How to Photograph the Moon

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The 50th anniversary of the first moon landing is a great occasion to go outside, stare hard at our closest celestial neighbor, and maybe capture a photo.

If you're shooting on July 20, exactly 50 years after the Apollo Lunar Module carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed, you'll see the moon in its waning gibbous phase, still pretty close to full. And if you have clear skies where you live, that can make for a good photograph. 

Except that it's a bit more complicated than just pointing and shooting. Do that, and you'll likely get disappointing results. (It's even harder to photograph the earth from the moon; get started here.)

There are a couple of reasons why it's tough to photograph the moon. The first issue is that you'll be trying to capture a subject in its own source of light. The night sky adds another tricky element—extreme contrast. And challenges like those can wreak havoc on your camera's auto metering system.

However, making some adjustments to your settings and equipment can help you overcome the challenges. Here's what you need to do.

1. Make a plan: If you’re hoping to shoot the moon rising over the horizon or hanging above your town, you’ll want to choose the setting carefully. Street lights and porch lights can detract from the image, so try to avoid having them in the picture.

2. Use a tripod: Regardless of the camera's shutter speed, you'll probably have better results shooting the moon with a tripod. If you don't own one, see if you can find a table or a wall to rest your camera on. And, when possible, use a self timer to snap the photo. That eliminates hand shake, which blurs the picture.

3. Shoot with a long optical zoom: While smartphones are handy, you'll see a dramatic difference when you use a camera with a long zoom lens. Look at the shot above, taken with an iPhone. The moon looks like a dot in the night sky above Peconic Bay in Greenport, Long Island. By contrast, the other photos in the story were shot with superzoom point-and-shoots featuring long optical zoom lenses.

4. Experiment with the exposure settings: Some digital cameras actually have a moon scene mode that optimizes the settings for you. If you don't own one of those, set the camera on manual and play around with different apertures and ISO settings. The photographer who took the photos shown here generally keeps the shutter speed constant, at around 1/125th or 1/250th of second, to minimize camera shake and vibration. However, he did use a much slower speed to capture the reddish tone of the "blood" moon below, which is why the image is a bit soft on detail.

5. Take lots and lots of photos. It may take awhile to find the ideal settings, so be patient and keep shooting. When at last you hit on the right image, you'll be happy you stuck with it.

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