Next Monday, the moon's orbit will again carry it to lunar perigee, or its shortest distance from Earth. This, combined with being fully lit, will make the celestial body appear brighter, closer, and larger than usual.
Supermoons aren’t that rare—the moon has been moving in much the same way for millennia—but this one will be the closest in 68 years, and it’ll be another 18 years before it’s this big again. As a result, the phenomena provides a great opportunity for astrophotography.
There are as many ways to shoot a supermoon as there are vantage points on Earth. We asked several professional photographers for tips on how to position yourself (and your camera) for a chance at the best shot.
Picture of a supermoon rising behind the washington monument
A supermoon rises behind the Washington Monument on June 23, 2013, in Washington. Right: The Washington Monument is seen as the full moon is shadowed by the Earth during a total lunar eclipse on the arrival of the winter solstice on December 21, 2010. PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL INGALLS, NASA
With the Best Gear
Find the biggest lens you can and then add a teleconverter lens, says Mark Thiessen, a National Geographic staff photographer. Theissen photographed the moon for the magazine about ten years ago using a 600mm lens and a 2x converter. He traveled to Moab, Utah—where the desert landscape would ensure a clear sky—and used GPS software called The Photographer’s Ephemeris to know exactly where the moon would rise, as well as the arc it would take across the sky.
A perigree full moon, or supermoon, is seen on August 10, 2014, in Washington. A supermoon occurs when a full moon’s orbit is closest (perigee) to Earth. PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL INGALLS, NASA
Technically, the moon is the same size anywhere you see it in the sky. But seeing it near the horizon with structures like buildings, trees, or mountains for scale plays a trick on the mind that makes the moon seem slightly bigger (even though it’s not). Shooting with this in mind, and including these points of reference, will make for a richer photograph.
“Don’t make the mistake of photographing the moon by itself, with no reference to anything, instead, think of how to make the image creative—that means tying it into some land-based object. It can be a local landmark or anything to give your photo a sense of place.”- says Bill Ingalls, a senior photographer for NASA.
Shooting in low light usually requires a long exposure. But that’s wrong for a supermoon, says Theissen. When you’re looking at a full moon, it’s technically daylight on the moon, so shoot with the same exposure you would in daylight on Earth. Leaving your shutter open too long will result in an overexposed moon that’s too bright, with no lunar detail.
The full moon sets in the fog behind the Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket—with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard —on July 12, 2014, at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL INGALLS, NASA
With Your Smartphone
More casual photographers can still get a great shot without the bells and whistles of fancy cameras. Start by noticing the moon a few days before the supermoon. The path won’t be exactly the same, but it’ll be similar, and you can plan where and when to shoot.
Use your optical lens only, not your digital zoom, advises National Geographic photographer Michael Christopher Brown. That means don’t zoom in on your phone’s sensor before you take the photo, which will decrease quality. Take the image first, then zoom in to crop or enlarge detail.
A supermoon is seen behind the Colorado State Capitol Building during a total lunar eclipse on September 27, 2015, in Denver. The combination of a supermoon and total lunar eclipse last occurred in 1982 and won't happen again until 2033. PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL INGALLS, NASA
Put your phone on a tripod somewhere firm. “Ideally the phone is stabilized,” says Brown, which might not seem too urgent, but when shooting something so far away, tiny vibrations of your camera can dramatically reduce image quality. If no tripod is available, even placing your phone on a solid surface like a ledge or windowsill and setting the timer will ensure a stable exposure.
Use your fingers to get the right light balance. Ingalls suggests tapping the screen and holding your finger on the moon to lock the focus on it—instead of allowing the autofocus to clarify a group of stars. Then you can slide your finger to lighten or darken the exposure. “You’ll usually want to drag it down for underexposure to be sure you have all the highlight detail,” says Brown.
One more bit of advice all photographers agree on: Take some time to enjoy the moon without your camera. Supermoons aren’t rare, but they’re not an everyday occurrence either. Don’t be so focused on your sensor that you miss such an otherworldly sight.