How To Take Stunning Pictures Of The (Super) Moon :: Digital Photo Secrets
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How To Take Stunning Pictures Of The (Super) Moon

by David Peterson 62 comments

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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Comments

  1. Blaise Allen says:

    Hi David. I'd like to photograph the super moon As it rises at the beach with a palm tree in front of it. I want both the moon and object to be clear. Is there a way to do this without using PS? Some magical setting?

    Thanks,
    Blaise

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Blaise,

      Sorry, no magical setting to correctly expose both the moon, and a palm tree in front of it at night. It's a limitation of all cameras - they don't have the dynamic range to capture both very bright and very dark subjects at the same time. You can try a HDR image, but because the moon is moving, it may not work well, and you'll likely be using Photoshop for the HDR processing anyway.

      David.

  2. Robert King says:

    Outstanding tutorial on photographing the moon! thank you so much :)

  3. Abhishek says:

    Hi
    I am actually using tamron 300mm lens without optical stabilisation.
    Does optical stabilisation have any role in moon photography?
    My camera Canon 700d

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi,

      Not really. Optical Stabilization is only useful if you use a slower shutter speed or are hand-holding your camera. For moon shots, I recommend you use a tripod, so optical stabilization won't matter as your camera won't be moving anyway.

      David.

  4. Madu Upadhya says:

    I am looking for a telephoto lens between 600 to 1000 mm range, which can focus moon and sun real sharp. I have currently a Kenko zoom lens and it sucks. Does not focus to infinity well and the image is not very sharp. Any suggestion would be good. I don't mind spending upto $500.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Madu,

      When using a telephoto lens with that magnification, I'd first make sure your camera is rock-steady as any small movement will be magnified by the lens and cause your image to be blurry.

      In particular:
      - Put your camera on a tripod
      - Make sure your shutter speed is 1/1000 second or faster
      - Use a remote shutter release, so your hand movement on the camera doesn't shake it.

      If you do all those things and still have blurry images, that's when I'd start looking at other lenses.

      David.

  5. Tim Robinson says:

    My shoots of the moon come out blury. What can I try to fix this?consistently

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Tim,

      Without seeing your image, it's hard to tell you the cause. But there are a couple of usual culprits:

      1. Your camera moved while taking the photo. It needs to be on a steady tripod, and you should preferably use a remote shutter (or shutter timer) so your hand movements on the camera don't move the camera.

      2. The moon moved while taking the photo! The earth's rotation moves the moon quite a distance in a couple of seconds, which can show up in a photo. To counter this, increase the shutter speed. If this makes your photo too dark, use a lower f-number aperture, or increase the ISO or both.

      I hope that helps.

      David.

  6. Alejandro Sarmiento says:

    Wonderful,

    I have reduced the EV to -2 and used manual settings 11 or 8 turns still well with 125, but my concern is ISO 200 reduces the sharpnes.
    Thank you Dave
    Alejandro

  7. Prem Mehta says:

    Found your session on moon photography very useful.

  8. Peter Pawlicki says:

    Isn't this moon also supposed to be a Blood Moon for the 4th time in 2 years, an unheard of phenomenon???

  9. Steve Wedgwood says:

    Enjoyed this article and learned something. I've been attempting moonshots off and on with my Canon EF 75300: narrow aperture & low ISO for sharpness and a range of shutter speeds, using a tripod and remote. The biggest difficulty has been locating and keeping the moon in the vewfinder. I haven't tried automatic bracketing, but select usable exposures and clean them up in iPhoto and have been getting fairly good detail, but they have to be extremely cropped. And images show unexpected color deviations, to the yellow and reddish side, so the best solution has often been to convert them to b & w.
    I've just acquired a Pentax K-3 and tried the 135 mm kit lens on the waxing moon, handheld, and got almost as good resultsit required a very fast exposure and the image stabilization appears to be very goodbut of course the images had to be blown up even more. Looking forward to meeting the super moon on Monday.

  10. Ronald says:

    If your shooting stationary objects, like the moon, and want to prevent shaking, simply use your self-timer. Therefore you don't needs a remote control. Thought I'd suggest this cause no one else seemed to think about it. Even I didn't when I did my Moon shots, which came out cool. It definitely helped to get more exposure by keeping the lens open longer and thus a sharper image. Otherwise they tended to come out as a big round glowing edged ball of light.

    Ron.

    • Tony says:

      I use the self-timer all the time for that very reason. But I learned that a limitation of that option is the loss of immediacy. I have missed more than a few opportunities of composition, for example a flock of geese flying in front of a large full moon, waiting on those couple of self-timer seconds to pass. Still a great idea that often works with inanimate objects in lower light. =)

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
9 minutes
About David Peterson
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+.