Selection of Philippine avian wildlife all captured in habitat, plus nature and miscellaneous images.

Moonshooting with birding lenses

Birding lenses are by nature very long to allow the photographer to get close to their normally shy feathered subjects. Interestingly, such long focal lengths are also good for other things – larger astro bodies like the moon.

Moonshooting with birding lenses is fun. It likewise enhances the long lens technique of a bird photographer, particularly shake control and manual focus proficiency. I have regulary trained my birding lenses at the moon, mostly shooting from my backyard in urban Metro Manila. When the atmospheric conditions are good, decent lunar detail that approaches the output of small astro scopes can be captured .

Here’s one such moonshot.

MANILA MOON - MARCH 7, 2010. Observed from Paranaque City, Philippines, on March 7, 2010 (04:57:54 local time), Canon 7D + 400 2.8 L IS + stacked Canon 2x and Sigma 2x TCs,1600 mm, f/16, ISO 100, 1/25 sec, contrast detect focus in Live View, 475B/3421 support, remote switch, rotated to portrait orientation.

Click here for the 3000×2000 pixel version in landscape orientation.

And here’s a closer look at the detail captured using the Canon 7D’s tiny pixels + Canon’s sharpest lens the 400 2.8 IS and 4x worth of teleconverters:

Pixel level view (aka 100% crop).

I’ve been asked in many photo forums how to capture the moon well using long DSLR lenses, so here’s sharing my shooting workflow.

My Top 10 Tips on Moonshooting with Long DSLR Lenses

1. Use the longest glass you can get your hands on, on a good tripod and head.

2. Use a DSLR with the tiniest pixels available for maximum reach.

3. Teleconverters increase the level of detail captured. Most Canon long L glass improve detail capture with TCs up to a focal length corresponding to an f/11 Av (ex. 400 5.6L + 2x, 500 f4 + 2.8x or 400 2.8 + 4x TC).

4. Shoot at the sweet Av of your glass (could be 1 stop from wide open with TCs).

5. Use ISO 100-200 for least noise and maximum sharpening flexibility.

6. Shoot RAW and expose to the right, till the highlights are almost blown, this will allow you more PP flexibility later.

7. Use Live View contrast detect AF (most newer EOS bodies can AF in this mode till f/11 or even f/16). Trigger the shutter with a remote switch after the moon on the LCD stabilizes. Turn off IS if so equipped. For DSLRs with strong shutter vibrations (ex. 1D MIV), you should still use LV contrast detect AF if the combo is f/11 or darker. However, once focus locks in contrast detect, turn off LV and shoot using MLU and a remote switch.

8. With good long lens technique, a Tv of 1/25 sec is fast enough for a 7D + 1600 mm. You can increase the shutter speed by about a stop for a bigger factor of safety if you wish. Any faster Tv in excess of that is wasteful and should instead be converted to lower ISO to mitigate noise.

9. Do test shots for exposure on the onset, review histogram, then shoot many, many shots using the optimized ISO, TV and Av values. Shooting tons of photos increases the chances of “getting through” when the wave-like atmospheric distortion is least. It’s easy to select the sharpest shots later in your computer. As long as ISO, Tv and Av are constant, the RAW files with the largest sizes are the sharpest.

10. Each frame should be individually focused to minimize focus errors.


4 responses

  1. Bob in Texas

    Have you tired focus stacking using this technique?

    Professor Covington uses a webcam to grab many many frames, but you could use his technique with 20-30 DLSR-taken frames I’ll bet. I’d love to see someone try this with a DSLR and a birding lens.

    April 21, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    • Thanks for dropping by, Bob!

      No, I don’t do image stacking at moonshots because the details and noise levels in single shots at ISO 100-200 are quite good enough for me. Also, there’s something in the look of stacked lunar detail that puts me off – I can’t quite describe it well but it appears unnatural and overprocessed to my eyes. This is probably because the edges of detail are not pixel sharp after stacking and one needs to oversharpen to compensate.

      I’d use image stacking though for smaller and dimmer astro objects, like Jupiter and Saturn.

      BTW, focus stacking as I understand it is a different technique which is used to deepen the DOF in some shots, like in macros.

      Best regards,


      April 21, 2011 at 11:36 pm

  2. cecil kirksey

    Should you modify the technique if you are using the 1DIV? Not use LVAF? We discussed this issue recently at dpreviews. I long to get such a nice shot with my 400mm f/5.6 and new 2x MKIII teleconverter.

    April 6, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    • Hi Cecil,

      Good point…. I’ll modify tip no. 7 to accommodate the 1D4’s strong shutter vibrations.

      You should still use LV CDAF with the 1D4 + 400 5.6L + 2x TC. Once focus locks in contrast detect, turn off LV and shoot using MLU and a remote switch.

      Here’s a recent thread at DP Review on how to shoot the 1D4 using slow shutter speeds.


      April 6, 2011 at 1:30 pm

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