Photography: The moon shot!

Moon shots are always fascinating – they can make for a wonderful background to nearly any outdoor night shot. However, with better lenses and cameras the moon is becoming more prominent in the foreground. On a clear night, a good DSLR with a high zoom lens can capture even some of the surface detail of the moon and this is all getting better.

I remember the night of December 10th, 2011 when sitting at a bonfire in Bharatpur we discovered that it was a night of a total lunar eclipse. I had with me an entry-level DSLR with a kit lens (55-250) and a cheap tripod. I was just learning the tricks of the trade and tried my luck with autofocus and experimental settings. It didn’t work too well, though it was a fascinating night to sit outside and enjoy the complete celestial spectacle.

I was enamored by taking good moon shots and it was only recently when I got a better camera, a 150-600 lens, and some years of experience that I started getting clear and crisp pictures of the moon. These were mostly taken at an ISO of about 800, full zoom with manual focus, and about 1/400 shutter speed. On a clear night, the moon is bright enough for this to happen handheld. When I tried to do this during the total lunar eclipse of Jan 2019, I could not get away from the city. There was too much ambient light and the moon was obviously too dark for even a proper shot.

One genre of shots of the moon that has always fascinated me is the super moon shot with the moon looking almost artificially big in the background of a natural object. For a while, I believed these were photoshopped. However, as I studied more I realized that it required 6 things to get this done naturally:

  • A near-perfect setting with a tree or an object in the distance (at least 200 meters away) behind whom the horizon is visible or the object is on a short hill. I recently found one such location in the Trees and Tigers resort in Sariska.
  • A very clear night on the full moon cycle. You can click this with a half or crescent moon, but the light will be lesser making it a harder shot.
  • A camera with a very high ISO setting. I had a Canon 6D and that was clearly not enough. Maybe the new R6?
  • A high zoom lens. I used a 150-600 and I think it is sufficient
  • A sturdy tripod. I did not have a tripod on the day and it was dearly missed
  • A little bit of planning to get the equipment ready – usually you will have about 2-5 min when the moon is perfectly aligned.

The trick is to have the foreground object also be far away from the camera but then click a close-up shot using a good zoom lens. Setup the tripod to focus on the moon with the far-away object as a foreground. Click on maximum zoom, so a large part of the composition is taken by the moon. Since the object is far away it will appear only partially larger than the moon, making the moon look massive in comparison. You will need to have the aperture really high (F16+) to be able to get both the object and moon in focus. To manage that at night, a high ISO and low shutter speed is critical and hence the need for a tripod. Push the ISO to the highest your camera will go without making the image grainy. Since I was clicking handheld, I had to limit the shutter speed to about 1/200 and that still caused a little blur.

Since I could not push the aperture so high, I had to pick what was sharper, the tree or the moon. I have posted both – please let me know in the comments which one you like more.

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