How to Photograph the Moon

Moon photography is harder than it seems. Use these tips to get your lighting, camera settings, and composition spot on for taking photos of the Moon.

The Moon can be a tricky subject to photograph. It's much brighter than you'd think, making it a challenge to find the right exposure, and it's also a lot smaller than it appears, meaning it's easy to be left with photos of a disappointing dot of light rather than the impressive disc you expected.

A common misconception is that lunar photography is expensive. While it's true that you can spend thousands on long focal length lenses, it's also possible to get some fantastic results with the equipment you already own.

The following tips will teach you how to photograph the Moon like a professional, helping you to get great results from your astrophotography regardless of your budget or experience.

Know Your Moon Phases

As the Moon orbits around the Earth, sunlight hits it from different angles, causing a variety of appearances or "phases".

Moon phases used in photography

Knowing the phases of the Moon comes in handy when photographing it.

Each phase gives the Moon a different look and feel. A full moon is the brightest, but it looks quite "flat" because the light is hitting it face-on. Gibbous and quarter moons tend to be the most interesting, as the side-lighting produces shadows which bring out the craters and mountains on the Moon's surface. A crescent moon is the darkest, but can be used to punctuate an otherwise uninspiring night sky.

Shoot at the Right Time of Day

The best time to photograph the Moon is at twilight (just before sunrise or just after sunset), with the moon close to the horizon. At this time of day there's residual light in the sky, which helps pick out details in the surroundings and add interesting colours to the sky and clouds. This results in a more atmospheric photo.

Moon at sunset

Photograph the Moon at twilight for added atmosphere. Image by jah.

You'll find the level of light changing rapidly, so arrive early to give yourself plenty of time to set up and get ready. Different moon phases show up better against different brightnesses of sky, so keep shooting throughout twilight to give yourself the best chance of getting a killer picture.

Try shooting at night to get a really crisp, clear Moon against a pitch black sky. This is particularly effective when using a long lens to crop in tightly. The moon can also be seen during the day, although it's not as prominent so is best used to complement some other foreground interest rather than being the main subject itself.

It's a good idea to do a little bit of advanced planning, using a moonrise and moonset calculator to find a day where you'll get the right moon phase at the right time of day.

Fill the Frame

If you can afford a long telephoto lens, you can get some fantastic, detailed images of the Moon by cropping in on it as tightly as possible. You'll need to use the longest lens you have available - 300mm is considered the bare minimum, with 800mm or longer preferred.

Moon photographed with a long lens

You'll need a long lens to capture the details of the Moon's surface. Image by Nick.

Most digital SLRs have a cropped sensor rather than a full-frame one. This means that your lenses will have a greater effective focal length, allowing you to get away with using a shorter lens. Read my article on crop factor to learn more.

To keep costs down, you can extend the focal length of an existing lens by using 1 or more teleconverters. For example, you could attach two 2x teleconverters to a 200mm lens to give it an effective focal length of 800mm. This will reduce the image quality slightly, but is preferable to enlarging a photo taken with the standard lens.

Include Foreground Interest

If you don't have the budget to buy a long focal length lens then all is not lost. You can get some great photos of the Moon using pretty much any lens, even ones with a wide angle - you just have to adjust your composition accordingly.

Moon behind cactus

Use foreground objects to add context to your moon photo. Image by Wendell.

Rather than placing the Moon as the main subject of the photo, include some other objects in the foreground, positioning the Moon in the background to add interest to the scene. Photographing the Moon through blades of grass or rising above silhouetted mountains adds atmosphere and context to the shot, so a shorter focal length needn't be a handicap.

The drawback to this technique is that it's often impossible to have both the moon and the scenery well exposed. If in doubt, underexpose - it's better to have a darker foreground than an overexposed Moon. Alternatively, you can take 2 shots - one exposed for the Moon and one for the surroundings - and then combine them later in Photoshop.

Reduce Vibrations for Sharpness

Camera shake can be a real problem in moon photography, particularly when using very long lenses. The slightest movement can cause noticeable blurring, ruining your shot. It's important to minimise vibrations as follows:

Use a tripod - A sturdy, stable tripod is essential. On its own, this will reduce most camera shake, and protect against external sources of vibration such as the wind.

Trigger the shutter remotely - Use a cable or remote release to eliminate the shake caused by pressing the shutter button. If you don't own one of these, activate your camera's self-timer for the same effect.

Use mirror lock-up - Even the movement of your camera's internal mirror can blur your photo. Mirror lock-up mode (MLU) works by moving the mirror out of the way before you take the shot. If your camera has this setting, turn it on for extra sharpness.

Find the Right Camera Settings

Choosing the correct moon photography settings is critical, and can be one of the hardest things to get right. Because of the variety of shooting conditions, there are no one-size-fits-all camera settings that work in all situations, but there is a process you can follow each time.

Choose settings manually - Your camera's autoexposure won't cope with a bright Moon against a dark sky, so switch to full manual mode. Start with an aperture of f/11, your camera's lowest ISO speed (say ISO 100), and a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second. Use your camera's autofocus to focus on the moon, then switch to manual focus mode to lock the focusing distance.

Test and improve - Take a test shot and review it on your camera's LCD screen, zooming right in to check the detail and exposure. Adjust settings accordingly and repeat the process. When using very long lenses, try to keep your shutter speed below 1/2 a second to reduce blur. With wider angles you can get away with longer exposures.

Use exposure bracketing - As an extra backup it's a good idea to bracket your exposures. This means that even if your camera settings aren't spot on, you'll hopefully have at least 1 reasonable photo that can be salvaged in your editing software.

"Cheat" with Photoshop

You can use digital editing software to tweak your photos until they look just the way you want them. For example, you can combine multiple images so that the Moon and the surroundings are both perfectly exposed, or even reposition or resize the Moon to get that perfect composition.

Moon over sand dunes

Using software to manipulate your photos is controversial but can result in some great images. Here, the photographer has combined 2 separate exposures. Image by James Jordan.

This is a subject that divides photographers, with purists insisting that photos should have minimal or no digital manipulation. However, even the professionals have been known to "fake" their shots in this way, and there's no denying it can result in some breathtaking images. I'll leave it up to you which side of the fence you're on!

Moon photography is challenging but very rewarding when you finally get that perfect shot. It's a process that can be learned and improved on, and once you've got the hang of it you'll be able to use it in a number of creative ways, snapping some stunning photos in the process.

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