Life in the Box: Shooting the Moon, Badly


Everyone in Iowa was out shooting the moon on September 27, 2015. In case you didn’t hear, it was an historic moon event—–a full eclipse and a “blood” moon at the same time. And every Iowan has a camera or phone, so everyone tried to photograph the big happenings.

I’ve been taking lots of photography classes lately, and so, armed with my pretty darn good camera (Nikon D750) and a pretty good lens (zoom 24mm to 120mm), I was sure I’d be getting a great shot of that lovely face. It didn’t happen. So, instead of telling you what went right, I’m gonna tell you what went wrong. If you had a similar experience, we can have a learning experience together.

Here are some of the reasons it’s hard to “shoot the moon.”  

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HIGH CONTRAST When you want to take a regular-old “moon reflecting on a pond” photo, you’ll do something like this, where the moon is a white ball with no features, and there is some color and contrast in the pond and trees. Twilight can be bluer, trees can be silhouettes, but this is sort of an “average” picture.

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With a full moon reflecting the setting sun, it’s as bright as a street light and there’s a lot of contrast in the picture. If you zoom in on the moon, you have to decide if you want it to see its face or not. You might have to fool you camera’s automatic settings into shooting darker than usual. I have a +/- button on my camera that I use often. So, as the eclipse happens, the light of the moon is going to become quite dim. How do you get enough light, but not too much? How do you take a sharp photo of an object far away? How do you balance all the opposite truisms in photography?

TRIPOD First of all, in night shooting, use a tripod. If you can also use a ‘remote’ to take shots without touching the camera, that’s also good. If you can also set your camera to hold the mirror up, wait for shaking to stop, then take a photo, that’s good too. Some people use bean bags or sand bags on their tripods or on top of their cameras to stop shake, too. I only did the first thing—used a tripod.

If you use a tripod, you’re supposed to turn off the anti-shake gadgets because they can make shake when there isn’t any shake. Weird, but true. I usually remember this after shooting about 100 pictures. Then, I forget to turn it back on, so the next day in daylight, my pictures are also mysteriously not sharp.

Here’s another problem I ran into. No matter how much I tightened the tripod bolts, there’s a little sway when I snap a picture. Since the moon is far away, that sway is noticeable. So, I leaned on the camera with all my body weight before snapping, took a deep breath, let out most of the air, and snapped. And, I took a lot of pictures until I felt the camera hadn’t moved. One out 10 look less shaky because of this.   


For a sharper image, zoom in as little as possible for less shake. OR: For a sharper image, zoom in as much as you can without shaking. Wide angle lenses have a larger depth of field– so more of the things in the picture are likely to be in focus. That’s why cell phone pictures turn out so well. However, if you are shooting the moon, so to speak, it will only be a not-well-defined dot. If you blow up the picture, it still looks like a blob. So, this is where the zoom lens comes in. A sharp picture of the distant bodies in the sky need tremendous zoom to be sharp in focus. However, it will be more important to not shake the camera at all when snapping the picture, so some of the extra-long lenses come with their own tripod to bear the weight.

For a sharper image, use the quickest shutter speed. OR: For a sharper image, get enough light into the camera, so use a slower shutter speed at night.  In the daytime, you want a short shutter speed for anything that is blowing in the wind or moving. But the dark of the moon is pretty dark. And although it’s moving, you need a long shutter speed to get enough details in the shadows.

Layer 23bFor a bright image, use a daytime “film” setting, known digitally an ASA setting of about 100 or 200. BUT: For a dark image, use an ASA as large as you need, like ASA 400, 800 or more.    You will get more sharpness the smaller the ASA setting. But, you can’t always get an image at all if you don’t go up to a more sensitive setting. The problem with ASA 800 is that it’s grainy—or, in other words, less sharp! But, grainy is better than nothing.

For a sharper image, use a camera with a smaller sensor. Or: For a sharper image, use one with a larger sensor. Another weird fact is that the small camera sensors, like on cell phones, can take really sharp pictures. They can take a lot of visual information and reduce it down. In effect, they miniaturize very well. But, that darn moon is gonna be incredibly small, and there’s not much room to make it bigger if you crop the shot later. So, a larger sensor is definitely better any time you want to crop. But, to fill that large sensor with sharp information, you need a much larger (and more expensive) zoom lens. A friend of mine has a great zoom lens that cost $5,000, a bargain used lens at half the original cost!

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There’s no use mooning about my sorely lacking pictures of the sky. Photography is a great hobby, but there are just a lot of things to learn about different situations and what I’ve just learned is that my $300 ultrazoom did a better job than my more expensive Nikon. It’s all about the zoom. And everything else.


Here’s a moon done the right way–from my friend, Patty Foster. Also take a look at my link for a fantastic time lapse shot in several locations in Des Moines. It runs just over one minute:

Brian Abeling’s great time lapse video on Vimeo.






Nancy Heather Brown is an Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she uses gems from this treasure trove of life stories to add sparkle to her reflections on the creative process both inside and outside the box.