How To Photograph The Moon: A Beginner’s Guide
Perhaps you saw the latest “moon event” circulating your Facebook feed, headed out and came back with blurry, disappointing pictures. Or perhaps you’re reading this to plan ahead to capture what is expected to be a spectacular moon tonight. Whatever the case is, you want a photo of the moon—how do you get it?
Photographing the moon is tricky because there’s limited light, and a camera’s autofocus won’t work on a night sky either. Getting a great photo of the moon isn’t impossible though—here’s a simple set of instructions on how to photograph the moon for beginners.
What You Need
Any DSLR or mirrorless camera will work to capture the moon, and some super zoom cameras with manual modes can also work well. Besides the obvious (camera), you’ll need:
- A good lens. A telephoto if you want to single out the moon and capture its details. A wider angle lens will get some of the scenery in too, but if you use a focal length shorter than 50 mm, the moon will look smaller than it does to the naked eye.
- A tripod
- A remote release (optional)
How to Photograph the Moon: The Steps
Wait for the right night.
Since the moon has different phases, you’ll get a much better shot simply by waiting for the right night. You’ll want to pay attention to the moons phases. A full moon makes for a great image, but it’s also much brighter, which can make it trickier to get the shot. Of course, complete cloud cover makes shooting the moon impossible as well, so pay attention to the weather too.
The time of day matters when it comes to photographing the moon as well. The moon appears largest when it’s closest to the horizon, so shooting at moonrise or moonset is often the best. You can use an app like LightTrac to identify just when that is for your particular area and day. You can choose to capture the moon during the night, or even during the day once the moon has risen. Events like lunar eclipses and harvest moons are also great times to capture the moon.
Choose a scene and set up a tripod.
Unlike photographing the stars, light pollution doesn’t have as dramatic of an effect on moon photos. You can use a telephoto lens and shoot just the moon from almost anywhere, or scout out a good landscape and use a lens with a wider angle.
Once you’ve selected your location, set up your tripod. You’ll need a longer shutter speed, so a tripod is necessary for getting a sharp shot.
Set your exposure.
The full moon actually casts quite a bit of light. A bright moon on a black sky throws off the camera’s auto exposure system, so manual mode is a necessity to getting the shot right. The exact settings will depend on your shooting environment—for example, at dusk, you can use a faster shutter speed than at night.
While long exposures are usually great for night photography, there is one problem—the earth and moon are both rotating, so if you use a long shutter speed, you’ll lose some of the details in the moon from motion blur. Of course, the motion isn’t that fast so you will need to keep the shutter speed ideally under 30 seconds to get a clear photo.
Due to the brightness of the moon, you can often use a low ISO and an aperture of f11.
Shooting the moon with some scenery or other elements in the photo? Expose for the moon to keep those details. However, in many instances, this will leave the rest of the scene black. How do you get a well-detailed moon, without underexposing the rest of the scene? This is often achieved through bracketing—taking multiple photos at different exposures, then combining the images in post processing, like with a HDR image. Be sure to take at least two photos, one with the moon well-exposed, and one with the rest of the scene well-exposed. Thanks to that tripod, your shots will be from the same perspective, so combining them is easy.
Set your focus.
If you try to photograph the moon with autofocus, your camera will attempt to focus but be unable to lock focus on the moon. The moon is so bright and distant that autofocus usually doesn’t work that well, which is why it’s best to manually focus. Turn the lens barrel to infinity, then check your focus in the viewfinder and adjust from there. Nailing the focus may take a few tries, so you may want to practice on a plain moon if you’re hoping to photograph a special lunar event. Once you find that sweet spot, mark it with a sticker or gaffers tape to remember the next time you want to photograph the moon.
You’re finally ready to actually take the photo, however don’t reach for the shutter release just yet. Pressing the button can actually introduce camera shake, even when mounted on a tripod, therefore you will need to use a remote release. If you do not have a remote, using the self-timer will function the same way, triggering the photo without your hand on the camera, so there’s no additional camera shake.
Check your shot, and adjust.
It’s difficult, especially for beginners, to get a moon shot right on the first try. Thankfully, you have a pretty big window of opportunity time-wise, so be sure to check your shot and make any necessary adjustments. Don’t see the details of those craters? Your exposure may be too bright and is overexposing the details of the moon. Your shutter speed could also be too long, or your focus not quite right. Use a critical eye checking that viewfinder, then adjust and reshoot.
You can get even more details out of your photo of the moon with a few simple adjustments in post processing. If you shot a RAW photo, adjustments are even easier. Use the contrast slider to bring out a bit more of those details. Applying some sharpening or using the unsharp mask filter often helps too. If you shot a bracketed set of photos to properly expose the foreground, you’ll of course need to merge the photos together at this point.
Today’s digital cameras can capture great details even on something as far away as the moon. Shooting the moon can be a bit tricky however, but with the right setup and camera settings, the moon can be a great subject to capture.