Learning how to photograph the moon has long been one of the greatest joys of a photographer's journey in learning. For centuries the moon has captivated people, given direction and provided hours of enjoyment and wonderment. Being the brightest object in the night sky, it's something photographers of all levels can shoot, however, it does take planning and preparation to accomplish. In this article, we will look at how to photograph the moon along with some amazing moon images in the end for inspiration.
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If you have previously attempted to photograph the Moon and it came out too small or looked like a plain white spot, don’t be overly frustrated! Every photographer has to go through similar difficulties when shooting the moon for the first time. This sub-genre of astrophotography can be very challenging and frustrating.
Moon photography or Lunar photography is an amazing learning experience, especially if you are willing to experiment a little. You can learn various useful techniques along the way – reducing camera shake in low-light conditions, manually setting your camera (using manual mode), using the looney 11 rule, stacking photographs in Photoshop and even incorporating the moon into other shots.
The moon is bright, but it isn't bright enough to simply snap a photo if you're looking to see much detail in the moon. Moreover, the moon has different phases throughout the month and each phase will need a different exposure time because of the difference in brightness.
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Many photographers are fascinated by the full moon and love to photograph it when it is full, but during the other phases, the moon is less illuminated because of its position relative to Earth and the Sun. The phases other than the full moon are because of how the moon is illuminated by the Sun and the shadows help exaggerate the surface features or details of the moon.
To achieve a nicely exposed photo, one where the moon doesn't appear flat nor like an out of place object, we need to consider many facts to get the exposure right for brilliant pictures of the moon. For example, a crescent moon requires a longer exposure compared to a half moon and a half moon requires slightly longer exposure compared to the full moon.
Once you start to watch the moon, its position and phases over a few months, you will be able to tell when there will be a full moon and when there will be a new moon. You will also know when to watch out for moonrise and moonset and also know the best times to photograph the moon at night or during the day.
If you still struggle with keeping track, there are various apps that will help you to plan when photographing the moon. We have discussed a few later in this article.
Planning For Moon Photography
Before photographing the moon decide on when you want to shoot the moon and how you want to shoot it – close-ups or moon in a landscape. Once you have decided on this, the next step is location scouting.
If you are in a relatively dark area and if you are looking for close-up shots, you can do it easily from your backyard, but if you are looking for a landscape along with the moon, then you need to scout for locations and choose a favourable one. Moonrise and moonset times are the best for moon photos with landscapes.
Decide on what phase of the moon you want to shoot. Depending on this, you will have to choose the time and date. Also keep an eye on the weather so you have some clear skies to photograph the moon. Although scattered clouds can help create dramatic moon images, sometimes it can cause haziness and generate a noisy image.
To accomplish a great moon shot, let's first look at the basic gear you'll need.
The Best Camera Gear
A secure base and workstation for your camera is essential to capturing the image of the moon and avoiding camera shake. While you may be able to get away with hand holding your camera, your best results will, without a doubt, come from mounting your camera on a tripod. (See our article on how to choose a tripod for some good tips).
A Telephoto Lens or Long Zoom Lens
In order to help fill the frame and properly show off the moon, the longer your zoom lens the better. You don't necessarily need the fastest lens, because you'll be on a tripod, but it's best to use telephoto lenses, at least 200mm focal length or longer. Most beginners may also have a 70-300mm lens in their kit. So it can be a great one to use on crop sensor cameras as it will give an equivalent focal length of about 450mm.
If your lens can be used with teleconverters, then it is a cheaper option to increase the focal length of the lens. If you don't have a lens that long, but want to capture some interesting moon shots, you might want to consider using shorter or wide angle lenses by incorporating foreground elements to the shot (more on that below).
Shutter Release Cable
A remote shutter release or a cable release is a great accessory for moon photography. This is not an essential piece, but it's nice to have and helps avoid camera shake and capture better images of the moon. If you don't have one you can cheat and use the self-timer function on your camera.
While almost any camera will work, point and shoots rarely produce top quality photos of the moon, mostly due to the small size of the sensor and it overheating during longer exposures resulting in digital noise. However, there are bridge cameras that come with very long focal lengths that can be used to photograph a better photo of the moon compared to a point and shoot, if you use it on a tripod.
A full frame camera is usually preferred here with a telephoto lens on it. DSLRs, Mirrorless cameras or any interchangeable lens cameras are suitable for taking pictures of the moon. Cameras with smaller sensors make it tough but they can still be used. Recent cameras with small sensor sizes have better low light performance. Use the camera that you have in hand for a start.
Shareable Moon Images for Pinterest
The Best Camera Settings For Photographing The Moon
No preset or auto function of your camera will be able to properly meter the moon, so ideally you should consider shooting in full manual mode. At the very least, choose Aperture Priority mode. Also, your geographical location and current phase of the moon will have an effect on what your settings will be and you will need to adjust for the season of year and clarity of the sky.
- Always shoot raw so you can get as many details from the moon and make adjustments to white balance when post processing.
- It is good to use manual focusing instead of autofocus. Zoom in one live view and focus to get sharp focus.
- Turn off image stabilization when the camera is on a tripod.
- If using a DSLR camera, make use of the mirror lock-up feature to avoid camera shake due to mirror slap.
Digital cameras should be set to 100 or lower, film shooters should shoot film of 100 ISO or slower to eliminate noise and grain. Some cameras will have the lowest setting of ISO 200. If you are using a very long telephoto lens, you will need to make the shutter speed faster comparatively to avoid capturing the movement of the moon across the sky. In that case, or if the sky conditions are not too good, you may have to slightly increase the iso.
Because you're after crisp, clean shots, shooting at f/11 to f/16, depending on your lens, will be the best place to start. Research your lens' sweet spot to find the sharpest aperture. Using narrow aperture values will require increasing the iso during the waning and waxing phases of the moon, especially when the moon is less than a quarter. When conditions are bad, you can open up the aperture to about f/8 or f/5.6 but make sure that the images are acceptably sharp.
The variables are many and include those mentioned earlier, such as the phase the moon is in, geographical location and desired shot, but on a clear night starting at about 1/60th to 1/125th should be a great starting point. Depending on the brightness and focal length as well, you will need to make adjustments to shutter speeds.
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What Is The Looney 11 Rule?
There is a “rule of thumb” that is easy to memorize and should get you close to a good exposure of the face of the moon – the “looney 11 rule.” This rule is a method of estimating correct exposures without a light meter. For daylight photography, there is a similar rule called the sunny 16 rule.
The looney 11 rule is a very simple guideline intended to give the photographer a baseline to start from when shooting the moon at night.
The Rule: For astronomical photos of the Moon's surface, set aperture to f/11 and shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO setting.
For example: f/11 at ISO 100 and 1/100th second shutter speed.
Another example: f/11 at ISO 200 and 1/200 second shutter speed.
The looney 11 rule is worth keeping in mind for getting good exposures when you photograph the moon.
Moon Photography – Choosing A Location
A word about where you choose to shoot. Picking a spot to shoot the moon is one of the most important factors in achieving a quality shot. Locations with minimal light and air pollution are the best for night sky and moon photography. Locations with higher elevation will help you to avoid low lying clouds, fog, etc., so find those locations if possible.
Ideally, if you want to showcase the moon itself, which means the moon without any foreground features, you will want to avoid any other ambient light, including street lights and traffic. This may require you to go off on a remote road or into a public park after hours – your backyard may not be the best location for these types of shots, but if you are left with just the backyard for some reason, turn off all surrounding lights and position yourself in a comparatively dark location.
Besides the above, try to avoid days when there is moisture in the air, dust, haze as these can make the moon appear wobbly without well defined edges. If you wish to stack the moon, these factors can make it quite difficult or even impossible. Colder nights are the best for capturing close-up images of the moon.
On the contrary, if you are trying to include a city skyline under your moon shot, you'll need to find a lookout that allows for the twinkling lights below and do further test shots to nail the exposure properly for both the foreground and the moon (bracket your exposures).
The Best Mobile Apps To Choose Location And Time For Shooting The Moon
When you are photographing the moon, sometimes a handy app or two can make life easier and also help you make accurate plans for your photoshoot. So, here are some apps and websites that can help you plant your next moon shoot without any hassle.
Photopills is an excellent iOS and Android app which can be used to determine the position and phase of the moon as well as the position and elevation of the Milky Way. So, besides photographing the moon, this app can also help with photographing any night sky objects. It also helps you to plan the position of the moon with respect to any foreground subject and this can be achieved using its augmented reality feature.
This night photography app is known for its constant upgrades and very useful functions. It is a great find for all astrophotographers. When it comes to the moon photography in specific, it lets you see rise and set times, calendar, phases and Supermoon dates.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris:
iOS and Android users can also use another great photography planning app alternative which is The Photographer's Ephemeris. This is free for the desktop
If you want to explore more apps, check out the following ones:
- SunSurveyor – The interface of this app focuses on visualization rather than raw data, which can be extremely useful. It is available for both iOS and Android
- DeluxeMoon – This app visually defines the amount of light the moon will be reflecting in the sky. It also helps you check whether the chosen time of your photo shoot corresponds to the moon’s cycles.
- Sky Guide – This app for iOS gives accurate locations for objects in the night sky.
- Dark Site Finder – this helps to locate a dark sky area near you.
- Light Pollution Map – this helps you to explore areas with less light pollution
- Dark Sky Website – This website helps to locate a dark location near you.
Composition And Technical Tips
The composition is just as important when you are taking shots of the moon as for any other type of photography and you have some decisions to make. For starters, the decision to shoot just the moon or to incorporate elements such as landscape foreground into the shot. Knowing how to photograph the moon with foreground requires a few different concerns.
Bear in mind that a compelling and sharp image of a lonesome moon is great, but once you’ve seen one – you’ve seen them all! It's important to master the perfect close-up of the moon, but you should also try to get creative by placing the moon within a more challenging composition. Your shots don't have to be boring and predictable!
For instance, you can try framing the moon behind trees and buildings, or reflecting it off the surface of a lake or sea! Placing other objects in the foreground gives the moon context and scale that it lacks on its own. It can be really useful if you can think of the moon as a single element which should be incorporated along with other compositional elements.
Steps To Photographing Just The Moon
Time needed: 5 minutes.
How to Photograph Just the Moon:
- Select a long lens
Use a long lens (> 200mm) and zoom in as far as you can
- Set the ISO
Set the camera to ISO 100
- Choose aperture
f/11 to f/16 (find the sweet spot for sharpness)
- Choose shutter speed
Shutter speed around 1/60th to 1/125th
- Set the focus
Manually focus on the moon or Manual focus set to infinity
How To Shoot The Moon With Foreground
When you photograph the moon with foreground included, you will probably notice that you end up with the moon as a totally white blob with no detail. It is very difficult to expose both the foreground and the moon correctly in the same shot. For that reason, most of the photographs of the moon with a foreground that you see are actually composite images. There is a useful, if somewhat dated, tutorial on creating moon composites here.
- Use whichever lens allows you to get your composition (probably slightly wider)
- ISO 100
- f/11 to f/16
- Bracket exposures to +2 and -2 (this may take some experimentation)
- Create a composite of images in Photoshop.
Post-processing your photos is really straightforward and in most cases, an auto white balance will do you just fine, however, photographs of the moon also make stunning black and white images. So consider how you want the outcome to look – have a play around in Lightroom and see what looks best – color or black & white?
If you have photographed just the moon, when you import it into Lightroom, you are probably going to want to concern yourself mainly with the contrast and clarity sliders. These should get you close to a finished product without too many problems.
If you have included elements of the foreground in your moon image, then you will probably have bracketed your shots and will, therefore, have some work to do in Photoshop. There is a good tutorial on creating composite images of your moon photographs here.
While there is no specific workflow you have to stick to in case of the moon photography, there are a couple of things you should bear in mind.
Make sure to shoot raw and adjust color temperature in Lightroom properly. The color temperature used for the moon photography is tricky and it takes a little playing around until you get it right.
Once you’re satisfied with your choice of color temperature (white balance), you can proceed to adjusting saturation and vibrance. The moon photographs often look too desaturated and you can make them much more vibrant in post-processing.
If you shoot with a low enough ISO, you can increase saturation without adding much noise. Even if you set your saturation slider at 100 and vibrance slider at let's say 80, you might end up with a noiseless image if you used the lowest possible ISO. This is a very useful trick for moon photography! If your image looks really bad after altering saturation and vibrance, it’s likely because your ISO was too high or your color temperature isn’t correct.
If you want to take it even further and print your moon photos, then you might like to look at our article on the best photo printer to use for the task!
If you are looking for creative ways to photograph the moon, here are some very interesting topics for you to explore:
- Photographing the moon along with a landscape can be any photographer’s dream and this gives rise to some of the most surreal images. Careful planning, patience and a lot of practice will help you master this art. Here is a very informative article on “How to Photograph Moonscapes.”
- Did you know that you can use just the moonlight to illuminate the landscape at night for dreamy photographs? Stay out in the night in a dark area and see how moonlight beautifully illuminates the landscape and try to photograph it too. Here is an article that provides all the information you need on “How to Use Moonlight for Night Time Landscapes.”
- When there is a total Lunar eclipse next time in your location, do not forget to get out and photograph. This is the only time when you can photograph the blood moon. If you want to photograph the blood moon, this article has all the necessary information on “How to Photograph a Total Lunar Eclipse.”
- Did you know that the surface of the moon has various minerals and these minerals contribute to some interesting colours on the moon? Next time, when the sky is very clear, zoom very close into the moon and observe the lunar surface. Besides the Maria and the Highlands you will be able to see some colours on the surface of the moon. You can even photograph them. If you are interested in just stacking moon images for more surface details or to bring out those beautiful colours, check out this article that teaches “How to Photograph and Edit a Mineral Moon.”
- Lastly, if you are looking to photograph a perfect moonrise, this article has “3 Tips for Capturing a Perfect Moonrise.”
How To Photograph The Moon – Top Takeaway Tips And Ideas:
- Capturing the full moon is great, but the moon looks better with surface details when there are shadows on the moon's surface. So try photographing the moon during its various phases.
- Play with composition aside from shooting the moon on its own
- Get low and shoot through the rising stalks in a cornfield (for example) and create a composite
- Catch the reflection of the moon in the ocean while on the beach
- For extra-sharp detail, wait until the moon is at its highest
- Use a tripod
- Use manual focus
- Use low ISO to avoid noise
- Research the sweet spot of your lens
- Allow time to set up – you don't want to be moving once the moon is in position to shoot
Other Great Moon Photography Resources Online:
Here are a few links that you should definitely take a look at that don't repeat too much of what we have already covered. If you are serious about getting better at shooting the moon, they area good start.
Tools And Apps For Moon Photography:
Some Interesting Facts And Information For Inspirational Moon Photography
- Did you know that the moon is tidally locked to Earth? This synchronous rotation means that we get to see only one side of the moon all through the year. As a result the far side is called the “Dark Side” of the moon but in reality, the far side of the moon is not in permanent darkness.
- Because of the moon’s elliptical orbit around the Earth, the distance between the moon and the earth varies throughout the year. When the moon is at its closest point to the Earth called Perigee, the moon can look up to 10% larger and 30% brighter compared to when it is at the farthest distance away from the Earth called apogee.
- There are different names for the moon depending on various occasions and relative position of the moon with respect to earth.
- Supermoon – this happens when the moon is closest to the earth
- Blood Moon – this happens during a total lunar eclipse. The moon shines with a blood red colour when totally eclipsed by the Earth.
- Blue Moon – if there are more than one full moon in a month, the second full moon that occurs in the same month is called the blue moon.
- Full moons in each month have a name. Here is an interesting read about the special names for full moons and what they mean. Why not make it a project to photograph every full moon in a year?
As Inspiration, Here are 10 Great Examples of Moon Photography!
Don't forget to check out our other collection of inspiring moon photos.
Moving Beyond Moon Photographs With Other Night Sky Photography Resources
Shooting the moon is only one part of night sky photography. You can take it a lot further with astrophotography, star trails and perfect star shots too. Here are some other articles on Light Stalking where you might like to start. Attention: Grab your free cheat sheet for Moon photography! Click Here!