The moon has always been a popular subject for photographers. But whether you’re trying to take a photo of it in plain view or during a lunar eclipse, it can be very tricky to capture on camera. The moon will usually look like a flat white circle and will be too far away to become the focus of your image.
Even with a DSLR, you might still be having a hard time taking anything close to those majestic close-up shots of the moon that you often see in art galleries, magazines, and in the portfolios of other professional photographers. You’ll first need to have the necessary gear and gain a better understanding of zoom and night photography to achieve a nicely exposed photo.
Tips for Photographing the Moon
With the following tips, you’ll be well on your way to capturing spectacular photos of the brightest object in the night sky.
- Schedule the Shoot
- Figure Out Your Composition
- Invest in a Super Telephoto Lens
- Shoot at Dusk or Dawn
- Shoot When the Moon Isn’t Full
- Stabilize Your Shot
- Expose Manually
- Use Autofocus
- HDR or Double Exposure
Schedule the Shoot
The secret to a successful shoot is to plan ahead of time so you can prepare for any possible problems and improve your chances of capturing the best photos of the moon. Your otherworldly subject won’t always be there in plain view, so it’s important to check the weather and the phase of the moon beforehand.
Aside from ensuring that the sky is clear enough for some lunar photography, you’ll need to find out where the moon will be and when it will be full, waxing, halved, or quartered so you can get your desired shot. There are mobile apps and websites that can help you track the moon’s position and show you its scheduled phases.
Figure Out Your Composition
The moon can be your main subject or simply one of the elements in your image. The latter is usually much easier. Simply frame the moon with something in the foreground—like a tree or a building—to add scale and interest to your photo, as well as to give the moon a sense of place.
Should you decide to capture the moon on its own, consider mixing it up and place the moon off-center by following the Rule of Thirds.
While there are commonly followed compositional guidelines in most photography niches, you ultimately have the last say in how you will execute the shot.
Invest in a Super Telephoto Lens
Taking the shot is not what’s actually difficult about lunar photography. What makes it challenging and nearly impossible for some is the fact that it requires a long lens to really capture the moon in its full glory. The longer the lens, the easier it will be.
To zoom in and eliminate the dark space around the moon without having to crop your photo and lower the resolution of your image, you’ll typically need a lens that offers a focal length of 200mm onwards, which falls under the category of super telephoto lens. This kind of lens give you enough optical reach to capture details of the moon that are not visible to the naked eye. However, you’ll need to invest in one that’s at least 400mm or more (like the Sigma 500mm f/4 DG OS HSM) to really make the moon the focal point of your photo.
Shoot at Dusk or Dawn
There’s nothing like a pitch black sky that will really make your moon stand out from the background. However, taking photos of the moon while it’s really dark out will leave you with monochromatic-looking images. Consider shooting while there’s still a little light out, so you end up with a bluer sky background and a more visually-interesting image.
Shoot When the Moon Isn’t Full
Full moons look pretty great, especially when its gray “spots” are made visible by the right exposure settings. However, full moons can look quite boring and flat when captured up close. Instead, opt for side lighting that adds shadows and reveals the craters on the surface of the moon. Gibbous (waxing or waning), quarter, and crescent moons look fascinating in photos, so shoot before or after the true full moon period.
Stabilize Your Shot
Since lunar photography entails taking a photo of an object that’s thousands of miles away, you’ll need to use fast shutter speeds with a lens that has an image stabilization system and noiseless ISO performance to avoid softening photos when shooting handheld. But depending on your settings, you could still be risking some image blurring that will be evident when zooming the image up close.
To ensure maximum sharpness, it helps to stabilize your camera with a sturdy tripod. Also, you can reduce vibration-induced motion blur in your DSLR by using mirror lock-up, which locks the mirror “up” and prevents it from flipping during exposure, and a shutter release (or your built-in timer) so that you don’t have to press the shutter button on the camera body and risk movement.
Shooting the moon requires patience and some major technical know-how. For photographers who already understand how manual exposure settings work, setting up and finding the right combinations can still take some time.
Professionals advise that you look for the sweet spot aperture of your lens—one in the middle that will really sharpen and bring out the details of the moon. This is what gave birth to the “Looney 11 Rule”—a method of estimating exposure settings without the aid of a light meter. This rule suggests that you use an aperture of f/11 for general moon photography while setting your shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO setting (i.e. ISO 200 should have a shutter speed of 1/200 or 1/250). Of course, this is merely a starting point—you can adjust these settings as needed.
Since the moon is actually brighter than most of us think, there’s no real need to boost the ISO too much. You’ll only really need to use higher ISO levels for extreme crescent moons and handheld photography, so using the base ISO of your camera may be enough for most of your shots. As for your shutter speed, just make sure it’s at least 1/125 seconds (for ISO 100) to freeze the movement of the moon.
While you’re required to expose the shot manually, you can choose to utilize the camera’s autofocusing power when it comes to focusing on the moon—that is, if you’re not used to manually setting your focus ring to infinity. Switch to AF (autofocus) and do a half press with the moon right in the middle of your selected focus point. You can also use electronic focus guides, viewfinder prisms, and/or live view and focus peaking to achieve accurate focus.
However you decide to focus on the moon, you can verify by viewing and zooming in on your captured image using your rear LCD. If the details are soft upon magnification, you may have to refocus and retake the shot.
HDR or Double Exposure
It can sometimes be impossible to have an evenly exposed moon in a single shot. You can avoid getting overly exposed or underexposed shots by bracketing them, which means taking three photos of the moon at different exposures. This way, you can choose the best photo and delete the rest.
If bracketing doesn’t help you get your winning shot, you can merge the photos into an HDR image in Photoshop or another image editing tool. The same method works in fixing shots where the right exposure for your foreground leaves the moon looking like a glaring white glob. Simply take one photo that best brings out the moon’s spots and another that brightens your landscape, and then merge them together during post-processing.
For those who would prefer to do this in-camera, here is a quick tutorial by David Bergman on using your camera’s multiple exposure function:
Do you have any other tips and tricks for moon or lunar photography? Share them below!