How to Photograph the Moon

January 01

17 min. to read

Taking pictures of the moon is not a obvious task - it's bright, it's fast moving, it's very far.

The moon is a favorite subject of amateur and professional photographers everywhere. It's also a very tricky subject to photograph without a bit of fundamental knowledge. More often than not, the first attempts of novice photographers will result in a bright “blob” where the moon should be. It's also quite common to find that excessive camera movement recorded a bright streak instead of an orb. Other disappointing results are also common and this can be extremely frustrating.

How to Photograph the Moon Image1

©Dana O. Crandell. All rights reserved. 

Fortunately, with a little bit of basic understanding and instruction, you can take presentable photos of the moon with most cameras. This article will explain the reasons many photographers have trouble photographing this subject and how you can overcome the obstacles to create beautiful moon shots.

What You Need to Know

Before you try to grab that photo of the moon, it's important to understand a few very basic things about it. Let's consider the most important points: 

How to Photograph the Moon Image2©Dana O. Crandell. All rights reserved.

1. Moonlight is VERY bright.

The light you're seeing on the face of the moon is pure, reflected sunlight. Without sunlight, you'd probably never notice the moon in the night sky at all. The exposure settings you use when photographing it will need to take this brightness into account.

2. Other light sources are not as bright.

The lights of a city skyline, the lights of cars on the highway and even the light from the stars you see in the night sky are not as intense as the sunlight reflecting from the moon. That means that if your photo is metered for those lights, the moon will be badly overexposed. That's what causes that bright round blob with no detail in many moon photographs.

3. The moon is VERY far away.

Earth's moon's orbit keeps it at an average of over 238,000 miles away. That makes it very difficult to focus on. It also means that even the slightest amount of camera shake will be greatly amplified, causing blur in your photos.

In addition, you'll need a telephoto lens to take a closeup of the moon. A lens with a minimum focal length of 300mm is recommended for the best results. Night landscapes or cityscapes with the moon in the sky can be very effective with shorter lenses, but require special exposure and focusing techniques, which will be addressed later in this article.

4. The moon is moving VERY fast.

The moon orbits the earth at a speed of over 2,000 miles per hour (over 3,000 kilometers per hour). If you keep your camera still, you can actually watch it cross the viewfinder in a fairly short time. This means that long exposure times will result in blurred images.

The facts above are the basis of setting your camera properly for lunar photography. Keep them in mind and the techniques described in this article will be easy to understand.

Setting up Your Camera

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Stabilization

No matter what kind of camera you use, stabilizing it is extremely important in photographing the moon. While you're going to use a fairly fast shutter speed, remember that the camera-to-subject distance is very great, so any vibration will be much more noticeable. A sturdy tripod is the best choice for a camera support. It's advisable to switch off image stabilization/vibration reduction on your camera and/or lens, as the mechanism can actually induce movement when the camera is on a tripod.

Shutter Release

Even on a tripod, pushing the shutter release button on your camera can create enough vibration to create blur in lunar photographs, especially with a long lens attached. If your camera has a shutter delay timer, you can use it to help avoid this problem, but a cable release is a better option and a wireless remote shutter release is best.

Exposure Metering

Unless you're working with a very powerful telephoto lens, the moon will only occupy a portion of the frame in your shot. If your camera is using a typical averaging metering mode, the chances of getting the exposure right in this scenario are very slim.

It's possible to use spot metering and exposure lock to tell the camera which portion of the frame to expose for, but this is slow and difficult with a tripod mount and a moving subject. If your camera doesn't provide a manual exposure setting, however, spot metering may be your best option. Manual exposure setting is the best choice for moon photos and will be the method used in the upcoming instructions.

Focusing

Like spot metering, it's possible, but difficult to use automatic focusing and a single focusing point when photographing the moon. Manual focusing will almost always yield the best results. Set AF on your lens and/or camera to OFF. If your camera features an LCD screen, the zoom view it offers may help you magnify the moon for sharper focusing.

Taking the Shot

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©Dana O. Crandell. All rights reserved.

When shooting in manual, you'll need to adjust the ISO setting, aperture and shutter speed to create the proper exposure. A good working knowledge of photography fundamentals and your camera will be most helpful, but the guidelines below will help you get good results in a very short time.

ISO

Because of the brightness of the moon, an ISO setting of 100 is usually sufficient for lunar photography. If any conditions such as clouds and wind call for very fast shutter speeds, increase your ISO setting as needed, but use the lowest setting possible, since noise and grain increase with higher ISO settings. You will probably want to enlarge the final photo, so noise will be more noticeable. Use the lowest possible setting your camera allows.

Aperture

A smaller aperture (higher f/stop) will give you more depth of field, which increases your chances of having everything in focus. It's important, however, to remember that all lenses exhibit more diffraction at the extreme ends of their aperture scale. This diffraction will adversely affect the sharpness of the image. If you aren't familiar with the “sweet spot” of your lens, try an aperture setting of f/8 – f/11 as a starting point.

Shutter Speed

As with any photo of a distant, moving subject, a fast shutter speed is best. We recommend starting with a shutter speed of 1/125 to 1/250. Slower shutter speeds will increase the possibility of blurring due to the motion of the moon or the camera.

White Balance

As mentioned above, the light you see reflected from the moon is sunlight. To reproduce colors accurately, your white balance setting should be on daylight. Using your camera's Automatic White Balance setting isn't recommended, as it can be fooled by nighttime lighting conditions.

Putting it all Together

Using the guidelines above, you should be able to produce some usable images of the moon on your first outing. Follow these steps:

  • Set up your camera as above and switch to Live View if available. 
  • Set your exposure dial to manual and your WB setting to daylight. 
  • Set the ISO as low as possible, your aperture at f/11 and your shutter speed to 1/250. (If your ISO setting doesn't go below 200, use a shutter speed of 1/125.) 
  • Frame the moon and zoom the view if possible. 
  • Focus carefully. At this distance, removing your hand from the lens may disturb the focus, so take your time and be sure. 
  • Using your remote release, cable release or shutter timer, activate the shutter. 
  • Check the results and adjust your settings as needed.*

*Most modern DSLRs will preview the exposure while in Live View, so you can judge your exposure fairly well before taking the shot. Adjust your shutter speed and/or aperture setting to obtain the best preview before you trip the shutter.

Take several exposures with various settings. Experimenting with your own equipment is the best way to learn what works best for you. You'll have some post processing to do, so don't worry if your results aren't perfect.

Including the Foreground

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©Dana O. Crandell. All rights reserved.

If you want more than just the moon in your photo or you're working with a normal to wide-angle lens, there will be some special considerations for these situations. As mentioned earlier, exposing correctly for both the moon in the night sky and objects like the landscape or buildings is nearly impossible. If you expose for the moon, foreground objects will be underexposed and vice-versa.

You can use this to your advantage by creating silhouettes of foreground objects, but creating a properly-exposed photo of the landscape and moon together is usually a matter of creating a composite of two separate images. To facilitate this, simply take one photo exposed for the landscape, buildings, etc. and another exposed for the moon. It's also a good idea to focus on the foreground and the moon separately in each of these exposures. We'll discuss how to combine the two images in the next section.

Processing Your Moon Images

To get the best results from your moon photos, you'll want to do some post processing, using Skylum's Luminar image editor. Almost any lunar photograph will benefit from cropping, sharpening and contrast adjustments and both of these applications provide all the tools you'll need to do those jobs and more. You'll also need the ability to work with layers, which both of these programs also offer.

Cropping is fairly straightforward in these and other image processing applications. The object is to trim away all the unnecessary portions of the image to isolate the moon or to improve the composition of an image that includes the moon and other objects.

If you're cropping to show just the moon in your final image, remember that increasing the size of the image also increases the level of noise, so don't try to “stretch” your shot too far. The only way to achieve a high-quality closeup photo of the moon is to have a good telephoto lens for the original shot.

Sharpening can be achieved with several filters in both programs. This is an important step in processing almost any digital image, but it's also a step that can be easily overdone. Too much sharpening enhances digital noise and creates artifacts like “halos” or pixelated spots in your images. Using sharpening filter is one good way to sharpen your moon shots. We also recommend watching this video tutorial for Luminar's sharpening filter.

Contrast Adjustment helps emphasize details, correct or enhance tonal values and can greatly improve the overall quality of your images. We recommend learning to use the Curves adjustment, also available in Luminar. Here's Luminar's video tutorial explaining how to use this powerful feature.

Composite Images are images created by combining two or more exposures by “stacking” them in layers and transparentizing or masking portions of them to create the impression of a single image. This is the method mentioned earlier in the article, used to combine correctly exposed photos of the moon and the landscape or other foreground features, to overcome exposure differences and create a natural-looking photo.

Taking the two images described earlier, a simple method would be to open the image with the foreground correctly exposed, then place the image with the moon correctly exposed in a layer on top of it. You'd then use the masking tools to remove everything except the moon in the upper layer and only the moon in the lower layer (since it will have moved between exposures). The result will be an image in which the moon and the foreground are both exposed properly.

Enjoy Your Lunar Photos

If you've followed along carefully, you should have some exciting new photos of the moon to show off. Welcome to the wonderful world of astrophotography! With some practice using the methods described in this article, you should find that moon photography isn't as difficult as you might have once thought. All that's left to do now is to stretch your creative wings and find ways to capture and create spectacular images that express your personal vision. Whether you share your moon pictures with others or simply enjoy them yourself, remember, above all, to have fun!

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