Post Processing: To the Moon and Back

February's full moon
As a child the moon always amazed me and while growing up the idea of space exploration was one of the things that inspired me to pursue science. Later in life my love for the moon grew after I began to read a lot about Astrology and learned that as a Cancerian, I was ruled by this planet. Once I purchased an EM5 one of my first goals was to photograph the moon but I did not get a chance to experiment with this venture until I was offshore last Fall. At first I had absolutely no idea what kind of settings I should use and figured because it was night I needed a slow shutter speed. Boy was I wrong. LOL. As a scientist I am a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I did not fully realize that the full moon is a very powerful light source. After bumping up my shutter speed I got some OK photos of the moon and at that point was just excited that I actually got a photo!! Turns out I was still in using "auto iso" (which I have basically abandoned and set manually now) and really, at a value of 3200, the photos I took that day were trash. After a lot of trial and error I have come up with some "optimal" settings that I usually use when trying to capture the moon using my Oly MZD 40-150mm lens @ 150mm. These are iso-as low as you can go (in my case 200); aperture- 5.6-8 (no "smaller" than 8 with m4/3 because you sacrifice sharpness from diffraction), and a shutter speed ranging 1/2*effective focal length (here, 600) to 2000. Settings for the photo I will use for this post processing example included: iso-200, aperture-f/6.7, shutter speed-1/1000. The goal of this post is to share some of the post processing tricks I have learned from my attempts at capturing the moon.

Original file
The above photo is a screen grab of the RAW file and as you can see, the moon is actually pretty small. I wish I had a longer lens, but I have found the 40-150 to be sharp enough to allow for some pretty significant cropping. 

This is actually my first step in processing and I try to get close to a 1:1 view or 400x400 to 600x600 pixels. As you can see this alters the histogram which will help later on when altering brightness etc..

100% crop of RAW (600x600 pixels)
Looking at the above photo, you can tell that the EM5's sensor actually picks up an amazing amount of data. It is just a matter of maximizing the information.

Contrast -100
Next comes what I think is the most important step and something that I have only recently found made a huge difference in the output of my moon photos. This is to adjust the contrast to -100. You would think that increasing the contrast would lead to a more sharper looking image, but the renderings with no contrast look a lot better (of course this is subjective).

Adjust highlights, shadows, whites, blacks and clarity
After I set my contrast to -100 I adjust my dynamic range parameters and clarity to maximize the moon's detail and try to ensure that all the surrounding pixels are black. I am all for a dramatic photo, but by all means adjust for a more natural look if that is what you are looking for. If you look at the histogram in the top right, you can see a fairly good distribution of tones, albeit slight overexposed.

Noise Reduction
Next, I adjust sharpness and noise reduction under Lightroom's "Details" module. Here it is important that you apply a mask to sharpening and to view the very fine changes that result from adjustments to noise reduction at a 2:1 or 3:1 magnification. I am a "tweak until it looks good" kind of person and there is really no right or wrong recipe here. 

Split tone
This next step is just something that I found adds a nice touch to moon photos, but is just a personal preference and again, is adjustable as you see fit. Here I go to the "Split Toning" module and warm up the highlights using a 50:25 mix (goldish color at 25% saturation) and slightly cool down the shadows using a 215:10 mix (slate/light blue at 10% saturation). The difference is subtle but I think it breathes some life into an otherwise very dull (grey) subject.

Adjustment brush
One of the final edits I made to this particular moon photo was to accentuate its large crater by increasing the clarity and contrast of that area. This helps draw the eye to what I think is a pretty interesting focal point.

Crop to taste
Before final tweaking I choose an aspect ratio and crop the photo to the dimensions I want. Due to the severe crop I do not think that this would be a very good candidate to make a large print from, but for web display (and as a background photo for my desktop-haha), I find that a relatively short telephoto (300mm) will give you pretty good results if you are willing to massage out the details in post.

Final tweaking
Finally, I go back to the "dynamic range" adjusters and use the sliders to fine tune my final image. Again, this is up to personal taste. Photographing the moon may seem daunting and it certainly took some time for me to get it right, but it is something everyone should try!! If you have yet to do so I hope this post has given you some inspiration to give it a try and some tips for post processing after. Also, even if you don't think you have a long enough lens, you may be pleasantly surprised at what you can accomplish with a 200-300mm telephoto. As per usual, thanks for stopping by, I hope you enjoyed this small post processing session =)

Sam D.