quicker.
Although increasing the shutter speed did help, the final result wasn’t nearly as good as having a wide aperture and quick shutter speed.
Up until this point, I have been taking photos with the highest and lowest possible aperture settings. It was time to spice things up a bit. Knowing that a faster shutter speed is the way to go, I started playing around with the aperture and Looney 11 Rule.
The rule is very simple.
Whenever you are trying to take an image of the moon, start off using an aperture value of f/11 and then use the reciprocal of the ISO you choose as the shutter speed.
That is, you start off with setting the aperture at f/11. Then, if your ISO is 100, your shutter speed should be 1/100. Similarly, if your ISO is 200, the shutter speed is 1/200, and so on. I tried this with different ISO and shutter values, always setting the aperture at f/11.
The results are significantly better than what we had before. However, the photos started becoming more and more noisy as we got closer to ISO 1600. In my opinion, the first 3 photos were the best ones.
Here’s ISO 100 at 1/100 shutter speed at different aperture values.
In my opinion, the result of the f11 aperture was the better photo for me.
Shooting the moon with clouds
All this time, I’ve been only shooting the moon without any foreground. But there are a lot of times where a part of the moon gets covered by a cloud that would go for a nice photo. I tried varying the aperture and shutter speed and taking photos, but they didn’t come out as good as I wanted them to.
After some more testing, I noticed that to get a good photo with clouds in the foreground, we need to have a high ISO. And since the clouds are moving, we can’t have a slow shutter as well. So, I tried taking different photos setting the ISO at 1600.
After playing around with the settings, I noticed that f/5.6 and 1/250 at ISO 1600 was the sweet spot. I took a few photos and finally, snapped this magnificent work of art.
This was one of my favourite photos that I have ever taken. However, since the ISO was at a really high value, the clouds look great and the moon is fine, but it’s a bit blown out. If I wanted a clear moon and clouds in the same photo, I would either have to compromise both or do some editing, which is exactly what I did.
So what I did here was that I took the original photo with clouds, and the photo of the moon without clouds, and put them together in Photoshop. Half an hour later, bippity boppity boop. Bob’s your uncle, I came out with this!
And that’s the story of how I spent 3 hours of my life trying to photograph the moon. Now that I have shared my experience, I hope that you won’t have to waste 3 hours of your life doing this. Good luck!