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Photographing the moon

Wildlife and nature photography hints and tips



Photographing the moon

First the images, and then how I took them.

Image of the full moon

Full moon - Kent in January 2007

 

Crop of the moon

Crop from the above image

It was an unusually clear night on the 5th of January 2007, and there was a wonderful full moon, so I thought I'd have a go at photographing it.
I do not own and have never so much as looked through an astronomy telescope, so these pictures might be easy to obtain with such a beast - but my goal was just to capture as decent a picture as my camera gear could obtain.

If you own one of the super telephoto lenses of 500mm plus, you might like to have a go.

Equipment

I brought out the big guns on this one. My longest lens - the Canon 500mm f4 IS with a 2x Canon teleconverter. I used the 20D rather than the 1D mk2 as it has a higher pixel density on it's 1.6x sensor.

As I wanted to ideally fill the frame with the moon if I could, I quickly added my other teleconverter - a 1.4x and stacked this on top of the 2x to get even more magnification. The total focal length was now 500mm x 2 x 1.4 = 1400mm. With the 1.6x factor of the 20D this equated to a staggering effective focal length of 2240mm ! That's more like it.

First experiences

I mounted the lens onto my sturdy Gitzo 1548 tripod with Kirk ball head and took a look through the viewfinder - I was met by ....a totally bright out of focus blur ! Ah. Ok, the autofocus doesn't work on the 20D when the 2x extender is used, so manual focus it had to be. That was easier said than done - I had to be so careful with the focussing, as moving the focus ring by the slightest amount had a huge effect.

The next issue was that as soon as I so much as touched the lens, the image vibrated terribly in the viewfinder. I could see that technique at these magnifications was going to be critical if I was going to get a sharp image. So next precaution was to set the camera to mirror-lockup (using custom function 12 on the 20D). In this mode, the first press of the shutter-release button flips the mirror up (and the viewfinder therefore goes black). The second click opens the shutter and the mirror returns down. The idea is to reduce vibration due to mirror-slap.
I also then used a remote cable release - as I couldn't even touch the shutter button without seeing the image vibrate in the viewfinder.

Ok - getting there, but not taken a single picture yet ! Look through the viewfinder again to check focus and - blast it - the moon has moved ! Who said it could do that ! reframe and try again.As I stared through the viewfinder, I could actually see it moving - wow.

To IS or not IS ? - that is the question

The advice on second generation telephotos such as the 500mm f4 is to keep the image stabilisation switched on when a tripod is used, but to switch it off on a first generation IS lens (such as the 100-400 IS). So IS was switched to on.
But - whoa - the image leapt up in the viewfinder as the IS kicked in and didn't return, so I had to reframe again. As I watched, I could see that the image was still just waving around very slightly, so I had to turn the IS off - contrary to the usual advice ! Whether this happened because I had stacked the converters (which is not a practice endorsed by Canon) I don't know. But the IS had to stay off on this occasion.


Exposure and ISO setting

I could see that this was going to be tricky, I knew that the bright moon would fool the camera's metering system - and so it did. I ended up using manual exposure for ultimate control.

I set the aperture to f8 - if in doubt use f8 ! This happened to also be the maximum aperture achievable with the stacked converters. I really didn't need much depth of field - the moon is essentially a flat disc to photograph, so f8 it was.

To get the correct shutter-speed I simply used trial and error - consulting the camera's histogram each time to keep the "mountain range" as far to the right of the graph as I could without sending the highlights off the scale into clipping. If you under-expose the image you will see a lot of noise in the black night sky behind the moon when you brighten it up in the RAW converter later - so exposure had to be spot on.

ISO setting was the one easy choice - ISO 200 gives pretty well maximum quality and dynamic range - so that is what I used.

White balance was just set to auto - I don't faf around with trying to get it right - that is the beauty of shooting RAW - just set it as required in post-processing later.

I settled on 1/80 second at f8 as being about right. I then just reframed the shot again for the umpteenth time and finally took a few shots and scuttled off to bed as it was getting pretty late.
- About 2:00 am to be precise. Had I really been at it for over two hours ? Wow - time flies when you are having fun!

Next Day

Next day I got up and eagerly inspected my previous night's work on the computer. How would the pictures look at 100% on the screen - and has stacking the converters killed image quality ?

I processed the raw images in the usual way (see my tutorial on raw conversion) , opened it in Photoshop, adjusted the levels (autolevels worked fine for once), sharpened with unsharp mask and then took a hard,critical look. Wow - the image quality was fantastic - but never mind that - just look at the surface of the moon !

I spent the next 15 minutes just pouring over the surface of the moon like a voyeur-explorer ! Look at those craters - look at those skid marks where a meteorite must have hit ! what are those lines ? What are those funny circles ? Absolutely fascinating !

So there we are - how to photograph the moon. Unfortunately I used a lot of mighty expensive equipment to achieve this result - but hey - it was just lying around doing nothing anyway !

So if you just happen to have a super-telephoto lens yourself - why not have a go ?

 

One last crop of the big crater at the top - can't see any cheese though.

Crop - big crater