What Is a Supermoon?
On average, the distance to the moon is 382,00 km (ish). However, the moon’s 27-day trip around Earth is not circular, rather the moon orbits in an oval path with its closest distance, the perigee, only 357,000(ish) km from Earth.
On May 5, 2012, the moon traveled to its closest approach of the year at 356,955 km.
A Supermoon occurs when the moon is full AND closest to Earth in its orbit, its perigee
When the moon is at its closest approach to Earth AND a Full Moon – it’s known as a Super Moon.
A Super Moon appears 14% larger compared to its size at apogee (furthest from Earth). The Full Moon, 14% larger is a photographer’s dream!
The When and Where
Knowing which day your Supermoon will occur is easy and I’ve included a link for you:
At the bottom of the page under “Special Moon Events in 2021” you will find a list of the Supermoon events for the current year. It took me under 2 seconds to find my next Supermoon on May 26th, 2021.
The chart from the same page gives you the full list of full moons, regardless of their “Super” status. I find this helpful to plan my moon shootings.
Now that you have a date with a Supermoon, you’ll need a good place to set up. This ideally will be a place you can see some foreground, behind which will rise the Supermoon in its ethereal orange glow.
Get an Android App that will plot the sun and moon’s path at any point on Earth here:
The Sun Ephemeris (Sunset, Sunrise, Moon position)
Some of my favourite places to shoot the Supermoon have been across lakes, behind hills or above industry. I’ve seen great shots through New York Skyscrapers and cornfields alike.
Equipment and Technique
Your camera can’t see as you can. Being a man-made device, it can’t see very dark and very bright at the same time. In this example, I chose to expose for the house. 1/8th ISO800 at f/6.7. Notice how bright the moon is – its essentially void of detail and has become a large orange blob.
I shot this properly exposed moon at 1/6th, f/8.0, ISO 80
Looking closely you can see slight elongation of the moon, otherwise, its dynamic range is all there. The main difference in exposure was ISO800 on the house and ISO80 on the moon. To ensure the moon is nice and round, I would increase the shutter speed by increasing the aperture from f/6.7 to f/5.6 or f/4. As a last resort, increasing ISO would also work.
The moon actually moves quite fast with respect to the ground and the problem is worse with magnification. If your exposure is too long, the moon will move before the exposure is done, resulting in an elongated moon.
Two Killer Techniques for Taming Bright Scenes
Capturing a bright moon and a dark landscape in a single shot is nearly impossible without a little technique or post-processing.
There are several ways to capture a full moon AND the landscape underneath it, all from a single button press. The easiest of those ways involves using a Neutral Density Graduated Filter.
An ND grad filter is a piece of acrylic, clear on one end, progressing to dark on the other end. You can place the dark end of the filter over the moon and the light end over the landscape, bringing their dynamic range closer to something your camera sensor can handle.
The next method to capture the complete dynamic range is bracketing. Bracketing lets you take multiple shots without touching your camera, automatically varying the brightness between each shot. Usually, you get one shot at the exposure you’ve set, a second photo one stop below, and a third photo one stop above. With my Pentax body, I can take up to 5 photos using bracketing, varying the exposure by as little as 1/3 of a stop.
A sturdy tripod is an absolute must
With such low-light photography, your exposure time could be anywhere from 1/8 of a second to several seconds. Whether you choose a telephoto or a wide-angle, you’ll need your camera to stay steady to maximize sharpness. While there are some lenses that claim several stops of effectiveness, their Optical Stabilization is not a replacement for a tripod.
Also, turn OFF any stabilization you have, including the Sensor Stabilization like on my Pentax bodies, or the built-in Optical Stabilization that some lenses have. The slight whirring of the stabilization mechanisms cause unwanted blurring when using a tripod.
Use Mirror Lockup
Most DLSR’s offer Mirror Lockup. When you press the shutter button, the mirror flips up, the shutter opens, the photo is taken, the shutter closes and the mirror flips back down. The very process of flipping up the mirror can cause a shake in your long lenses that could take several milliseconds to resolve. If your photo is taken while your lens is shaking from the mirror flip, you will take a blurry photo.
Instead, use your camera’s Mirror Lockup function.
It works in one of two ways.
1. The mirror flips up and stays there until you press the shutter button – or use a remote control to do it
2. The mirror flips up, there is a delay, then the photo is taken. The delay is meant to allow the lens to stop shaking after the mirror flip. This is the method I personally use since it doesn’t require any extra hardware. I simply press my shutter button, step away, and wait a second or two for the photo to be taken.
Take Control of Exposure
I find Manual Mode easier to shoot with because it maintains my exposure from shot to shot and makes editing much easier. If you’re using Full Auto, Aperture Priority, or Shutter Priority mode, your camera is calculating the exposure for you. Even so, you’ll find your camera makes different choices from shot to shot for Exposure, White Balance, and ISO. Each of these has an effect on your image which will be obvious when you see them side-by-side in Lightroom or your software of choice. Shooting in manual keeps these settings constant from shot to shot, requiring much less colour and exposure correction.
The final picture (right) is a composite of two individual shots. One was exposed for the moon and the other was a long-exposure for the darkened land. Sensors can’t capture as much range in brightness as we can see, so we need two photos, one exposed for low light and the other for bright light, or the moon.
- Use Mirror Lockup! Using long lenses will amplify the THUNK from your mirror flipping up and show as blur.
- Keep your ISO as low as possible.
- Start with a shutter speed of 1/ISO and f/11. For example, if you are shooting at 400ISO, use 1/400th of a second or as close as you can get.
- Use Manual Mode, shoot and adjust. Take one shot, evaluate your shot, adjust and take another until you are happy with the exposure. This goes quicker than it sounds and lets you set shutter times much longer than auto mode.
- Look around. You may be there to catch the moon, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other beautiful photos to be had.
- Stop down your lens. Nearly all lenses are sharpest after stopping them down from maximum aperture. If your glass is an f/2.8 then stopping down to f/4 or f/5.6 will give much sharper results than f/2.8.
Final Pro Tip: Look Away From The Light
Strong light is attractive and taking shots of the moon and sun seems as natural as looking out a window. But, don’t forget to turn around and see what the light is falling on. In this case, we were again treated to a beautiful sunset on Lake Simcoe.
And lastly, don’t forget the coffee. Supermoons are usually shot at sun-down and sun-up, or somewhere between, so you’ll need to dress and drink for the weather.
Viewing the Supermoon is an other-worldly experience. And with the tips here, you should be on your way to capturing your next museum piece. Please let me know if you are planning an outing and maybe share some of your photos.