Aside from the sun and the earth, it’s hard to think of a more timeless subject than the moon. And the 'super blue blood moon' on Jan. 31—hailed by astronomers as significant in that it's a supermoon and a blue moon that will pass through Earth’s shadow to give some viewers a total lunar eclipse—will go down in history as one of the year's most stellar images. But how exactly does one photograph the moon?

Well, shooting a good photo can be more difficult than you think. That's because, unlike most photographs, which involve shooting an object illuminated by the sun or an overhead lamp, this one requires you to capture a subject that is itself a source of light. Yes, technically, that's sunlight reflecting off the moon, but it's very, very bright.

How to photograph the moon
In this image, shot with a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS, the photographer was able to keep some of the blue in the evening sky.
Photo: Terry Sullivan

The night sky adds another tricky element—extreme contrast. And challenges like those can wreak havoc on your camera's auto metering system. But here are some tips to help you get better shots: 

1. Make a plan: If you’re hoping to shoot the moon rising over the horizon or hanging above your town, you’ll want to choose the setting carefully. Street lights and porch lights can detract from the image, so try to avoid having them in the picture.

2. Use a tripod: Regardless of the camera's shutter speed, I’ve always had better results shooting the moon with a tripod. If you don't own one, see if you can find a table or a wall to rest your camera on. And, when possible, use a self timer to snap the photo. That eliminates hand shake, which blurs the picture.

This is a photo of the moon over a Long Island bay
The moon will appear very tiny in the night sky when you use a smartphone to shoot your photo.
Photo: Terry Sullivan

3. Shoot with a long optical zoom: While smartphones are handy, you'll see a dramatic difference when you use a camera with a long zoom lens. Look at the shot above, taken took with an iPhone. The moon looks like a dot in the night sky above Peconic Bay in Greenport, Long Island. By contrast, the other photos in the story were shot with superzoom point-and-shoots featuring long optical zoom lenses.

4. Experiment with the exposure settings: Some digital cameras actually have a moon scene mode that optimizes the settings for you. If you don't own one of those, set the camera on manual and play around with different apertures and ISO settings. The photgrapher who took the photos shown here generally keeps the shutter speed constant, at around 1/125th or 1/250th of second, to minimize camera shake and vibration. However, he did use a much slower speed to capture the reddish tone of the "blood" moon below, which is why the image is a bit soft on detail.

This is a photo of the moon
Although the image is a bit soft, the photographer experimented with a longer exposure to get the reddish color for this "blood moon."
Photo: Terry Sulllivan

5. Take lots and lots of photos. It may take awhile to find the ideal settings, so be patient and keep shooting. When at last you hit on the right image, you'll be happy you stuck with it.