Learning how to photograph the moon is a gateway niche, and your first stop on your way to other areas of astrophotography.
This article will take you through all you need to photograph the moon in all its glory. We’ll look at settings, gear, techniques and tips used by professionals.
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How to Photograph the Moon
The easiest way to photograph the Moon is to include it in a nocturnal landscape or cityscape. While you will not get to see great details in the moon itself, it will improve your image in several ways:
- adding a point of interest in the sky;
- helping to balance the composition;
- setting a mood for the scene;
- adding light to the landscape.
For example, St Martin’s Cathedral in Birmingham gets a dark mood thanks to the moon in the cloudy sky.
You can also photograph natural landscapes using light from a full moon.
The real treat is to get up close and personal. That way you can reveal many features of the lunar surface.
The moon in its first quarter. It is yellow because of its low altitude.
The beauty of moon photography is that it is pretty easy to get a good shot. It is easy as long as you’re not looking to capture extreme close-ups.
And you only need some standard equipment. You can capture from your house, garden or even the city centre.
Pick Your Gear
Photographing the moon is an easy enough task. But you may still need to use some extra gear or items.
To get up close and personal with the moon, you should use a DSLR or mirrorless system. APS-C and micro four-thirds cameras are perfect because of their cropped sensor. The Canon EOS 1300D or Olympus OMD EM-5 Mark II are excellent choices.
A 300 mm telephoto lens on a Canon APS-C camera body will give the same field of view (FOV) as a 480mm lens on a full frame camera. On a micro four-thirds camera, the same lens will give a FOV equal to that of a 600mm on full frame.
A notable exception to the DSLR/mirrorless rule are cameras like the Nikon P900. This camera has a zoom lens equivalent to a 2000+ mm lens on a full frame camera.
With the cropped cameras and P900, you will easily fill the frame with a small part of the lunar surface.
As mentioned before, you need a long telephoto or zoom lens with a focal length of, at least, 300mm. The moon is so bright, you do not need a fast, expensive, telephoto lenses. Anything with an aperture of f/5.6 or f/8 will do.
If you don’t own a telephoto lens, legacy lenses such as the Canon FD 300 f/5.6 are viable options to cut costs.
Some lenses can take a teleconverter (TC). This is an optical element sitting between the lens and the camera to increase the focal length. It is important to use a TC that is designed for the lens you want to use.
These can be a cost-effective solution to increase your lens’ focal length. However, they do reduce the amount of recorded light. A 1.4x TC will reduce your exposure by 1-stop and a 2x TC will cut 2 stops.
For a DSLR, we recommend the Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 or Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM. You can’t go wrong with Olympus MSC ED-M 75 to 300mm II or Sigma 150-600mm 5-6.3 lenses for micro four-third systems.
(left) Canon FD 300 f/5.6 with FD to M43 adaptor. (right) Olympus OM Zuiko 200 f/4 with its 2x teleconverter and OM to M43 adaptor.
If you are into bird watching or astronomy observations, you may already have a spotting scope or small telescope.
You can connect your DSLR to a scope via an adapter (T-to camera mount) by removing the eyepiece. There are even adapters that allow you to use your compact camera or smartphone to photograph the moon.
We recommend the Skywatcher Skymax 90/1250mm
Unedited close up captured with iPhone 5 on a telescope.
Image stabilisation makes it possible to take hand-held photos of the moon. But you should still use a decent tripod. I use a dated Manfrotto 055XPROB, but the Manfrotto Manfrotto MT190XPRO3 3 is also a great option.
A sturdy tripod will make your life easier by allowing you to achieve a good focus and take sharper images. Use it alongside a remote shutter with an intervalometer. This prevents camera shake and allows you to take a series of images for stacking.
Remote shutter with intervalometer function. Some cameras have a built in intervalometer.
If you are photographing with a telescope, you need a manual or motorised astronomy mount. These mounts allow you to track the moon’s movement across the sky.
My Skywatcher Star Adventurer tracking mount is perfectly suited for astrophotography with DSLR and camera lenses. Among other functions, it has star, moon and sun tracking modes.
This is how fast the Moon moves in the field of view of my camera with a 1250mm telescope as a lens. The FOV is equivalent to that of a 2500mm lens on full frame camera.
How to Focus on the Moon
If you want to get sharp images, your focus needs to be spot on. Unfortunately, chances are the autofocus will have difficulty. So, switch to manual focus. Do not trust the infinite mark on your lens or the hard stop of the focusing ring. These are not reliable.
Instead, use all the modern functions your camera has to help you focus. Features such as Live View, Magnification and Focus Peaking will all help.
With the camera on a tripod, frame an area on the moon with contrasted craters. Now, try to get their ridges as sharp as you can by focusing back and forth until you find the sweet spot. Achieving good focus can take time.
If you can, use a white marker to mark true infinite on your lens. This will speed up your future photographic sessions.
Focusing on some lunar craters using the live view function and 7x magnification.
Seeing Conditions: Read Your Sky
Standing between you and the moon is the Earth’s atmosphere. Clouds, haze, air turbulence, pollution, dust and humidity – all of these will degrade your image.
Try to photograph the moon when it is high in the sky. This way, less of the atmosphere will be in-between. Clear winter nights are your best bet for great visibility.
But be careful. If you’re photographing the moon from a city during the winter, avoid taking photos when the moon is low. The escaping heat from the roofs will create turbulence that will further degrade your view.
For the same reason, if you want to photograph the moon from inside your house, shoot through the window. If you open it, the thermal gradient between the air inside and that outside will create turbulence.
How to Photograph the Moon During Different Phases
Every month or so, the moon goes through a series of lunar phases. These go from New Moon (not visible in the sky) to Waning Moon. The moon is also characterised by age (in days) and illumination.
During the year, the moon is visible at different times of the day. For more information, look at a lunar calendar. Or check the weather forecasts to know when it rises, sets and in which phase the moon is.
Each lunar phase affects the moon’s shape and the number of visible details.
If you shoot near the New Moon, very little of the lunar surface is visible. The moon will appear as a thin arch in the sky.
I like this phase because you can get moody images. You can also easily see that the lunar surface in the shadow is visible, although faint.
This is due to the reflected light from Earth’s atmosphere, the Earthshine.
Earthshine illuminating the part of the Moon that is not lit by sunlight.
Waxing and Waning Moon
In these phases, the moon is illuminated mostly sideways. Between the New and Full Moon, the illumination increases during the Waxing phase.
Between the Full and New Moon, the illumination decreases during the Waning phase.
Near the line separating the dark and bright areas of the moon (terminator), you have the maximum contrast. This is also the most detailed region of the lunar surface.
Use the terminator region to help you achieve a good focus.
The Full Moon
During the full moon, the light is frontal. No shadows are present on the surface to enhance its morphology.
The contrast across the Moon is rather flat, but overall it is still an impressive sight.
A Super Moon is a Full Moon when it’s at its closest distance to Earth in its elliptical orbit. A Super Moon looks 14% larger in the night sky and 7% brighter than a normal one.
At the farthest distance from Earth, we have a rather unimpressive Micro Moon.
The Sharp Moon: Photographing and Editing Workflow
The moon is so bright that you can easily overexpose it. A good starting point is to set your camera in manual mode. Next, dial in a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second and set the aperture to f/8 or f/11 and the ISO to its lowest setting.
To get the best results, you should always shoot in RAW. Take a test shot and check the histogram that you have not clipped the highlights and that the Moon is not too dark.
The sky will probably be pitch black, but that is not a problem.
If you don’t have a remote shutter, use the built-in 2-second timer to avoid camera shake. When checking the exposure, be sure your moon is sharp.
A passing cloud, haze, or air turbulence can ruin a single image. By stacking images together, you will drastically improve your final shot.
Stacking means taking a series of 50 or 100 images without moving the camera. If you don’t have an intervalometer, you can take a video clip. This is a viable option, even though the image quality may be lower.
To combine the best images (or video frames) into a final image with greater details, you can use Adobe Photoshop.
Stacking of 50 images (top) compared with a single frame (bottom)
I start by loading the images into PIPP (Planetary Imaging PreProcessor). This is to crop the images and centre the moon in each shot. Then, I use Registax or Autostakkert! 3 software to align and stack those frames into the final image.
The last step is to edit the stacked image in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom for the final retouches.
All of the above software is for Windows computers. For Mac users, you can try Lynkeos.
Get Creative With the Moon
After a while, you may start asking yourself what you could do differently.
You can try to catch planes, birds or even the International Space Station flying by in front of the full moon. For the ISS, there is software and websites to tell you when it will transit over your head.
Learn how telephoto lenses affect the perspective. In this way, you can control the proportions between the moon and the other elements in your photo.
Photos of the moon showing a negative composition are also interesting, good looking and with a fresh feeling.
Or you can use your images to play with conceptual photography.
Bonus: How to Photograph the Sun
The moon is not the only celestial body we can photograph. Sun photography can reward you with some amazing images too!
But it requires some specific equipment. You MUST ALWAYS use specifically designed filters when photographing and/or observing the sun. The filter reduces the sun’s brightness, infrared and UV radiations.
Observing the sun without the proper filter WILL BLIND YOU by burning a hole in your retina. It will also destroy your camera.
Always take precautions before attempting to photograph the sun.
The filters you must use are available online. They come in different diameters to fit both lenses and telescopes. They are not expensive, so don’t gamble your eyesight or your gear over a few bucks.
Solar filter for Skymax 90 telescope
Most of what applies to moon photography also apply to sun photography. The only difference is that eclipses aside, the sun has no phases: it is always full.
As there are no craters on the moon, check the sun’s edges for help in focusing.
What you will be able to photograph are “sun spots”. These are dark patches appearing on the sun’s surface. Those spots can be so large that the Earth could fit into them many times.
This website will let you see the sun in real time, so you can see if there are interesting features to photograph.
Next time you see the moon up there, grab your camera and tripod and go get her. This article has provided with you with all the information you need to take some amazing photographs, no matter where you’re shooting from.
And if you’d like to learn more about nighttime astrophotography, check out our Complete Guide on How to to Photograph The Milky Way.
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