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How to photograph a Super Moon

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The full moon on January 31st will combine three rare lunar events for the first time in 150 years.
USA TODAY

 

LOS ANGELES — Aarchan Joshi plans to shoot for the moon before dawn Wednesday.

And not just any moon. Rather, he’ll be out to photograph luscious images of a rare “Supermoon.”

 

“It’s three separate things that don’t happen very often,” says Joshi, an ophthalmologist in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance.. 

At 5:37 a.m. on the West Coast, according to NASA. the moon is expected to be at its fullest with a full total lunar eclipse, Supermoon and blue moon. That 8:37 a.m. on the East Coast, where day will have already broken.

More: Triple treat: Supermoon, blue moon and lunar eclipse all coming to a sky near you this week

 

As Joshi notes, this isn’t something we see every day. So how to photograph this extraordinary occurrence? 

He’ll be out before 5 a.m. PT, camera and tripod ready, to capture rare photographs of the moon

If you want to get in on the action, your best opportunity is to use a digital SLR camera. Your smartphone can get a photo, but it just won’t be as striking, because the digital SLR, with a proper lens, does a better job of zooming in on the moon. However, if you’re willing to scramble and quickly get some accessories to go with the smartphone, you’ll have a better chance at quality photos. 

Our tips: 

Camera and lens

Beyond the DSLR — any model, from entry-level like the Canon Rebel, Nikon D3300 or  Sony A series, and higher up — you’ll need a telephoto lens, the longer the better. Many photographers have short zooms which bring them from a 24-millimeter wide-angle to 100mm telephoto. That’s good for everyday photography, but not at zooming in on a celestial body orbiting 238,900 miles from earth. For that you’ll need a big, longer lens in the neighborhood of 400mm, 500mm or 600mm. These are the types pros use to shoot sports.

If you have access to a tele-converter, you can screw it onto the back of your lens to effectively double the focal length and get you a little closer to the action. 

Beyond the lens, a tripod is a must to keep the camera steady. You can buy a cheap model tonight at Walmart, Target or Best Buy, starting at around $25. 

If you have access to a shutter release, this is a good accessory to also have. It allows you to open the shutter for exposures longer than the usual range of 1/60th or 1/125th of a second, say for a minute or two, and it brings in more light and stars. 

Lighting: Crank the ISO (lighting) down to 100 or 200–the moon will be very bright. Try a range of shutter speeds. Do the traditional 1/60th and 1/125th to stop the action, and try the 1 minute/2 minute slow shutter as well, and look at the difference. The great thing about digital is you can tell what’s working and what’s not on the spot. 

Composition: Get the moon into your shot by juxtaposing it against a landmark, whether that be a body of water, downtown buildings, an iconic neighborhood sign. This will show the uniqueness of the moon at its best. 

Smartphone

Yes, you can zoom in on your smartphone, but not really. The “digital” zoom is, in reality, just a crop of your image, and even with that, the moon is still going to look tiny on your smartphone.

It won’t get you the shot DSLR photographers and their big lenses can produce, but the Olloclip accessory telephoto lens will get you a little closer on your iPhone. It’s the same for Moment lenses for the Samsung Galaxy line. The Olloclip promises 2X zoom, so if you place it over the iPhone 7 Plus, 8 Plus or iPhone X, which have two cameras, on the secondary 50mm portrait lens, it can get you to 100mm.

Most DSLR photographers will be dragging 400mm and 600mm lenses out there, so while the smartphone will get you a little closer, your shot will still pale in comparison. “The Moon looks really big with a telephoto lens,” says Joshi. “It’s hard to do that with an iPhone.”  

Time lapse

Our best smartphone tip — go time lapse.

Since the moon will look small in your smartphone photos, you can still present a great picture of what happened by going time-lapse video, and watching the moon get brighter and brighter, over a compressed period of time.

Your tools for making the time lapse: this is easy, you just need, again, a tripod, and a smartphone adapter to fit the unit atop the tripod. (You’ll be able to find these at Walmart, Target and Best Buy tonight.)

The iPhone has a specific camera mode for making time lapses, while on Samsung Galaxy phones it’s called “Hyperlapse.” The Google Pixel doesn’t have this, so you’ll need to download the TimeLapse app on Google Play.

The basic rule of thumb of shooting time-lapses is the longer, the better. A 2-minute recording of a time lapse will only get you seconds of footage. Record for an hour on the iPhone, for instance, and you’ll get less than a minute of footage, depending upon the frame rate chosen and model of phone.  

However, 60 seconds of a time lapse isn’t short, but in fact long, in internet sharing time, and leaves you plenty of time to tell your story. In rapid succession, you’ll watch the sky light up with the moon’s glow in a way you just wouldn’t see on a normal day.

(I’ll be shooting both stills and a time-lapse in the morning. Why not? Just put the camera in place, compose the shot, and then let it record. During that time, I can be also working on stills, on another camera.)

Once the sun comes out, go share your photos and videos on social media, and get there early. Expect to see a lot of different takes on our moon, from across the world. 

It will be a January 31 to remember forever. 

 

Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham on Twitter, @jeffersongraham

 

 

 

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