The moon is beautiful to look at, but it sure can be challenging to photograph. To start, the moon is much brighter than everything else in the scene, and it’s hard to know where it will be unless you do some research ahead of time. Having said that, the moon adds drama to a photograph in ways that no other background element can. Here is what you need to know to get the best possible pictures of the moon.
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 if 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 (a 4x optical zoom). If you really love the moon and have enough money to spend on new equipment, go out and get yourself a nice 400mm or 500mm lens. These lenses allow you to get in close enough to make the moon the highlight of your image. Believe me, the moon looks so much better when it isn’t a little white dot.
If you do own a Point and Shoot camera, there might be some hope. A few point and shoot models can support a teleconverter that can get you to 200mm at the least, and in some cases, 400mm to 500mm. They are worth looking into if you plan on making the moon a serious staple in your photography.
I should also mention that you will need a tripod. When you zoom in as much as you’ll be zooming in, your images are much more susceptible to camera shake. A good tripod will save you a lot of frustration.
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. The same applies to photographing the moon. You want to catch the moon as it is rising above the skyline. That’s when you can frame it with other elements in the image like buildings, mountains, and clouds.
But here’s the hard part. The moon isn’t on the same familiar schedule as the sun. We know where the sun will rise and fall on a day-to-day basis, but the moon is a completely different animal. Even if it’s rising at the same time as the sun, it might only be a partial moon. Do you really want to go chasing after something when there’s a pretty low chance that it will produce a stunning image?
The best photographers make a plan and consult the charts. It’s important to know when the moon will rise, when it will fall, and whether it will be a full or crescent moon. It’s really only worth your time to go and photograph the moon when it is full and rising at the same time the sun is setting. This will ensure most of the moon is brightly lit, and you won’t get the crescent effect like the image to the right where the dark part of the moon is too dark while the lit part is too bright.
Most pictures of the moon fail to capture the tiny details that we see when we look at it. Why is this? Put very simply, the moon is bright. If you don’t use some precise camera settings, there is a good chance you will keep your shutter open too long and allow the moon’s brightness to wash out the details.
When you take these kinds of images, the moon needs to be the centerpiece. Most amateur photographers, when taking pictures of the moon, tend to focus on the other elements in the scene. Their camera’s automatic mode “tries” to get the right amount of brightness/darkness for the subject they are focusing on, and it neglects the moon. As a result, the moon appears as a bright white dot.
That’s why it’s a good idea to use manual mode when taking pictures of the moon. You can use a much faster shutter speed so you don’t overexpose the moon. Because the moon is so bright, most images of the moon leave everything else as a silhouette. This can look really fantastic when you’ve got other colors in the scene like the bright pinks and purples of a sunset.
Many photographers want to get the details of the moon without losing the colors in the foreground. As I just said, most moon photos end up being silhouettes because that is the only way to be certain you won’t overexpose the moon. So what do these photographers do?
They create a double exposure using Photoshop. They take two images, one of the correctly exposed moon and another of the correctly exposed foreground. Once they get home, they go into Photoshop and overlay the two images to get a double exposure where both the moon and the foreground are colorful.
Moon and Clouds
Night Moon shot