If you own a camera, you have probably done it. If you own a camera and a telephoto lens, I’ll be amazed if you haven’t done it. Done what? Photographed the moon of course.
The most memorable art lesson I had at school was when I was taught how to mix the colour grey. Not, as you might think, by mixing black and white but by taking a bit of blue, adding some yellow and then some red. White was added last of all to lighten the tone as required. I now know that this is called a tertiary grey. I was too young at the time to understand such a grown-up word and my teacher called it a colour grey. That was a valuable lesson learnt; grey can hold a colour.
What colour would you say that the moon is? Rising or setting, it can appear to be anything from straw yellow to blood red. By the time it’s hanging high in the sky on a clear night, it looks bright and white with patches of grey. And that’s where our description usually ends, reinforced by the fact that most photographs of the moon shown by astro-photographers have been deliberately de-saturated to black and white for maximum impact. Just like the one shown above.
This is the original (non black and white) photograph. You are probably thinking that it still looks like an ordinary mix of bright and dull patches. Look closer at the duller parts. Look long enough and you may see many subtle variations. That’s because these bland looking patches aren’t as innocent as they look and their secrets can be teased out with a bit of care.
By taking my time, making sure that I get an exposure that shows as much detail as possible and is as neutrally colour balanced as conditions allow, I have a picture that I can work with. By patiently adjusting saturation levels in Photoshop those lunar greys can be persuaded to reveal their hidden colours. Using the photograph that I’m showing you here, I end up with this result.
My picture was taken with a camera and telephoto lens. If I stretched my budget and bought an astronomical telescope, I would probably be able to get a more stunning result. If I took things to extremes and multiplied my budget a couple of hundred million times or more, I could do what NASA has done. Theirs is an extreme example that was taken by the Galileo spacecraft during its kamikaze mission to Jupiter.
NASA describes their psychedelic tour de force as a false-colour mosaic that reveals a treasure trove of scientific information. I think of my modest effort as an exaggerated colour image. After all, I’m only having a bit of fun while trying to bring out what is already there, even if it is cleverly disguising itself as shades of grey.