Prior to a couple of years ago, I’d never even heard of a “super moon.” Don’t get me wrong — I was well aware of the phenomenon itself. I’d just never heard the term “super moon” being used to refer to it, before. I suspect that a lot of others hadn’t as well.
In my own estimation, I believe that the proliferation of the term owes much to the modern popularity of social media. As, of course, the scientific term for the super-moon phenomenon: A perigee-syzygy of the Earth and Moon, just doesn’t come close to functioning as well at being effective social media clickbait!
A super-moon occurs, on average, about once every fourteen months, or so. However, due to the somewhat erratic nature of the moon cycle, it is possible to, sometimes, get a couple of occurrences close together. Such is the case with the upcoming super-moon scheduled to occur on September 9th — just four days away. In case you missed it, the last super-moon occurred just last month. On August 14th.
So, what is a super-moon, anyway? Or, speaking more scientifically, what is a perigee-syzygy of the Earth and Moon? And, how does one best capture photographs of this marvel? And, why would anyone want to?
I’ll get to the good stuff regarding how to photograph the supermoon in just a second. But, first, I think that — if you don’t already know — you should probably understand just what a super-moon is. You know? So you can better decide as to whether you really even want to go to all the bother of photographing it or not in the first place.
The moon is constantly orbiting around the Earth. And, in its orbital journey around our planet, its situation, in relation to both our view of it, and to the position of the sun, causes us to see the moon in different states of illumination, at different times. About once a month the moon occupies a position wherein it exists in opposition to our sun — that is, that it occupies a position wherein the moon hangs in the sky on the opposite side of the earth from where the sun is. When this happens, we see what’s called a full moon.
Along with this, the moon’s orbit around the earth is not perfectly circular. It’s actually elliptical in shape — like an oval. And, because of this, logically, the moon, at different times during one full orbit of the earth — which it completes about once every 27.3 days (called a sidereal month) — is, at any given point along its orbital path — either closer, or farther away from the Earth than at any other given point. And, at one point in the moon’s orbital path it’s the closest to Earth that it ever gets.
Now, this point along the moon’s elliptically shaped, orbital path around the earth, where the moon is the closest it ever gets to earth, may occur when the moon is in any given lunar phase. It might happen when there’s a half-moon visible in the sky, or a brand new moon, that appears as just a sliver, is visible in the sky. But, it also might happen exactly when the moon is full. And, when it does — when these two events occur at the same time — when the moon is at its closest position to earth that it ever reaches along its orbital path AND it happens to be a full moon, THAT is a super-moon. Or, a perigee-syzygy.
This convergence of the moon attaining its closest position to earth while, at the same time, appearing to us on earth as a full moon, happens, on average, about every fourteen months, or so. Although, as explained previously, sometimes you can get a couple of them occurring fairly close together. Or, at other times, the stretch between two consecutive ones occurring can be significantly greater than fourteen months apart. But, generally, they most often happen about once every fourteen months.
So, why would anyone want to photograph this phenomenon? And, if you do, what sort of tips for taking pictures of the super moon would be helpful to know in best understanding how to photography the supermoon?
People, understandably, love photographing the full-moon. It’s a beautiful, awe inspiring sight. And, of course, many photographers are naturally drawn toward attempting to capture such things in their photographs. The super-moon is the largest full-moon that occurs. It’s a full moon that happens at the precise moment when the moon is at its closest position to earth. So, at this time, the disc of the moon actually appears larger in the sky than it does at any other time.
But, how much larger? Spectacularly larger? Frighteningly larger? Well, no. Not quite. In fact, it appears so completely underwhelmingly larger that if you didn’t have prior knowledge that a super-moon was occurring, upon setting your gaze upon the super moon hanging in the sky, you’d almost certainly just think it was a regular, old full moon that you were looking at.
The moon does, actually, appear larger in the sky during a super-moon than at any other time, yes. But, the increase in visible size is so actually so minor that, unless the super-moon was hanging in the sky right next to an average sized full-moon, you wouldn’t notice anything noteworthy about the size of the super moon. If the two were hanging there, side by side, for easy visual comparison, an average person’s comment might be something along the lines of “Oh, yeah. I suppose it does look a little bigger, huh?”
So, whether or not you wish to go out of your way to photograph the super moon is entirely up to you. But, you should know, beforehand, that your photographs of the super-moon will not end up being any more, or less, noticeably spectacular than any photograph you might take of an ordinary, average, old, regular full moon.
Take any good photograph of any full moon that occurs, show it to people and tell them it’s a photograph of the super-moon. They wont know the difference. They wont know you’re lying. Nobody, but nobody — even the most experienced astronomer whose area of professional study focuses specifically on lunar phenomenon, who won a Nobel Prize for some discovery involving the orbital characteristics of the moon and delivered his PhD dissertation on the effects of lunar apogees — will be able to point at something in your photograph of a regular full-moon and say “That’s not a photograph of the super moon! That’s just a regular, old full moon!” Nobody!
However, if after reading all of that, and familiarizing yourself with the realities of the super-moon, you still want to photograph it — for documentary purposes, or whatever — and you’re still interested in tips for taking pictures of the super moon, then I’m happy to oblige, and provide you some:
Of course, the first, and most important thing to know is: any and all of the rules and/or tips for taking pictures of the super moon will be exactly the same as all of the rules and tips for best taking photos of any full moon. So, if you’re already well-versed in such, there’s no need to read any further. There really isn’t. If you know how to take good photographs of the moon, there’s nothing extra you need to know in order to take good photographs of the super moon — it’s all the same. If you’ve already mastered photographing the full moon well, then you’re already a master of photographing the super-moon. There’s no difference between the two, so just go out and shoot it!
But, if you’re not experienced or knowledgeable regarding how to best photograph the moon, I’ll give you the top tips for taking pictures of the super moon (and, any other sort of moon) that you should know here, but keep in mind that these tips work equally well for photographing the super-moon phenomenon, or just a regular full-moon. There are no specific ‘how to photograph the supermoon’ tips — there are only ‘how to photograph the moon’ tips.
Tips for Taking Pictures of the Super Moon:
Focal length: First off, I suppose the most important thing is that you use a telephoto lens, if you have one. And, the longer the focal length of your telephoto, really, the better if your primary interest is just in capturing the super moon itself.
There’s nothing that will more drastically and immediately add to the visual impact of your lunar photography than getting a big, huge moon disc into the frame of your picture. A short focal length just wont cut it. At 50mm, say, the moon is going to appear in your photograph as an entirely nondescript, featureless, small, white dot. Boring! At 100mm, it doesn’t get much better. You may pick up the hint of some lunar surface details, but your moon will still be tiny in the photo — underwhelming, to be sure.
A 200mm lens, in my personal opinion, would be the absolute minimum you’d want to shoot with. 400mm would be MUCH better. And, if you have it, an 800mm will really provide for some absolutely jaw-dropping moon shots. So, if you can get your hands on an 800mm telephoto lens, or larger — or, a good 400mm with an optical doubler, go for it!
Composition & compositing: Unless you’re using an 800mm or greater telephoto lens, your image is going to contain something else besides the moon. Anything less than 800mm at the minimum and the moon will not appear in your photograph of sufficient size that it will dominate the area of the photograph’s frame.
This means that, your photograph — in order to be an interesting photograph — will not simply be of just the super moon itself. Instead, it will be a photograph of a scene, with the super moon present in that scene.
This poses a problem, however. The super moon occurs at night. The moon is very, very bright in the night sky. And, of course, under such conditions, every thing else that will appear in your photograph is very, very… not bright. So, exposing the image for proper exposure of the super moon will render everything else in your photograph as black. If you’re using less than an 800mm, or greater, lens, then your resulting photograph is going to come out as a small looking moon surrounded by an ocean of inky blackness that contains no visual information at all.
To get a truly mind-blowing photograph of the super moon, you’re going to need a tripod, and a knowledge of how to bracket your shots for different exposures. You’re going to need to set your camera on its tripod and take one photo properly exposing for the moon, and another photo properly exposing for the picture’s foreground elements. Then, you’re going to need to merge those two photographs in Photoshop — or whatever image manipulation software you use — into one, single photo.
So, use a good, stable tripod, along with a remote shutter-release (in order to eliminate camera shake, and movement)
When taking your photo, understand that — unless you’re using a ridiculously long telephoto lens, or you’re shooting through a telescope — you’re not photographing the super moon, really. You’re photographing a scene that has the super moon in it — wherein the super is is just the primary focus, or subject, of a larger, wider photographic scene. And, as such, be sure to follow all of the basic rules for photographic composition that you normally would for taking any picture.
Camera settings: It’s best to set your camera into manual mode. Cameras are designed to best meter ordinary scenes with ordinary lighting. And, the super moon is no such thing. The unusual lighting conditions inherent in such a photo will seriously confuse your camera’s on-board metering computer. If you use an automatic mode, your super moon will appear as a blown-out white blob in your photograph. You don’t want that.
Set your camera to shoot at its base ISO. For most cameras this will be 100ISO. But, on some, it may be 200ISO. Set your aperture to f/8, or f/11. If you’re shooting at f/8, set your shutter-speed to 1/250 if you’re also shooting at 100ISO, or 1/500 if you’re shooting at 200ISO. If you choose to shoot at f/11, then your camera should be set to 1/125 shutter speed if also shooting at 100ISO, or 1/250 if shooting at 200ISO.
Focus your camera on the moon, and shoot. You can use your camera’s auto-focus, or you can simply go into manual focus and focus on infinity. Focusing on your lenses infinity setting with provide good focus for the moon. Just be careful, and know your lens! As, some lenses will allow you to actually focus PAST infinity. And, doing such will bring the super moon out of focus in your image. That’s no good. A nice, crisp, tack-sharp moon is imperative for a spectacular super moon photo!
Misc. tips: Remember about paying attention to your foreground objects — in most cases your photograph of the super moon will be a photograph of a scene that contains the super moon — not merely of the super moon itself. Well, that is, if your interest lies in capturing a truly stunning image of the super moon. If it lies in just documenting the super-moon, without worry regarding anyone being too impressed with the photograph, then you don’t need to worry so much about the surrounding elements, I suppose.
With this in mind, make sure to put some thought and effort into the composition of the entire scene — i.e., choose your foreground. Don’t just aim at the super moon and capture it with whatever foreground objects happen to be where you happen to be standing while taking the photo. Try to put your mind toward making an interesting and beautiful photograph. Choose the scene; choose the scenery.
Water works exceptionally well for this — exceptionally well. If you can get a river, lake, pond, large puddle, what have you, into the foreground, to catch the super moon’s reflection, it will go a long way in adding to the visual impact of the image. Any reflective surface will do the same. However, you may need to increase the bracketing of your shots. The reflective surfaces reflecting the moon, depending on how reflective they are, might be significantly brighter than other non-reflective elements in your scene, but still be significantly less bright than the moon itself. If this is the case, then simply taking and compositing two shots — one for proper exposure of the super moon, and one for proper exposure of non-reflective foreground objects — could result in blown-out moon reflections on the reflective surface. Or, underexposed, less than dazzling reflections. So, you may need to add a third exposure into your bracketing — one for proper exposure of the super moon’s reflections upon the reflective surfaces visible in your image.
Shoot in RAW! – If your camera has the ability to do so, shoot in RAW mode. The lighting conditions present in lunar photography are bizarre and unusual and it can be difficult to nail them in-camera. Especially if you don’t have a lot of experience doing such photography. If you don’t absolutely nail the exposures 100% when taking your super moon photos, if you shoot them in RAW mode, you’ll be able to adjust the image by a stop or two in Adobe Lightroom, or whatever RAW processing software you use, without compromising the final image quality significantly.
So, that’s it — some great tips for taking pictures of the super moon! The next super moon is coming up quickly. It’s happening on the night of September 9th, 2014 — so, get out there and get some pictures of it!
I’ll end off this article on tips for taking pictures of the super moon by providing some links to other lunar photography resources that I think you’ll find informative. But, if you’ve got any tips for taking pictures of the super moon of your own that you’d like to share, we’d love to read them, and would be very appreciative if you’d take the time to use the comment box provided below, so our other readers can benefit from your own tips or suggestions.
Good luck with capturing the super moon, and happy shooting!