Photo Tip - Supermoon

Moon behind the BT Tower in London, (photo by James Macdonald)
Moon behind the BT Tower in London

This Sunday evening, when darkness has fallen, glance skywards to try and catch a glimpse of what has recently started to be called a 'Supermoon'. This term is perhaps a little over blown, but the fact is that the full moon this month will appear slightly larger than normal as it passes closer to the earth than usual. Specifically, Sunday's moon will be a mere 356,955km from earth at its closest point, appearing approximately 10–12 precent larger than its usual size.

If you are blessed with clear skies, an interesting photographic challenge is to try and capture the moon appearing as large as possible in a recognizable environment. Since 2007, I have been on a personal quest to capture an image of the moon rising in the perfect place over London. This has meant (so far) 65 full moons, and I am still waiting for the perfect picture.

The right atmosphere

Of course, London being London, there are weather problems. I would estimate that only one in three of my trips out on a full moon would have clear skies. Even clear days can be murky enough to make things tricky. A great moment to grab the picture is as the moon is just rising. At that moment there is much more atmosphere for the light to travel through before it gets to your lens, and any pollution in the air will reduce the moon’s luminescence (sometimes totally obscuring it). The atmosphere that is present when the moon rises works in much the same way as for sunsets and sunrises, meaning a dramatic colour change. The moon can emerge a light orange through to a deep, deep red: a very dramatic scene that some can’t believe isn’t tweaked in PhotoShop. One nice effect of this atmospheric distortion is that you can get away with claiming a full moon a day either side of the proper full moon.  

As the shot I am looking to get is of the moment the moon rises behind a particular landmark, I need to place myself at a raised level at least 1km away from the landmark, without obstruction in front or behind. In this situation, you would need to assess where and when the moon rises (a different spot each day) using a resource such as “Heavens Above”, and ensure you are lined up correctly. Then wait with the camera ready.

Photographic kit

A long, fast lens on a DSLR or SLR is the go-to kit for this type of image. A wide-angle lens will result in a small-looking white circle, no matter how large the moon appears to the naked eye. A tripod is also be necessary and, if possible, a shutter release cable/remote. I use a 500mm lens into a Nikon D200 on an enormously heavy French tripod from the 1980s. When taking long exposures through such long lenses, the tripod needs to be extremely sturdy, as even the light breeze when on a hillside can create blurring. If the moon rises slightly off my predicted location, I swap over to a 300mm to get a slightly wider angle and capture more landmarks.

Settings

I vary my settings based upon the situation, but tend to fall back to a shutter priority mode with about a two-second exposure. The time the moon rises will affect the choice of settings, as sometimes twilight may not have passed and sometimes it will be totally dark. The moon becomes brighter the higher it rises, so you should compensate your exposure to ensure you still capture detail of the surface before the moon becomes too bright and it is impossible to reveal the foreground landscape in the frame as well.

To reduce camera shake, I use the ‘mirror up’ setting so that there is no movement with the camera at all. I try and keep my ISO as low as possible to avoid noise creeping into the image.

Quick Moon

When it is rising, the moon moves at a speed you may not be prepared for. Anything above a three-second exposure at 500mm and you will have blur. This also means it will only be a few minutes before the moon has risen above buildings in the foreground and has begun to appear brighter and brighter.

Compact cameras

Some compact digital cameras have magnificent optical zooms, and it is certainly worth trying for a picture. Just turn off the flash and select a mode that is designed for low light. Keep the camera still – try and place it on a wall if you have no tripod, and then set the timer.  

 



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