PhotoPills

New Rule for Shooting the Sharpest Stars in the Sky

Kareem (@wildnkrazykid) searching for the sharpest stars in the sky. Nikon Z 6 with Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. 20 seconds, f/2.4, ISO 16,000.

In this golden age of night photography that we live in, the quest for the sharpest stars seems to be the most elusive. But it’s certainly an achievable goal, and we’re here to help you reach it — to reach for the stars, you might say.

Sharp stars can mean two things: Focus and proper exposure. We discussed the multiple ways you can master focus in Chris Nicholson’s article “Staying Sharp.” Today we are going to take a deep dive into working out the best exposure for your camera and lens combination to create tack-sharp stars that don’t trail.

The 600/500/400/250/200 Rules

When I first started shooting digital night photography a decade ago, we used a simple rule to figure out the best shutter speed for star point photography. That was the 600 Rule. Divide 600 by the focal length of your lens, and the result was your maximum shutter speed for achieving pinpoint stars. For example:

600 / 20mm lens = 30 seconds.

This seemed to work fine, but for those of us who were making prints bigger than 8.5x11 inches, we were noticing that those stars weren’t as round as they should be. In reality, they were tiny lines.

So we adapted the rule to 500:

500 / 20mm = 25 seconds

The 500 Rule became the standard for many night photographers and worked fairly well with larger prints and cameras under 20 megapixels. However, as cameras increased the millions of pixels they put into their sensors and with the variety of different size sensors, we needed to adapt again. Over the last 4 to 5 years we have been using the 400 Rule for full-frame cameras under 30 megapixels, the 250 Rule for APS-C sensors and the 200 Rule for Micro Four Thirds. (For an explanation of why this all works, see Lance’s two-part blog post “What’s the Longest Usable Shutter Speed for Astro-landscape?”)

400 / 20mm = 20 seconds

250 / 20mm  = 12.5 seconds

200 / 20mm = 10 seconds

These results were more accurate than the previous 500/600 rules and were customized to our sensor sizes. However, if you were to zoom in to 100 percent, or get close to a large print, you would definitely still see slight movement in those luminous points in the sky.

Add to the equation that higher-megapixel cameras (40-plus megapixels) were actually doing a decent job at higher ISOs, which meant our images were showing more detail than ever before. More detail means that trailing stars become more noticeable.

Not to mention that those “rules” are just guidelines to get you in the right ballpark for shutter speed. Other factors affect how quickly stars begin to trail, including declination (i.e., your place on the globe) and which compass horizon you’re facing. The point is (see what I did there? point?), if you want to be precise about getting sharp star points, there’s a lot that goes into figuring that out.

A Modern Solution for a Modern Problem

A couple of years ago, Frédéric Michaud—a French photographer and amateur astronomer—devised the ultimate formula for the Astronomical Society of Le Havre. That formula is called the NPF Rule. Don’t bother trying to decipher the acronym; the letters aren’t initials, they’re variables:

N = aperture
P = pixel pitch
F = focal length

I’ll be honest—the formula is a bit complex. Besides the focal length of your lens, it also takes into account the camera’s megapixels, physical size of the sensor, aperture, pixel pitch and the minimal declination of the stars in your frame.

This is a lot to figure out in the field, and the cheat sheets aren’t small. To take a look at Frédéric’s formula, visit the Astronomical Society’s website (or Google’s English translation).

Fortunately for night photographers, there’s a simple way to apply this complex concept: I am happy to report that our friends at PhotoPills have incorporated the NPF Rule into their app, under the Spot Stars section.

Below is what the PhotoPills calculator looks like, followed by the five easy steps to figure out the best shutter speed for sharp stars.

When you open PhotoPills, the Spot Stars module is located near the bottom, so scroll down and tap.

Input your information and PhotoPills will do the NPF Rule calculations for you,

Here’s how to use it:

  1. Select your camera in the upper right corner. PhotoPills uses this to determine some of the necessary numbers to plug into the NPF Rule algorithm, such as using the sensor size and megapixels to figure out the pixel pitch.

  2. Choose the focal length of the lens (the one written on the lens, not the full-frame equivalent).

  3. Input the aperture you’d like to use. We typically choose an aperture one-third to 1 stop less than wide open. For example, for a f/1.4 lens we’d shoot at f/1.8 or f/2.

  4. For declination, tap the AR (Augmented Reality) button on the lower left corner and angle/aim the AR to the area in the sky you’d like to compose around. Note that at the bottom of your screen PhotoPills will now show your maximum exposure in landscape and portrait modes, as well as your minimum declination.

  5. The final setting to look at is Accuracy (upper right). It should say “Default.” If you keep it at Default, you’ll get a longer shutter speed and be able to use realistic ISOs such as 3200 and 6400. However, if you’re a pixel-peeper and look at the stars at 100 percent, that will result in you still seeing slight movement. You can switch from Default to Accurate and then there will be no trails at all. However, you’ll also be cutting your maximum shutter speed in half. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you are making 17x22 or larger prints—but even then, that results in the negative trade-offs that come with shooting at sky-high ISOs, which are also more prevalent in larger prints. Decisions, decisions.

Old vs. New

Let’s take a look at the old and new math.

Using our beloved Irix 15mm lens on a standard-resolution, full-frame camera, the 400 Rule gives us a 25-second exposure (400 / 15mm = 26.6 seconds).

Using the NPF Rule in PhotoPills, at a declination of 0 and set in Default mode, with the Irix lens at f/2.8 on our new favorite camera, the 24.5-megapixel Nikon Z 6, we get a maximum shutter speed of 17.26 seconds. I’d probably round that out to 15 seconds. (You want to round down, not up, to ensure sharpness.)

However, if we then shifted to Accurate mode, our maximum shutter speed would be 8.63 seconds. I’d round that to 8.

So, using the NPF Rule in Accurate, I’ve lost pretty much 2 stops of light from ye olde 400 Rule and 1 stop of light off the NPF Default mode. On a moonless night we would typically use ISO 6400 under the 400 Rule. Now, with the NPF Rule, we’d have to shoot at ISO 12,800 or 25,600 in order to get perfectly sharp stars. The Nikon Z 6 can handle those ISOs, but not many others can.

Real-World Testing

Theory is nice. But shooting for real is where we really learn some things.

I was out on the sand dunes of Death Valley a few weeks ago, and I brought my new Z 6. Curious about how the bigger sensors and higher-megapixel cameras would perform, I also borrowed the medium format 51.4-megapixel Fujifilm GFX 50R as well as my friend Kareem’s 42-megapixel Sony a7R III.

Fujifilm GFX 50r with 23mm f/4 lens

400 Rule: 400 / 18mm = 22.22 seconds

The 23mm lens is equivalent to an 18mm on a full-frame sensor, so for the 400 Rule this equaled a 22.22 maximum shutter speed. I rounded down to 20 seconds at f/5.6, ISO 6400. The resulting stars are slight dashes—elongated oblongs. They are sharp and skinny, which makes me feel I could live with this. However, if you are shooting with a 50-megapixel camera, then you’re probably making big prints, so maximum sharpness is important.

Full image from Fujifilm GFX 50r with 23mm f/4 lens. 20 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

100 percent view from Fujifilm GFX 50r. 20 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

NPF Default = 10.71 seconds

I used 10 seconds, but I was afraid to go any higher than ISO 6400 on the GFX 50r—so I just underexposed. (Not trying for art here, just testing efficacy.) To be honest, I’m seeing only the slightest of movement in the stars, not even oblong, mostly round but some of the brighter ones slightly oval. I’d be happy with these stars, event in a big print.

Full image from Fujifilm GFX 50r. 10 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

100 percent view from Fujifilm GFX 50r. 10 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

NPF Accurate = 5.35 seconds

With NPF Accurate, we’re squeezed even further. Again we are still dealing with an underexposed image, but the stars are certainly tack-sharp.

Full image from Fujifilm GFX 50r. 5 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

100 percent view from Fujifilm GFX 50r. 5 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

Takeaways: The GFX has the most megapixels of the sub-$5,000 cameras on the market, clocking in at 51.4. The dynamic range and detail are amazing, but the higher ISOs are a struggle. ISO 3200 is workable but 6400 needs some finessing. Match that with their widest lens, for which the fastest aperture is f/4, and it’s a challenge to do any dark sky work with this combo.

Nikon Z 6 with Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens

400 Rule: 400 / 15mm = 26.66 seconds

Here was my first shot using the 400 Rule, which gave me a 25-second maximum shutter speed. This forced me to use a wide-open aperture of f/2.4 and an ISO of 12,800. It looks good in standard view in Lightroom, and if posted to social media there would be no issues. However, the 100 percent crop definitely show the stars as small lines.

Full image from Nikon Z 6 with Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. 25 seconds, f/2.4, ISO 12,800.

100 percent view from Z 6. 25 seconds, f/2.4, ISO 12,800.

NPF Default = 17.26 seconds

The stars are definitely rounder, a little oblong, but I would find this result totally acceptable.

Full image from Z 6. 15 seconds, f/2.4, ISO 12,800.

100 percent view from Z 6. 15 seconds, f/2.4, ISO 12,800.

All that disturbs me is the coma distortion that is affecting the brighter stars. Most lenses display some coma at their widest aperture, mainly near the edges of the frame and in brighter stars. With the Irix, this can be minimized by stopping down to f/2.8 or f/3.5.

Note the distortion in the brighter stars—they look like UFOs with a bright line intersecting them. This is called “coma’ and is found in many lenses. You can correct for coma by closing down your lens 1 to 3 stops.

NPF Accurate = 8.63 seconds

The NPF Accurate exposure was for 8 seconds, so I had to push my ISO up to 32,000 to get a good histogram. The stars are definitely rounder and less oblong, but it is a challenge to live in those higher ISOs. The coma is also still prevalent.

Full image from Z 6. 8 seconds, f/2.4, ISO 32,000.

100 percent view from Z 6. 8 seconds, f/2.4, ISO 32,000.

Takeaways: I’m starting to feel that I can live with the Default NPF setting in PhotoPills, which is still pushing cameras into the ISOs of 12,800 and higher. The Z 6 handles those higher ISOs very well, but I barely got the right exposure in the sky and the foreground is suffering. Blending a longer foreground exposure would be key to balancing the overall image (such as Tim did for his Bryce Canyon photo in last week’s post).

Sony a7R III with 16-35mm f/2.8 lens

400 Rule: 400 / 19mm = 21.05 seconds

I stopped down the lens to f/4 and the shutter speed to 20 seconds for our 400 Rule shot. The Sony a7R III does an excellent job at ISO 6400 and the Big Dipper looks very sharp. Looking west (left) I do notice the stars are becoming oblong.

Full image from Sony a7R III with 16-35mm f/2.8 lens. 20 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

100 percent view from a7R III. 20 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

NPF Default = 11.75 seconds

Rounding down the NPF Default to 10 seconds yields excellent results. Only a few bright stars to the far left look oval, and this is being nitpicky.

Full image from a7R III. 10 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

100 percent view from a7R III. 10 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

NPF Accurate = 5.88 seconds

We rounded up the NPF Accurate shutter speed to 6 seconds and the stars are wonderfully round. I don’t see any distortion at all.

Full image from a7R III. 6 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 25,600.

100 percent view from a7R III. 6 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 25,600.

Takeaways: I was very impressed with how the higher-megapixel Sony handled ISO 6400, and the 16-35mm lens did a superb job resolving sharp, round stars. In my testing, ISO 12,800 is also easily attainable with the a7R III, whereas ISO 25,600 is the breaking point for me, as a layer of grainy noise covers the whole image. This is still a very admirable result for a camera that gives loads of detail.

Final Thoughts

If you are a star-point seeker then you’ll definitely want to start using the NPF Rule in your workflow. I’ll be switching over from the 400 Rule to the NPF Rule at the Default setting in PhotoPills. If the shot is an absolute beauty—a 5-star shot (so to speak) that I know I’ll want to print—then I’ll use the NPF Accurate mode.

Either way, with an f/2.8 lens we will be using an ISO from 6400 to 25,600, which isn’t ideal for any camera. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly a few cameras that handle these higher ISOs admirably, but for the best print quality we always want lower ISOs.

Because of that reality, I’ll also start committing to shooting multiple frames of a star-point scene that I can blend in post-production to reduce noise. This requires using Starry Landscape Stacker (SLS), a Mac-only software application that does an excellent job of reducing high ISO noise while keeping stars sharp. Sequator is the PC equivalent. Look for our in-depth reviews of these excellent pieces of software soon.

For the test photos above, the foregrounds were all very dark due to the moonless night and the fact that the area we were shooting was too large to paint with light. In these scenarios, I’d also advise taking an additional exposure between 3 to 5 stops brighter than your sky exposure, perhaps with LENR turned on. This will provide more detail and information in the foreground, which can be blended into the stacked SLS or Sequator image.

Applying the NPF Rule

Now here is the hardest part about new knowledge: Do you use it?

It’s up to you. We just want you to realize that star point photography is a constant balance, wherein you want to weigh the trade-offs of noise at higher ISOs versus slightly trailing stars. Understanding how your gear performs and then deciding which sacrifices to make in the field will help you create the best possible image based on the specific conditions you are shooting in.

Run some tests so that you know your personal tolerance for star sharpness versus how your camera performs at higher ISOs, then apply the 400 Rule or NPF Rule as needed while you #seizethenight!

Note: If you want to take a deeper look at some of the other “night testing” you can perform on your camera, check out Gabe’s latest video with B&H that takes a deep dive into recently released full-frame mirrorless cameras.

Gabriel Biderman is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He is a Brooklyn-based fine art and travel photographer, and author of Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots (Peachpit, 2014). During the daytime hours you'll often find Gabe at one of many photo events around the world working for B&H Photo’s road marketing team. See his portfolio and workshop lineup at www.ruinism.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

Five Questions: Light Painting Headlights, Moonrises and Sunsets, Auroras and More

You ask questions, we give answers. (When we’re not shooting. Which is why we don’t do this feature more often.)

This installment of our “Five Questions” series features inquiries about light painting headlights, tripods, open hours for national parks, moonrises at sunset and lens choices for aurora.

If you have any questions you would like to throw our way, please contact us anytime. Questions could be about gear, national parks or other photo locations, post-processing techniques, field etiquette, or anything else related to night photography. #SeizeTheNight!

1. Light Painting Headlights

Pickup in Nelson Ghost Town, Nevada. © Tim Cooper. Nikon D4, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. 3 minutes, f/8, ISO 100.

Q: When light painting old cars/trucks at night, how do you get the headlights to look like they are on? I have an old tractor in a field that I would like to practice on. — Brien R.

A: We love light painting, especially old cars! Who doesn’t?

Light painting the headlights is a tricky but rewarding thing to practice.

If the headlights have the glass still intact, use a very low-power light source (e.g., a Maglite or a Coast G5). Stand about 2 to 3 feet from the headlight, but to the side so you aren’t blocking the camera. Shine the flashlight into the headlight briefly—1 to 3 seconds is generally enough. Then walk over to the next headlight and do the same.

Here’s a key to this working: Stay invisible. Be careful and use your body to block the light source (i.e., the bulb) from being seen by the camera—we want to capture only the light reflecting from the headlights. I also advise dressing all in black, including black gloves. Sometimes the light bouncing off the headlights can freeze your hand or face in the frame, and you end up being ghosted in the picture. If that is the case, you’ll need to move farther out of the scene and then snoot your flashlight with a long tube— think PVC or a paper towel core. This will give you a more precise paintbrush to place the light.

Finally practice, practice, practice! And then feel free to share your results with us. — Gabriel

2. Lance’s Tripod

Q: I’m trying to figure out which tripod Lance showed in your CreativeLive class. I went back and watched the class again and figured out that it may be a Manfrotto 190 carbon fiber with a leveling center column. Can you please confirm this? Also, for a tripod this size would you still suggest that setup or has something else come out that you like better? Finally, which ball head would you suggest for this combo? — Marc S.

A: You are correct that I was using the Manfrotto 190 with a leveling head in the video. The head is great, but only for panoramas. It’s unnecessary otherwise.

If I were to buy today, I’d go with the Manfrotto 190go! Carbon Fiber M-Series Tripod with MHXP RO-BHQ2 XPRO Ball Head RC2 Kit. I like the twist locks better than the flip locks, which can pinch if you are not careful. However, these days I’m mostly using my Gitzo Series 2 Traveler Carbon Fiber Tripod with Center Ball Head.

Several of us at National Parks at Night are big fans of the Acratech GP-ss Ballhead With Lever Clamp. It is designed for compact travel tripods. It’s not quite as compact as the Gitzo head, but is easier to work with and the lever clamp is awesome. — Lance

3. Hours at National Parks and Monuments

Arch Rock, Valley of Fire. © 2014 Matt Hill. Nikon D750, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 14mm. 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 500.

Q: Thank you for your recent article on whether light painting is allowed in national parks. However, it seems there is an even more important issue, which is if visitors are actually allowed to enter certain parks at night. My wife and I visited a number of national parks and monuments in recent years, but in places like Valley of Fire, Hovenweep or National Bridges we were told by rangers that we’d be in trouble if we were seen out there at night. On the other hand I have seen plenty of photos taken by the National Parks at Night team or other professionals at exactly these places. Are there different rules for the average photographer? — Lambert

A: Most of the 400-plus National Park Service units are open 24 hours to all visitors—including Natural Bridges National Monument, so I’m not sure why that ranger told you otherwise. In fact, night skies are part of how Natural Bridges actively entices people to visit. It’s also a feature that Hovenweep plays up, though only some sections of the park are open at night.

All of the national parks are open 24 hours per day, except Petrified Forest, but you can get a camping permit to stay overnight, or pay for a Special Use Permit to shoot after hours. Some of the national seashores are closed at night unless you have a camping or special use permit. National wildlife refuges are mostly closed at night, but those are units of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, not the NPS.

The Oliver Cabin is one of the many wonderful night photography subjects in Great Smoky Mountains National Parks’ Cades Cove region. Cades Cove is closed to vehicles at night, but you can walk or bike the 11-mile loop road all night if you’d like. © 2017 Chris Nicholson. Nikon D3s, 17-35mm f/2.8 lens, light painted with a Coast HP7R flashlight. 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 3200.

However, note that even if a park is open at night, there’s a chance that certain features are closed. In addition to Hovenweep, this is also the case at Mesa Verde National Park, which closes access to the ruins after sundown. Another example is Great Smoky Mountains National Park (where we’re hosting a workshop this April): Cades Cove, an amazing place to shoot; it is closed to motor vehicles at night, yet remains open to foot traffic.

As for Valley of Fire, that’s a state park, and as with any state land is run under local regulations that the NPS guidelines don’t affect. For night access to Valley of Fire, you need either a permit or to be camping in the park. (Or you to be on our workshop this April, which happens to have one spot remaining.)

No matter where you’re going to shoot at night, we always recommend checking the hours and letting the rangers (or other appropriate authorities) know what you’ll be up to. Not because you necessarily need permission to engage in night photography on public lands, but because it sometimes makes their jobs easier if they know you’ll be out there. Not to mention that they might share some valuable local knowledge about the location. — Chris

4. Aurora Lenses

Aurora over Westfjords, Iceland. © 2012 Lance Keimig. Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon 20mm f/3.5 lens. 15 seconds, f/5.6 ISO 3200.

Q: I’ll be traveling to Iceland in March to shoot auroras. Which lens would you recommend between a Sigma 20mm f/1.4 and a Sigma 14mm f/1.8? Or is there another lens you’d recommend instead? I’m shooting with a Sony a7R III. — Jeff

A: Congrats on your Iceland trip! Our No. 1 bit of advice is to get off of the main ring road and explore the random back roads to avoid the crowds. It can be busy over there!

As for your lens question, the wider-aperture model will probably be more useful, but it’s always good to have options. If the sky really lights up, you’ll want the widest lens you can get, but the 14mm is crazy wide for general shooting. Also, you don’t necessarily need superfast lenses—with a good aurora, you will probably be stopping down a few stops anyway.

For more advice on shooting the northern lights, see our two blog posts “Capturing Clouds of Light: How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis.” and “Northern Exposure: 8 Illuminating tips for Photographing Auroras.” — Lance

5. Moonrises at Sunset

Day before full moon, Death Valley National Park. © 2005 Tim Cooper. Canon 1Ds, 16-35mm lens at 31mm. 4 seconds, f/8, ISO 100.

Q: We learned from PhotoPills that sunsets can be spectacular when the moonrise and sunset occur within an hour of each other. But the moon rises in the east and the sun sets in the west, so we’re stumped. Any ideas? — Barbara E.

A: I suggesting thinking about it this way: What will be illuminated from the west when you’re facing east, with a great view of the moon rising behind it? The idea isn’t to shoot the sun and moon together, but rather to shoot the full moon rising among beautifully sunlit scenery or among the delicate light of a just-set sun.

The other advantage to this scenario is that the brightness of sunset balances well with the moon, which equalizes the intensities to get it all in one shot (as opposed to having to HDR the scene, which is so often the need when trying to shoot the moon over a landscape).

For a crispy moon, keep those exposure times short—don’t be afraid to ramp up your ISO to keep things sharp. Ideally, you want a big ol’ moon coming just off the horizon with gentle, ruddy sunlight kissing your subjects.

Grab your phone and scout with PhotoPills! Use it to see just where that moon will peek up to be sure you will see it during that sweet spot of sunset with the moon on the horizon.

And please send us photos of your success! — Matt

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at www.PhotographingNationalParks.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

Shooting for the Moon: How to Photograph Earth's Little Cousin

Humankind has been fascinated with the moon since the birth of photography. One of the first things that was attempted during the daguerreotype days was to try to record the moon in all its detail. John Williams Draper was the first to successfully mount a camera box onto a handmade telescope and track a full moon for 20 minutes using a heliosat.

Oldest surviving image of the moon. John Williams Draper, 1840.

That print from 1840 has unfortunately sustained extensive damage and now looks like a bubbly surreal etching. But this effort kick-started astrophotography, and we have many remaining images of our satellite from that early era. The first detailed images are credited to John Adams Whipple, who starting in 1849made daguerreotypes of the moon using the telescope at the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Other early successes include an image by Henry Draper (John’s son), shot from Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, in 1863.

"View of the Moon,” by John Adams Whipple, 1852.

“Photo of the Moon,” by Henry Draper, 1863.

Modern Moon Photography

Photographically speaking, the moon is closer than ever before, so how can we improve our moon shots before we start colonizing?

The three things to consider when shooting the moon are:

  1. the phase (as it relates to brightness)
  2. cycle (angle)
  3. elevation (how high is the moon in the sky?)

Also remember that moonlight is actually sunlight reflecting off a gray surface—so it’s pretty bright. Most of the time the tricky part is that the moon is brighter than the rest of the scene. For this blog post, we will focus on shooting the moon while it is full and most luminous.

Exposure

The Looney 11 Rule continues to be a great starting point for figuring out the correct exposure for a craterlicious moon. The rule is:

For astronomical pictures of the moon’s surface, set your aperture to f/11 and match the shutter speed to your ISO.

For example: 1/125, f/11, ISO 100.

However, please remember—and I can’t stress this enough—that the formula above does not always give you an exact correct exposure, but rather a starting point. Use the formula to get an exposure that will likely be close, and then adjust to precision using your histogram as a guide.

Gear

One challenge to consider is that ideally you need a long lens to focus in and get close to the moon. How many of you have taken pictures of a little while circle in the sky? Minimally, I’d use a lens that can get to 300mm, but the closer the better!

We were very fortunate at our “Blue Supermoon” workshop in Biscayne National Park in January, as Nikon sent us their majestic telescope of a lens, the 800mm f/5.6. This is currently Nikon’s longest lens. The 800mm generally attracts the high-end market of wildlife and sports photographers, but for shooting the moon, nothing else of this quality gets you closer. The lens comes with a matched 1.25X teleconverter that, when mounted, makes this a 1000mm lens!

We still didn’t think that was close enough, so we attached the lens to Nikon’s top APS-C camera, the D500. The crop sensor on the D500 turned our 1000mm lens into a 1500mm! Talk about extreme close-up!

The moon photographed at a focal length of 100mm.

… 300mm.

… 1200mm.

… 1500mm.

The challenge we encountered with the 1500mm-equivalent lens is that it was very big and heavy. We mounted it to a Wimberley Gimbal head on a Gitzo mountaineer tripod. This allowed us more precise control so that we could easily track the moon, as the magnification caused it to be out of the frame in just about a minute. Even mounted on this rig the lens would easily shake in the breeze, so later in the evening we added a second tripod (a Gitzo 3543) under the lens hood for two-point contact and stability.

Henry Draper’s setup in 1863 versus ours in 2018.

Freezing the Action

Which brings me to the next factor when photographing the moon: If you are shooting handheld or with a large lens (400mm or longer), then your shutter speed should match your focal length. We found the shutter speed of 1/1000 to be acceptable for our setup, which (per the Looney 11 Rule) meant we had to boost our ISO to 1000.

Craterlicious moon, Biscayne National Park. Nikon D500 with a Nikkor 800mm f/5.6. 1/1000, f/11, ISO 1000.

Find a Foreground

If you want to level up your moon game, the next challenge is finding a foreground for the moon to intersect or play against. This will give more context and tell a better story about your lunar experience.

In order to do this you’ll need to do some planning. The best tool to help with this is the PhotoPills app. You can go into the Planner mode, drop your pin anywhere in the world and see where and when the sun and moon will rise and set in that exact location on any day of the year.

When I was scouting to shoot a supermoon in late 2016 (below), using PhotoPills I could see the time and path of where the moon would rise. I was interested in having it intersect with an icon of New York City. So I dropped my pin at various positions until I found the best pier at South Street Seaport to see the moon rise through the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges.

I needed a 3-minute window for the supermoon to shine through the clouds and bridges, a juxtaposition of time and place that required some serious planning with the PhotoPills app. Nikon D750 with a Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lens set to 370mm. 1/2, f/11, ISO 400.

In the PhotoPills Planner mode we can see the color code of the table—light blue means moonrise, which was going to happen at 5:14 p.m. that evening (November 11). I set the pin to where I would stand and the light blue line showed the path (azimuth) of the moon from that point. (See Figure 1, below.)

Figure 1.

Figure 2.

You can use the touchscreen on your phone or tablet to move the bottom time bar back and forth to see how the path of the moon (or sun) will change throughout the day. (Figure 2.)

Shoot During Twilight

Shooting the full moon is usually most effective the day before it’s 100 percent full. That’s when the moon will be rising just before sunset, allowing you to shoot it approximately 30 minutes prior to sunset and into civil twilight. This gives you more time to photograph the moon in better and more balanced light. (For more about working at this time of day, see Tim’s excellent blog post “Out of the Blue: The Importance of Twilight to the Night Photographer.”)

The next full moon we will encounter will be next Saturday, March 31 (which, incidentally, will be our second blue moon of the year). According to PhotoPills, at my home in New York City that day the moon will rise at 7:38 p.m. and the sun will set at 7:20 p.m. Civil twilight will be from 7:20 p.m. to 7:48 p.m. This would give us only 10 minutes to shoot the moon during ideal light, all during civil twilight.

However, the day before (Friday, March 30), the moon will rise at 6:31 p.m., the sun will set at 7:19 p.m. and civil twilight will end at 7:46 p.m. This will give us over an hour of shooting the moon—during golden hour, sunset and then blue hour. The moon will also be higher in the sky, providing more opportunities to play it against any interesting foregrounds.

This image was taken during  golden hour, providing the opportunity for a rich and balanced exposure. Sony RX100 set at 92mm. 1/60, f/10, ISO 125.

I was able to just eke out this shot of the full moon and get some detail in the buildings during nautical twilight. Fuji X-Pro1 with a Fuji 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8 lens set at 200mm. 1/250, f/8, ISO 400.

Wrapping Up

We hope these tips have inspired you to incorporate the craterlicious moon more into your night work! We’d love to see what you do. As you photograph the full moon March 30 and other months, please post your images in the comments section.

Gabriel Biderman is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He is a Brooklyn-based fine art and travel photographer, and author of Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots (Peachpit, 2014). During the daytime hours you'll often find Gabe at one of many photo events around the world working for B&H Photo’s road marketing team. See his portfolio and workshop lineup at www.ruinism.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT