How to capture the moon
Photos of the moon were borne from the desire to see the universe around us, so as to better understand all its wonders.
Written by Eve Andrews
Illustrations by Twisha Patni, Klaus Brasch
There is a photograph that Dave Green will never forget taking. In the wee hours of November 8th, 2022, he set up tripods, cameras, and telescope lenses at the top of 35th Street in Charleston, West Virginia. Green, like many others whose passion is photographing the moon, kept close track of weather conditions down to the most arcane minutiae — the stillness of the atmosphere, the presence of cloud cover. That particular night was forecast to be clear, which was lucky because Green wanted to photograph something special: the blood moon, a semiannual phenomenon in which the Earth’s shadow completely overtakes its cratered satellite, making it appear rust-colored in the sky.
As Green tells it, one is bound to encounter some characters in a parking lot in Charleston at four in the morning. A young man “in some distress,” talking to himself at length, came upon Green and his setup. Surprised, he asked Green to explain what he was doing.
Source: Dave Green (https://www.instagram.com/dave_has_a_camera/)
“I point at the moon and say, ‘it’s an eclipse,’ and he just goes: ‘Wow!’” He was so thrilled, he says, ‘I didn’t even know that was going on, I’ve never seen anything like that.’ And it was right above his head the whole time, and all he had to do was look up.”
The young man stayed with Green the rest of the night, asking him to explain his process, handing him this or that piece of equipment. The final result is an image of a red orb descending closer and closer toward the sharp pinnacle of Charleston’s state capitol building as if falling to earth.
This is how Green likes to compose his nightscape photos: a celestial body against a foreground you might see every day. “There’s this connection of heavens to earth, and people look at that and there’s something they understand and something mysterious at the same time,” he says. “And there’s something special about looking at it in the back of your camera — I don’t even know if it’s as much a sense of accomplishment as it is that it makes it real.”
But among the great range of celestial bodies, it has been the relatively humble moon that has commanded the awe of humans. Green shares a sort-of-joke often made by one astrophotographer friend: The moon is lame because it is the most basic subject, as compared to the nebulae and distant galaxies of more technically complex deep-space photography. (“Of course it’s not lame,” Green is quick to clarify).
“If you show an average person a photo of the Horsehead Nebula, versus one of the moon, they’ll pick the moon every time because it’s familiar to them,” says Green. “It’s something they understand.”
As a feature of the night sky, the moon is pedestrian and ever-present. One may not even notice it 364 nights of the year, until the particular night when it glows a deep, otherworldly orange in the sky overhead. It is familiar and unattainable; perhaps it is that juxtaposition that makes it such an enticing subject, persistently looming, just barely within reach.
The history of photographing the moon is long and full of fumbles. In their book L.J.M. Daguerre: The History of the Diorama and the Daguerreotype, art historians Helmut and Alison Gersheim recount a remarkable testimony given to the Académie des Sciences in Paris in January 1839 by the Académie’s secretary Francois Jean Dominique Arago, who also served as director of the Paris Observatory at the time.
Arago, whose speech would be republished across Europe and North America, reported that the artist and inventor Louis Daguerre had produced miraculous images using a mechanism he would call the “daguerreotype.” Among these images was one that Arago described as “the first to produce a noticeable chemical modification by the moon’s light.” Daguerre himself described his invention as “not merely an instrument which serves to draw Nature; on the contrary, it is a chemical and physical process which gives her the power to reproduce herself.”
This image is allegedly the first photograph ever produced of the moon. But it occupies a somewhat mythical position, as it would never be seen by the public. Just two months after Arago’s testimony, Daguerre’s studio and all of his work burnt to the ground in a conflagration fueled by the many flammable chemicals used in his namesake invention.
Klaus took his first shot of the moon in 1958, pictured here. Source: Klaus Brasch
Photographs of the moon have come quite a long way from an imprint rendered by a copper plate doused in silver and salt, with progress accelerating considerably with the adoption of digital photography. Klaus Brasch, a lifelong hobbyist astrophotographer who worked for many years as a researcher and professor of cancer biology, still keeps the first picture he took of the moon “to remind myself of how far we’ve come.”
It was the 1957 launch of the Soviet Union's first satellite, Sputnik, that sparked Brasch's fascination with space and all its possibilities. Then a teenage member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, he was inspired to take his own photos of the moon using a homemade camera and a telescope at Montréal Center Observatory of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Half a century later, he took his first digital photograph of the same subject using the Clark Telescope at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he now lives.
The Clark Telescope was used to take photographs that were the basis for maps for the astronauts on the Apollo missions to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, all of which were — given the era — developed on film using emulsions.
“It’s amazing because this is where history catches up with technology,” says Brasch. “I took one digital picture and it was ten times better than film could do, so you realize there’s been this quantum leap with technological advancement.”
A 174 megapixel look at the moon. Source: James McCarthy
That rapid advancement is what enabled amateur astrophotographers Connor Matherne and Andrew McCarthy to capture one of the most detailed images of the moon ever created from their respective backyards in southern Louisiana and Arizona in November 2020. The way Matherne tells it, he was on the phone with McCarthy at night — they had struck up a friendship online over years of sharing their photographs — and happened to realize that the atmospheric conditions over both their homes happened to be ideal for photographing the moon. “It was as simple as, ‘sky’s clear,’” says Matherne.
Over the course of several hours, they took hundreds of thousands of high-resolution digital frames that took over a year to process. The resulting image, which they shared on Reddit to considerable excitement, is a composite of all of those frames in one crystal clear, zoomable photograph of the moon.
Of the two-thousand plus comments, one is particularly affecting: “I was going into my senior year of high school when I watched the first moon landing, and I never thought I'd get to see the moon at this detail. It's so beautiful & it's brought back the feeling of awe I had in 1969.”
Now, as a volunteer with the Baton Rouge Astronomical Society, Connor Matherne will go out on weekends and set up a telescope outside of a strip mall. He’ll ask passersby if they want to take a look — an undertaking he says makes him feel like a panhandler, especially because most decline. But of the ten percent or so of people who stop and peer through the viewfinder, not one of them has been unimpressed. “Every single one is speechless, or an exclamation of: oh my god, it’s like I’m standing there.”
Matherne compares it to the sensation he felt the first time he put on eyeglasses at 15 years old. Suddenly, every leaf on a tree and blade of grass was visible to him. “It’s that same reaction, when you see someone look through a telescope at the moon,” he says. “It's something you see all the time, hundreds of times, but you’ve never realized the detail and beauty and intricacy of it until you put your glasses on.”
It is easy to view technology writ large as a force for jadedness, one that blunts the human capacity for awe and narrows and contracts our perception of the world. But we forget that so many human inventions — the telescope, the camera, the most basic lens — were borne from the simplest human desire: To see the universe around us, so as to better understand all its wonders.
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