Full Moon Photography - Super Moon Tonight

Cloudy Moonrise over Charleston, SC Harbor, (c) Lauren Peeler Brice

Cloudy Moonrise over Charleston, SC Harbor, (c) Lauren Peeler Brice

Tonight we have the opportunity to photograph our fourth Super Moon of the year. Previous 2014 Super Moons were January 1 and 30, and July 12. After tonight, one remains for the year on September 9. Not until 2018 will we see two Super Moons in the same month again.

A "Supper Moon" happens when the moon's orbit brings it within 99% of it's closest position to the earth. Actually, tonight's moon will just miss that mark. The full moon at perigee occurs at 2:09 PM today. Despite missing astronomical viewing perfection by just a little bit in both cases, we will still see a larger than usual moon as it rises at 7:53 PM ET at 103.3 degrees (a little south of East.) We wish you clear skies, no mosquitoes and super shots.

Know Before you Go

  • Check you camera settings before you go out. It is so much easier to check everything in comfortable, well lighted conditions.
  • Although the moon is full tonight, you don't have to shoot the moon when it is full. We often think of the full moon as "the one" to shoot but the non-full appearances provide more detailed photographs because the oblique angle of the sun hitting the moon gives shadow definition to the craters. So don't stress out if the weather hides the full moon or if you can't break free on just the right night. Go with the flow and get that shot anyway.
  • Use a program like Photographer's Ephemeris for smart phone or PC/Mac. It shows both sun and moon rise and set angles and times by date along with phases of the moon. With a little study and planning, you can select a location with a good view and some foreground interest.
  • Take a small flashlight or better still a headlamp with a red filter. It makes reading easier in the dark without killing your night vision. Really, it's OK. Nerdy is in.
  • Use a sturdy tripod. No explanation needed here. The steadier the better.
Moonrise Over Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor (c) Lauren Peeler Brice

Moonrise Over Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor (c) Lauren Peeler Brice

On Location

  • Arrive early at your location. The moon will appear larger as it rises. It also appears to move very quickly as it crosses the horizon. You need to be ready to shoot quickly.

  • Shelter your camera and tripod and/or weight it if it is windy.

  • Be sure to set the image stabilization correctly for your camera/lens on tripod. For older lenses with VR/IS this often means turning the stabilization OFF.

  • Even on a clear night, your clearest shots will come when the moon gets higher in the sky and there is less atmospheric disturbance but it appears as a smaller target as it ascends. Take shots throughout the rise. Remember to monitor your histogram continually, adjusting shutter speed to insure proper exposure.

  • Use your longest lens. If it is a zoom lens, extend it to it's longest length and then back it up a little. Most zoom lenses are sharper if not extended to the bitter end of their range.

  • Shoot in manual mode. Your in-camera meter isn't going to help much for this one.

  • Focus in manual mode. You will probably have focus just about perfect after one or two tries. Be sure to use your LCD/Live View and zoom into the image to check sharpness. Refocus as needed.

  • Use a trigger release, wired or wireless to reduce camera motion from contact with your hand. Make sure you lock your mirror up first. These steps reduce camera shake.

  • Because the moon is so far away, your focal point will be far past the hyper focal distance of your lens no matter what f-stop you choose. This gives you many choices. We'll use f/8 for this example. It is usually in the sweet spot for sharpness for most lenses.

  • Set your ISO to  the lowest available on your camera. Usually this is 100 or 200. Introduce as little noise as possible.

  • For shutter speed, start with 1/250 of a second. Take your first shot. Use both the histogram and photo review to check exposure and focus. Refine each. You'll want to see the moon's surface detail without overexposing.

  • Trial and error will be your path to selecting the best shutter speed. I strongly urge that you turn on the "blinkies" if your camera supports this feature. That is the setting that causes overexposed areas of an image, sometimes called blown out highlights, to blink white making it easy to see them and decrease the amount of light entering the camera as necessary for the next capture.

    The moon is by far the brightest natural body in the night sky. Believe it or not even if you use spot metering, you will need to underexpose a bit to see it's details. Starting with 1/250 of a second leaves you plenty of latitude to adjust the shutter speed slower or faster as needed. Remember, choosing the next faster shutter speed like 1/500 will allow 1/2 as much light to enter your lens, darkening the moon as it appears to your camera. Slowing the shutter speed to the next lowest setting like 1/125 will double the amount of light entering the lens and make the moon appear brighter. You want a fairly quick shutter speed. The moon is moving relative to your position. It is possible to pick up lunar motion if your shutter speed is too slow. An image taken at too slow a speed will show the moon blurred in a single direction.

So what are the exact exposure settings you should use? I can't tell you. Atmospheric conditions, time of day/night, phase of the moon, ambient light from near-by civilization will all affect your exposure. Start with the settings I've given you (f/8 at 1/250) and adjust the shutter speed until you get a great shot. Even if you miss the moon as it first rises, repeated practice will turn you into a lunar photography guru.

Full Moon as the Clouds Roll In, Charleston Harbor (c) Lauren Peeler Brice

Full Moon as the Clouds Roll In, Charleston Harbor (c) Lauren Peeler Brice

Star Gazer Alert - The Perseids Are Coming

Coming August 11 through 13 is the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. We have nearly no chance of capturing these fast moving objects in still images as they burn up in the atmosphere. But, if your camera records video and you don't mind hanging out after midnight, you may have some luck. Set you camera to manual and expose to capture the stars. Start recording, open the wine, lie back and enjoy a beautiful summer night. If you're still awake, remember to mark the time you see a meteor. It will make editing your video much quicker. Good luck.

Additional Reading

Super Moon Facts

Perseid Meteor Shower Viewing 

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1 Comment

Lauren Brice

Laurie grew up in the Annapolis area enjoying all that its rivers, woods, historic setting and strong community provide. After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in Biology, she returned home to the banks of the Severn River. An early career as a biologist for The Johns Hopkins University soon transitioned to positions in the emerging field of Information Technology. Laurie designed and taught countless computer application courses and developed strong programming, data analysis and management skills. Through it all, Laurie captured her love of nature, landscape and animal portraiture - especially birds in photography. Her photographs are featured in Field Guide on Insects of the Cloud Forest, author Paul Beck, Illustrator Ryan Hobson; the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas, TX; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website All About Birds; and the travel website Schmap.com. Her awards include Best in Show and several category prizes in the 2011 Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Friends of the 500th Annual Annual Competition; Honorable Mention in the Nature Conservancy's 5th Annual Photography contest and several exhibition awards from the Digital Photography Club of Annapolis.