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.
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.
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.
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! And if any of you have any images of the moon lying around, I’d love to see them. Upload them to the Moon Photographs section of our gallery. (Or view a tutorial on uploading)
Want more? See a video tutorial of taking better photos of the moon inside my Digital Photo Secrets Video Course.