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How To Take Stunning Pictures Of The (Super) Moon

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How To Take Stunning Pictures Of The (Super) Moon

The moon is beautiful to look at, but it sure can be challenging to photograph. Here is what you need to know to get the best possible pictures of the moon.

Watch my video presentation, or read the article below.

Start Off With The Right Equipment

Normally I shy away from recommending you purchase additional equipment to take your photos, but in this case, you will need to. The moon is very far away, and you’ll need to magnify it as much possible in your image. That means owning a digital SLR and equipping it with a telephoto lens that, at the very least, allows you to zoom in to 200mm. Although if you can afford it, I’d recommend using a 400mm or 500mm lens. These lenses allow you to get in close enough to make the moon the highlight of your image.

When you use a 100mm lens, the moon doesn’t take up much of the photo at all. Increase to 200mm and it looks better, but is still not the focal point of the photo. When you increase the zoom again to 400mm, the moon now looks as you would expect. And it fills the frame when you increase the zoom again to 800mm. Note that rather than purchasing a very expensive 800mm lens, I recommend you use a 400mm and crop the image.

If you own a Point and Shoot camera or a bridge camera that can’t swap lenses, you can purchase teleconverters that can get you to 200mm. They are worth looking into if you plan on making the moon a serious staple in your photography.

You’ll also definitely need a tripod. When you zoom in as much as you’ll be zooming in here, your images will be a lot more susceptible to camera shake. A good tripod will save you a lot of frustration.

It’s All About Timing

Just like everything else in photography, there is a good time and a not-so-good time to take pictures. You probably already know that the best times for outdoor photography are the early morning and twilight hours, known as the golden hour. The same applies to photographing the moon. You want to catch the moon as it is rising above the horizon. That’s when you can frame it with other elements in the image like buildings, mountains, and clouds.

The moon isn’t on the same daily schedule as the sun, so get an app for your phone that will tell you when the moon enters each phase, and rising and setting times. I use Moon Phases Lite for Android and Moon for iPhone.

The full moon is the best time for photography. The moon is brightly lit, and you won’t get the crescent like here where the dark part of the moon is too dark while the lit part is too bright. The full moon also rises and sets at the same time as the sun, so you’ll be able to get some spectacular shots with the sky still partially illuminated by the sun. Don’t let that limit your options though. Try a crescent moon so you can include the moon along with the sunset.

How To Capture All The Little Details In The Moon

Most pictures of the moon fail to capture the tiny details that we see when we look at it. Why is this? Put simply, the moon is a very bright on a very dark background. If you use the camera’s automatic settings, it’s likely to get confused and the shutter will stay open too long. The moon’s brightness will then wash out the details.

So use Spot metering on your camera so it will choose the appropriate exposure for the moon. Spot metering tells the camera to correctly expose what’s in the center of the image, the moon in this case. It ignores the black around the edge of the photo that would otherwise fool the light sensor.

Also try the bracketing feature of your camera which will take a number of photos at different exposures. Finally, think about setting EV-2 to under expose the image slightly. You can fix underexposed images later in a paint program. If the moon is over exposed, you’re going to lose some detail and won’t be able to retrieve it in a paint program.

However, it’s probably easiest to choose manual mode when taking pictures of the moon. Start with ISO 200, f11 aperture and 1/125 second. Try a test shot. Then use trial and error by changing the shutter speed until you can find the best exposure that works for your composition without overexposing the moon.

Turn off auto focus. Most of the time you can set the focus to infinity, but do some test shots with your own camera first as some cameras allow you to focus beyond infinity which will result in a blurry moon.

Composition

Try to catch the moon close to the horizon, or place it between some trees. It will add a point of reference and some interest to your photo. You’ll usually see a silhouette of the object beside the moon, like the trees here. However, it is possible to show some detail by using two photos.

First, take a photo with the moon properly exposed. You’ll likely just see the moon with the rest of the image black, like the first image below. Next, slow down the shutter speed so the rest of the scene is correctly exposed. This time the moon will be a white blob in the sky.



Correctly exposed moon


Correctly exposed surroundings


Merged image

Now, load those two images into Photoshop. Place the photo that correctly exposes the moon on the top layer, and the photo that has the trees correctly exposed on the bottom layer. Right-click on the layer and choose Blending options. Then move the left slider for “This Layer” to the right a bit. That tells Photoshop to show the bottom layer anywhere there is black in the top layer. And you can immediately see the correctly exposed moon and the trees in the layer underneath.

Now there’s a slight problem with this photo as you’ll see if we zoom in. The overexposed moon from beneath has bled onto the sky, so we can see that as well as our good moon. I use a slight cheat to fix that by pressing Ctrl-T to transform and making our moon a little bigger. Then I just need to center it on the old moon like this. That hides the bleed of the moon underneath. And you get a perfect shot! Even if you zoom in, it’s hard to notice you’re looking at two shots.

The moon is a wonderful object to photograph. Try it at your place tonight!

Want more? See a video tutorial of taking better photos of the moon inside my Digital Photo Secrets Video Course.

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About the Author ()

David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.

Comments (51)

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  1. Valerie Schliff says:

    Thanks David for the tips on how to photograph the moon. I had never tried before and was very pleased with the outcome. I don’t have Photoshop but was able, with the program I have, to combine two shots making it appear as if the moon was just rising above the tree line. I find your photography tips very encouraging and enjoy trying to achieve greater shots with my camera – many thanks.

  2. Art Camosy says:

    David Peterson’s photo advice is pretty good. Except for:
    “The full moon also rises and sets at the same time as the sun, so you’ll be able to get some spectacular shots with the sky still partially illuminated by the sun.”
    The full moon does not rise and set at the same time as the sun. It rises and sets opposite the sun; that’s why, of course, it appears full. The new moon rises and sets at the same time as the sun, but that’s not a particularly interesting time to photograph the moon (unless a solar eclipse happens to be in progress and you’re standing in the moon’s shadow).

  3. Surfdancer says:

    Thank you very much David, for your excellent, comprehensive tutorial!! I learned a lot and will continue following your articles.

    I read a lot of articles on a variety of subjects and this was quite an odd group of comments. Ahhh the randomness of the internet.

  4. kathan gandhi says:

    It would be a great pleasure to learn more about layering

  5. Posey Bowers says:

    Reminds me of true story of a student at The (redacted) Photo School of decades ago. Student wanted to photograph the moon, asked for and got a recommended focal length for the photo. He bought the recommended lens. OOps! Lens was too long and moon more than fully filled the frame. When he complained, he was told to back up whatever number of feet and try again! When the school’s sponsor heard of this, they immediately replaced the lens w/ one of the appropriate focal length and added sincere apologies
    I do not know if the school still exists but was an inexpensive and yet excellent 1 day event while I was in college-highly recommended for beginners..

  6. Amanda says:

    I love to take very closeup phots of insects and flowers , so I use super macro on my camera do to have any tips for camer shake( im usually close tomthe ground ) and lighting without disturbing tiny creatures
    Amanda

  7. JL says:

    Otherwise awesome tutorial, but I don’t like how everybody always assumes Photoshop. There are people who really think that you need to buy Photoshop to edit photos, which is of course not the case.

  8. Shannon says:

    Thank you!! This info is great! I recently just bought a 8/500 reflex sony lens for my a300.(fresh blood here)
    I was practicing with these settings and getting ready for the eclipse. I was just wondering which setting is preferable? The night shot setting or a Manual?

  9. Kobus says:

    Absolutely amazing.

  10. labro says:

    This is the article i was looking for :-)
    Thanks to share these infos with us

    marc

  11. offtheback says:

    A clear full moon is early the same exposure as a subject in bight sunlight.Be aware that the moon moves through the sky so experiment with shutter speed to keep things sharp.Also best if you stop down an F stop or 2.Tripod of course over 300.Don’t fear digital zoom.

  12. Eric says:

    Took some photos of the moon last night using a Nikon D5100 mated with a telescope, 650mm focal length and doubler. The moon fills the entire frame but my issue is that even with a tripod I still get some “camera shake”, making it difficult to capture a really sharp image. Seems my only option is to play with the shutter speed and ISO. Any recommendations?

    • Huda says:

      why dont you use the remote to capture, i’m using nikon and the remote helped me a lot

    • Michal says:

      My own experience – raise the mirror (you can do it with live view) switch off the VR if the camera is on a tripod and shoot with a delay or with a remote control.

    • Leif Torger Grøndahl says:

      A general tip to reduce camera shaking when using a tripod is to turn off any “anti shake” feature on the camera or lens and also to use a short delay to make sure the press of the release button does not affect the shot

      • Hi Leif,

        Thanks for the feedback.

        However, with most lenses nowadays that’s no longer necessary. The original anti shake systems did have an issue when the camera was on a tripod, but that’s no longer the case.

        David.

  13. stu says:

    David,

    I am thinking of using a 500mm (with doubler) or an 800mm f/6.3 MC IF mirror lens. For the camera, I will be using a Canon 5D MKIII or even a Canon C100. The C100 has the most incredible ISO levels which give extraordinary low-level black levels.

    What do you reckon on the lens?

    Kind regards,

    Stuart

  14. @Piet,

    This is one instance where a better camera is needed to be able to expose the low areas as well as the (very bright) moon. Another option for you is to take two photos with different settings and use the editing trick I mention in the article to merge them together.

    David.

  15. Piet Coetzee says:

    I tried using a slower shutter speed to correctly expose the other elements, but all it did was overexpose the moon more. Is there a specific shutter speed I should begin with, or should I use something else as well such as exposure compensation?

  16. Shannon says:

    John D you have no manners
    November 30, 2012 at 11:45 am

    I learned a lot Thank you David Peterson

  17. Clancy says:

    I found this information very informative and helpful I’ve written some points down for my cheat sheet. Will test them in the near future

  18. Kalancey says:

    Hi I have a Nikon D3200, Which lens would be best to take a picture of the Moon?

  19. Shirley Cartwright says:

    You article was very informative, however I am looking for some specific settings to get my moon shots, so far all of mine have been a big white globe. I have a nikon D90 with 70-300mm lens. I read about setting the camera and lens to manual which I am going to try, I also have tripod and remote, so it seems I have all the correct equipment. Any other advise you can give me on sittings?

  20. Trevor says:

    Tried to take a picture of the supermoon last week. Zoomed in so that nothing else was in te frame. But when I look at the outcome, there is a blue moon as a double in the frame. Didn’t try ad adjust shutter speed but there was nothing other than the moon in the shot so can’t undertand why this was happening.

    • @Trevor,

      That was probably a lens artifact caused by the moon being so bright in the shot. Something similar to lens flare you can sometimes get from the sun. You don’t say how large the second moon is – if it doesn’t overlap the ‘main’ moon, you can always crop it out. Alternatively, try zooming in future, or zooming out further to eliminate it.

      David.

  21. Marshall says:

    I took some shots of the moon last night with my Nikon D90 and old-school (70s) Nikkor 80-200mm f/4.5 lens. Played around with all kinds of settings in manual mode – the light meter in my D90 is obviously not compatible with an old manual lens. Thanks for your article.

  22. I just want to mention I am new to weblog and absolutely savored you’re blog. Probably I’m likely to bookmark your blog post . You absolutely come with superb article content. With thanks for sharing your webpage.

  23. JP Belanger says:

    This more of a tech question. Can you tell me if it is possible to mount a Celestron C90 telescope on a Nikon d300s. I have used it on a film camera (FM 2) so I have the adaptors for Nikon but they dont seem to work on the digital?
    Thank you

  24. AnnieB says:

    Hi David, I found this site whilst looking for the solution to a strange result I had when photographing the full moon this week. I was experimenting measuring the exposure from different parts of the sky, got som shots I was happy with and one very strange one where there are 2 images of the moon in the one shot. One is totally blown out and the other under exposed and blue. This was a very long shutter speed, 1.6 secs, manual exposure and manual focus, what is reason for this?

  25. John D says:

    Here are some start point settings for you to try. Set your camera on 2 second delay to reduce camera shake. tripod, set your app. at f/10 to f/14. ISO 100 remember its day time on the moon. in w/b set camera to sun. shoot in manual mode. shutter speed around 1250. Do not shoot in app. shoot in Manual and set auto focus on C-AF so your zoom can focus on moon. hope this helps. This is what this page should of told us !!

  26. Trish says:

    I was hoping that you would explain the best settings to use for shooting the moon. I’m a little unsure as to what the ISO and shutter speed should be. Can someone please help me?

  27. Mark says:

    I was trying to photography a full moon setting this morning in the city 7am so it was still dark, The moon was sitting right beside one of our historical buildings it looked amazing. I have a eos 350d and i was tryin all different settings but the building in the foreground was coming out dark , how do i get the foregroud to stand out aswell as the moon.

    Mark

  28. donald andrews says:

    hi david
    enjoying your tips and tricks .i used to take photos many years ago
    holiday snaps,nothing great my camera at that time was a 35 m
    corfeild periflex film camera that you manualy set yourself.i
    was away from photography for years.decided to buy myself one
    of these new fangled digital cameras bought a sony cybershot
    about 6 years ago smashing little camera. but wanted more zoom
    ithen bought a lumix tz20 good camera but a pain to sei up .
    ps. tried to register for your photo gallery but coudnt work out about the time offset or age code thank you donald

  29. Mr.Ed says:

    Dave I purchased you book Digital Secrets,but I still enjoy your photo tips they are a great help. once again THANKS

  30. Richard Noonan says:

    What is the best way to Copy Right our pictures?

  31. Low Budget Dave says:

    The four P’s of photography, generally, are Purpose, Planning, Patience, and Photoshop. Equip yourself accordingly.

  32. Chrissy Stevenson says:

    Love your articles, I am a beginner and have never had much luck with taking pictures of the moon, David what settings would you suggest I start on??

  33. TerryW says:

    To the comment: “Photoshop is graphics software. Not part of the art of photography…”

    Then why isn’t it called Graphicshop? Hello!

  34. Loyce Hood says:

    Don’t forget about the Lunar 11 rule. In Manual Mode, set your camera to F11, the ISO and Shutter speed should be the same. This will give you the approximate proper ecposure

  35. Genie says:

    This article had some great advice and is very well written. It’s a shame it didn’t inspire more dialogue. I have to +1 JT, Photoshop is a photography tool that can be of great artistic value, it can also be used to deceive but so can a lot of photography tricks.

    I’d love to know more about the amazing moon shot taken over that snowy, tree dotted mountaintop.

  36. jt says:

    The comment by Aldis that says Photoshop is not part of the art of photography is as short sighted and uninformed as one who says a tripod is not part of the art of photography. Photoshop does indeed have many graphical tools, but many very capable photography tools as well. It’s all in the user.

  37. Aldis says:

    There is a way to acquire “long” lenses cheaper: buy M42 old lenses and adaptor rings. Plus ‘digital factor’ you end up using a monster of a telephoto lens.
    Bright light causes all possible camera distortion. It may be worth considering removing your UV filter before attempting to take a look at the moon.
    Last but not least. Photoshop is graphics software. Not part of the art of photography…

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