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Lesson 5A: Shooting at Night, Mysteries of the Moon

September 19th, 2010 · 1 Comment

For this 3-part lesson, the goal is to go over some techniques dealing with shooting at night.  Because I get many questions on my nightscapes (including shots of the moon), I’m breaking this topic into 3 lessons that touch on the moon, star trails and lightning.  Let’s start with tips on photographing the moon.

People are often confused when photographing the moon.  Most of the confusion comes from the fact that many shots of the moon turn out super bright with no detail to be found.  It’s important to realize that because the moon is very small in your frame, with the camera typically defaulted to Evaluative Metering; most of what’s in the frame (dark sky) is determining the final exposure.  Because the camera ultimately exposes for the sky mostly, the bright moon ends up being blown out.  This is yet another reason to be in Manual Mode in order to take over the camera and determine the proper exposure for the moon itself.  One could instead change to Spot Metering, but I think it’s simpler to override the exposure manually and switching metering modes won’t typically yield the proper result which may cause even more frustration.

The first thing to do is get your longest telephoto lens and put it on the sturdiest tripod you have.  Shoot from the ground (not a deck or something that moves) and get the rig positioned with the moon in the center of your frame.  You will have to re-adjust often (the moon won’t stay put in your frame!)

Go into Manual Mode and first choose an aperture close to wide open but stopped down 1 or 2 stops.  For an f/4 telephoto lens, this would be f5.6 or f8.  For determining the shutter speed, I start with something like 1/50th, focus on the moon and see where I end up.  This will change drastically based on the phase of the moon.  While looking through the viewfinder, you should see the Exposure Compensation graph and a little line or blinking line marking where your chosen exposure is in relation to that graph.  This is the camera’s meter showing where your chosen exposure is in relation to what the camera thinks is the proper exposure.

If the line or blinking line is way to the right, the camera is telling you the exposure is too bright.

If the line or blinking line is way to the left, the camera is telling you the exposure is too dark.

Notice above that the camera says the exposure is too dark but the Moon is still overexposed.  This is why Manual Mode is necessary; overriding the exposure dark enough has to be done in Manual Mode.  At this point, change your shutter speed accordingly (speed it up) and take another shot.  You can adjust and shoot until you start to see a nicely colored moon with lots of detail.  When you’re happy with what’s happening either use a timer or a wired remote to take the final shots.  This will reduce camera shake and create a nice final result.  I typically take a few shots at the chosen shutter speed and then a few more with shutter speeds slightly faster and slower so you end up with a few exposures to choose from.  Of the group of shots I took for this lesson, below is the one I felt was sharp and exposed properly.  Notice where the line ended up on the Exposure Compensation graph.  Where the moon looked the best, the line is nowhere NEAR being in the graph so it’s blinking (not typically where most would expect it to be).  While the camera exposes pretty well the majority of the time, it pays to know how to override exposure for just this example.

Click on the image above to see the final cropped and worked image…

Let’s go over the “TOP 5″ summary points to take away from this lesson:
1) A sturdy platform is an absolute must (good tripod)
     2) Get out of AUTO modes and take over the Exposure manually
     3) Use a wired remote or the camera’s timer to cut down on camera shake
     4) Review often and make changes based on what you see
     5) Be patient, have fun, and share your shots with others!

Stay tuned for “Lesson 5B: Shooting at Night, Stars and Beyond” where we’ll look at more advanced night-shooting techniques.

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