How to photograph the moon will be a popular question this week as the “Super Blue Moon” rises, but most will be using a smartphone. Bereft of a telephoto lens, is it even possible to image the full moon using just an iPhone, Galaxy or any other smartphone?
It is possible, but to do it well you’ll need to get your timing right and know a few techniques to make the most of what a smartphone can offer.
Here’s exactly how to photograph the moon using a smartphone:
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Get The Right Night
The moon will be officially full at the global time of 9:35 p.m. EDT/6:35 p.m. PDT on Wednesday, August 30, 2023. However, that’s not relevant for photography.
This month the best time to image the full moon from North America will be Wednesday, August 30 because the full moon will rise about 10 minutes after sunset, as seen from across the continent. That means you can capture it during civil twilight. However, Tuesday, August 29 will also be good, with the almost-full moon rising about 20-25 minutes before sunset. Find out the time of local moonrise where you are.
Charge Your Phone
When you use the camera on your smartphone you use the display on full and a lot of the electronics, so the battery drains very quickly. Over the course of watching and imaging a moonrise over, say, 30 minutes, you can easily drain the battery to critical levels. So start with a fully charged phone.
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Find A Good Location
What you need is a good view low to the east-southeastern horizon simply because when the moon rises into the sky—a truly magical moment—it’s orange in color, just like a sunrise or a sunset. However, it doesn’t last long—only about 10-15 minutes—quickly turning yellow and then grey as it rises and significantly brightens.
It’s really important to catch it at its orangey moonrise when the moon and the foreground are of similar brightness, particularly when using a smartphone, which takes a single exposure. Once the moon has risen it will be very tricky to image properly with a phone simply because it will be too bright—and the foreground will be nothing more than a silhouette. Great places to catch the moon as it rises include a balcony, rooftop bar or a wide open space such as a park.
Think About Composition
A small, bright thing very far away in an empty sky is … dull. What you need is some context. The moon rising between two buildings. Peeking above a mountain. Rising out of a tree. Something to give it balance and interest. Just make sure you’re in place in civil twilight when the moon is low—that’s when you are most likely (by far) to get something interesting as well as properly exposed. If you do zoom in on the moon, don’t overdo it—all you are really doing is reducing the quality of your image.
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Unless you’re going for something arty it’s likely that you’ll want the moon to be in focus, So use auto-focus lock on your phone, which on an iPhone can be done by touching the image of the moon on your phone’s screen and then performing a long press. This will lock the focus so you can concentrate only on composition. Again, it’s something that works well when the moon is low, and dull, in terms of brightness—in short, when it’s orange!
Experiment With Shutter Speed
If your smartphone’s camera app allows it then try to change the shutter speed, which will change how bright your image is. Don’t bother with the ISO, which is best left on ISO 100.
Use The Shutter Delay
Use the two-second delay timer on your phone, which will prevent your smartphone physically moving as you take the shot, thus blurring your image. Another option is to use a Bluetooth shutter release (a.k.a. a selfie remote).
With these basic tips, you should be good to go, but here are some more advanced tips, below—which require a bit of preparation and/or a purchase, so might be more relevant for the rise next month of the “Super Harvest Moon:”
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Find A Tripod
Although leaning a phone against something while on a flat surface will do at a pinch, it’s worth spending a few dollars on a small tripod and a universal smartphone holder. You can typically find these on sale online bundled together.
Get Some Magnification
Your smartphone has no telephoto lens, but you do have a couple of options if you want to shoot detail on the moon. The first is a clip-on zoom lens, which cost a few dollars. A better way is to buy some binoculars (and mount them on a tripod) or a small telescope. Then simply take some images through the eyecups. This is called afocal photography. However, it can take a bit of wiggling to get the image lined-up.
Use Third-Party Apps
Although you can use the built-in camera app on your phone, third-party apps such as Camera+ 2, VSCO and Yamera will allow you to experiment with changing the ISO and shutter speed. Perhaps just as importantly, they also allow you to record images in the raw format, which captures a lot more data.