Photographing the Moon’s Colours

A lot of the images you’ve undoubtedly seen of our nearest neighbour show it as a washed out white orb, with only a certain amount of detail visible, hidden in its brightness. Nothing could be further from the truth! The moon has a huge amount of detail and, more surprisingly, colour. What you’re seeing is the sun’s reflection on the lunar surface, and in part due to its lack of atmosphere, and the fact our eyes aren’t sensitive enough to pick out these more subtle colour at distance, this is why it looks so white to the naked eye.

One of the best ways to show a lot of the lunar detail is to try and image around the terminator. No, it’s not a cybernetic organism intent on altering our history. Rather, it’s the dividing line between day and night on a planetary surface. This pretty much means that you want to be shooting the moon when it’s not full. Along the terminator, you can get some great contrast between light and dark, and these can look really dramatic, especially in the more mountainous regions where the effect can be even more pronounced.

But, better than that, you can also bring out the colours on the moon’s surface, and all you need is a standard DSLR or OSC (one shot colour) camera. I’ve successfully done this with both, and I must admit they both have their pros and cons. So join me as I help you to capture some of that great lunar colour.

Capturing A Good Image

This part is pretty essential, no matter what camera you’re using. With any image you capture, the final result will suffer if the original image is sub-par. This applies to both DSLR and OSC, although the methods for capture are different for both types.

With a DSLR it’s a lot easier to blur the image. This is because of the high focal length and mechanical movements within the camera itself, ie the shutter moving, when you take the image. In order to minimise this, you need to keep the exposure short, ie around 1/250 to 1/500. This will depend somewhat on the moon phase as well. The brighter that moon is, the shorter your exposure will need to be in order to not blow out the highlights.

Actually pressing the shutter release button as well will bring in some vibration, which at the high focal length will become easily apparent. If you can, use the timer that’s built into a lot of even reasonable DSLRs now. I usually opt for a 5 second timer there. You can also use an intervalometer or remote shutter release. But if you don’t have either of these, then the timer will do. Now take as many exposures as you want, not forgetting to take them in RAW if your camera supports it. You can use JPG but that format is what we refer to as “lossy”, in that it’s a compressed file which doesn’t contain all of the available data in order to keep the file size smaller. If you’re a bit out on your exposure settings, don’t panic too much, just alter your shutter speed, or ISO if you have to.

If you’re using an OSC (I use the ZWO ASI178MC) then the principle remains the same. Although with OSCs you want to aim to actually be shooting video as opposed to single images. The reason for this is that the software you’ll be using will take the video, analyse it frame by frame, and then pull out the best, sharpest, frames, for you to then stack into the sharpest final image it can. You’ll still be post processing that final image as well, but it’s definitely the best way to get good results from an OSC.

Processing

I’m going to only quickly skim through the stacking as that’s something for another post. Essentially you’ll be using AutoStakkert for the stacking and Registax to adjust the wavelets. Each one is worth a post in its own right and I’ll consider doing that another time. For now though, there are plenty of tutorials online that cover using them.

I import the image that I’m going to process first into Lightroom. This is primarily for catalogue purposes. I’ll also look at an initial crop if I haven’t already done that in Registax. I then import this image into Photoshop. To do this, whilst in Lightroom’s develop module, right click anywhere in the image and select “Edit in Photoshop”, followed by “Edit a copy with Lightroom adjustments.”

Once in Photoshop you want to create a duplicate layer. Go to Layers > Duplicate Layer. You then want to do an auto colour adjustment. So it’s Edit > Auto Colour. Then lock the new duplicate layer’s luminosity by going to the Layers tab over on the right and change the blend mode drop down to “Luminosity.” This has the effect that any changes you make to the pixels won’t affect their light value, up to a certain point.

From this point on its all about the layers. When I first did this I made the mistake of creating a single layer and then cranking up the saturation until I got something come through. And whilst it IS all about the saturation, you want to approach like it’s bone China and you’re handling it delicately, not like a bull in a china shop.

So, you’re going to be creating a new saturation layer. To do this go Layers > Create Adjustment Layer > Vibrance and Saturation. You can name it whatever you want but at this point I generally just stick with the default. You’re going to be creating a lot of them, so in the interests of saving a bit of time, I recommend just running with the default names for them.

When you create the new adjustment layer, you’ll get a little box where you can adjust the hue, saturation and vibrance. Using just the saturation slider, move it between 15 and 20 to the right, no more than that. Remember, this is about teasing that colour out whilst preserving the overall image quality as far as you can.

Initially you won’t see any changes to the image. Don’t be tempted to crank it higher, because the image will start to suffer for it.

At this point, close the adjustment box, and then repeat the process of creating a new saturation adjustment layer. Again, slide the saturation to the right no more than 15 to 20. Keep repeating these steps and eventually you’ll start to see colour coming through on the image.

How far you want to take this is entirely up to you, but I’ve found that I often have 10 or more adjustment layers before I get the colour to a point I’m somewhere near happy with.

From there, once you’re happy with the colouring of your image, I would flatten the layers. To do this go to Layers > Flatten Layers. The merge layers option is for when you only have a single layer other than your original background one.

At this point I do some tidying up of the noise, which will have increased. I find the despeckle option very useful and I often run this several times. You can also sharpen it a little more if you feel you can get away with it, as well as carrying out some levels and curves adjustments if it warrants it.

From here I exit out, saving the final flattened image, and return to Lightroom, where the image you’ve just edited will be in all its colourful glory. Tweak accordingly, but try and maintain the level of detail without sacrificing overall image quality. Remember, it’s easy to oversharpen things and introduce artifacts. Less is more.

That’s more or less how I do it, but if I’ve left anything out, or if you’d like to add anything, please do comment either here or on my Facebook page.

I’ll leave you with a couple I’ve recently done. Thank you for reading, and clear skies!

78% illuminated daytime moon. The closeup is the Sea of Tranquility and the Sea of Serenity, landing sites of Apollo 11 and 17 respectively.

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