half moon in shadow

How I Shoot | Photographing the Moon

Peter Neill

Being trapped at home during the lockdown, I couldn't go anywhere. Yet, I was still able to photograph something that was so far away from me, thanks to my Sony Alpha 7R IV, and that captivated me as a photographer. I've always been interested in photographing the Moon, but it became an even more appealing project at this time, to escape the realities of lockdown.

clear image of a full moon © Peter Neill | Sony α7R IV + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/2000s @ f/3.2, ISO 160

Cameras and lenses
My go-to camera to take pictures of the moon is the Sony Alpha 7R IV.  I was also fortunate to borrow a FE 400mm f/2.8 G Master lens. Yet, I found a 200mm focal length on the super sharp FE 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master lens is more than enough. It’s a quality lens that will allow you to get some great images.

I have shot some of my favourite images with this lens and its one that I actually regularly use to photograph musicians in concert. And, photographing the Moon shows just how versatile the lens is. With a focal length of 200mm, you can easily add context to the photo too.

full moon surrounded by clouds © Peter Neill | Sony α7R IV + FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/6400s @ f/3.5, ISO 320

Keeping it sharp and steady
The first essential piece of equipment is a tripod. It doesn't have to be the most expensive tripod, but it must be sturdy, preferably heavy, and have a solid head that doesn't drift after being tightened. Most tripods have a hook that allows you to anchor a weight with a camera bag which is ideal. Make sure that the bag is slightly touching the ground though, as you don't want it to swing from the tripod hook during the exposure.

Ultimately, it is near impossible to get complete sharpness because of the atmosphere between the Earth and the Moon. However, there are some basic things that you can do to give you the best chance to get a detailed shot.

If your lens has a hood for example, use it. It can help block any stray light coming into the lens from unwanted angles. I was shooting this image using one from an urban area in south west London, so you don't always need a dark sky area to shoot from, though naturally, it would definitely help.

clear image of a full moon with dark sky around © Peter Neill | Sony α7R IV + FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/1000s @ f/4.0, ISO 125

When you touch your camera to take a shot, you are essentially slightly moving your camera at the same time, so it is good to familiarise yourself with using your camera's Self-Timer. Using the Self-Timer, you can fire the shutter and give the camera a few seconds to rest before the exposure starts. You could also use a Bluetooth trigger or the Sony Imaging Edge mobile app to trigger your camera remotely. It is also an idea to try out the electronic shutter mode if your camera has it available. This will reduce even the slightest motion of the camera's mechanical shutter to keep your camera perfectly still during the exposure.

For focusing, I always use manual focus. I will often use the Imaging Edge Mobile App to use the large screen on my phone to check focus more accurately. You can even use the camera's viewfinder or rear screen. This way, you take advantage of the focus magnification option to punch into the part of the image you want to focus on precisely.

Exposure
With the Moon in the centre of the frame, I use centre-weighted spot metering. I always shoot raw images and judge the exposure based on whether it will leave me enough room to push up the shadows to make the clouds more visible. Through experimentation, you discover whether to expose just the Moon, or slightly overexpose the Moon to give yourself a better chance with the clouds.

It's very tempting to shoot with your widest lens aperture and let as much light through the lens as possible. However, this aperture is almost certainly not the sharpest one. You need to find the sharpest point of your lens. It may mean that you shoot at f/4 or f/5.6 – experiment with your lens during the shoot and find out where your lens is at its sharpest.

half moon in shadow © Peter Neill | Sony α7R IV + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS + 1.4x teleconverter | 1/1600s @ f/4.5, ISO 320

Shutter speed
As for shutter speed, I have found that the absolute lowest you can shoot is around 1/5th sec. Any longer than this, and the Moon will start to blur. You can use a faster shutter speed than this but go as slow as you can to get the benefits of letting in as much light as possible, and to keep the ISO sensitivity as low as possible.

Shooting at a low sensitivity keeps noise to a minimum. However, even with the high resolution of the Alpha 7R IV, I can comfortably increase the ISO 800 or 1000, and noise isn't an issue. Allowing me to capture Earth’s closest neighbour with ease.

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Peter Neill

Peter Neill | UK

"Peter Neill is the strongest Photographer we have found yet. We simply don't use anyone else anymore - Mark Sheehan, The Script"

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