As Earth’s only natural satellite, the moon has always inspired and fascinated us. Even more so for photographers, who often mean to capture the beauty of the moon on a cloudless night sky.
Luckily, moon photography, together with sun and star trails photography, is the simplest and least demanding kind of astrophotography.
This article will take you through all you need to photograph the moon in all its glory, from settings to gear to techniques and pro-tips.
Moon Facts to Keep in Mind
- with a radius of 1737 km, it is the largest moon in relation to its planet in the whole Solar System;
- the average distance between the moon and Earth is about 400 000 km;
- the moon is gravitationally locked to Earth, meaning it always shows us the same face;
- the largest structures on the lunar surface (maria, or seas, and mountain ridges) are visible from Earth with the naked eye.
- the lunar surface is not grey – different minerals give some areas a blueish or reddish tint.
Photographing 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, it may improve your image in several ways:
- by adding a point of interest in the sky;
- by balancing the composition;
- by setting the mood of the image;
- by lighting the landscape;
This photograph of 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 a full moon’s strong light.
The real treat is to get up close and personal with the moon. That way you can reveal many features of the lunar surface.
The Moon on its first quarter. It is yellow because it was low in the sky.
The beauty of moon photography is that it is not extremely difficult, unless you’re looking to capture extreme close-ups. You can successfully photograph the moon using just standard equipment from your house, garden or city centre.
This may sound easy, but there are still things you should consider for better results in your moon photograph adventures.
Pick Your Gear
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To get up close and personal with the moon, you should use a DSLR or mirrorless camera. APS-C and micro four thirds cameras are perfect because of their cropped sensor.
ExpertPhotography recommends: Olympus OMD EM-5 Mark II
A 300 mm telephoto lens on a Canon APS-C camera body, in fact, will give the same field of view (FOV) as a 480mm lens on a full frame camera.
ExpertPhotography recommends: Canon EOS 1300D
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. These cameras have zoom lenses equivalent to a 2000+ mm lens on full frame cameras.
With these cameras, you will fill the frame with a small part of the lunar surface and plenty of details.
(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.
As mentioned before, you need a long telephoto or zoom lens with a focal length of, at least, 300mm.
Because the moon is so bright, you do not need to use 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 valuable 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. TCs must be used with the lenses they are designed for.
TCs can be a cost effective solution to increase your lens’ focal length, but they also reduce the amount of light recorded. A 1.4x TC will reduce your exposure by 1-stop and a 2x TC will cut 2 stops.
ExpertPhotography recommends: Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III Telephoto Zoom Lens
ExpertPhotography recommends: Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM
For M43 cameras:
ExpertPhotography recommends: Olympus MSC ED-M 75 to 300mm II
ExpertPhotography recommends: Olympus M.ZUIKO 40-150mm f/2.8
ExpertPhotography recommends: Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f4.0
ExpertPhotography recommends: Sigma 150-600mm 5-6.3
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 adaptors to use your compact camera or smartphone to photograph the moon.
Unedited close up done with iPhone 5 on a telescope.
Specific adapters allow you to mount your camera or mobile phone on a telescope.
ExpertPhotography recommends: Skywatcher Skymax 90/1250mm
Even if it is possible to take hand-held photographs of the moon thanks to image stabilisation, you should use a decent tripod. I personally use an old Manfrotto 055XPROB, but the Manfrotto MT190XPRO3.3 is a great option as well.
ExpertPhotography recommends: Manfrotto MT190XPRO3 3
A sturdy tripod will make your life easier by allowing you to achieve a good focus and take sharper images.
A remote shutter with intervalometer prevents camera shaking and allows you to take a series of photographs 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 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.
ExpertPhotography recommends: Skywatcher Star Adventurer
CAPTION: 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 must be spot on.
Unfortunately, chances are autofocus will not lock onto the moon, so switch to manual focus.
Do not trust the infinite mark on your lens or the hard stop of the focusing ring: they are not reliable.
Instead, use all the modern functions your camera has to help you focus: live view, magnification and focus peak.
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.
Focusing on some lunar craters using the live view function and 7x magnification.
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.
Seeing Conditions: Read Your Sky
Earth’s atmosphere stands between you and the moon. It will degrade the quality of your image. Clouds, haze, air turbulence, pollution, dust and humidity, all affect your image.
Try to photograph the moon when it is high in the sky, as 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 pictures when the moon is low over the rooftops. The escaping heat from the roofs will create turbulence that will 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 turbulences.
How to Photograph the Moon During Different Phases
Every month or so, the moon goes through a series of lunar phases, 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, so you should look in 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 amount 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 sun light.
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.
When focusing, use the terminator region to help you achieve a good focus.
The Full Moon
During the Full Moon, the light is frontal and 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 the Moon is 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, set the aperture to f/8 of f/11 and the ISO to the lowest setting.
To get the best results, you should always shoot in RAW if you can.
Take a test shot and check on 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.
While checking the exposure, be sure your moon is sharp.
A passing cloud, haze, or air turbulence can ruin a single image.
By stacking different images together, you will drastically improve your image.
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 videoclip, 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 specific software.
Stacking of 50 images (top) compared with single frame (bottom)
My workflow consists in loading the images into PIPP to crop the images and centre the moon in the frames.
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.
Registax, PIPP, Autostakkert! 3 are all free software 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 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.
Negative images of the moon 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. So always be sure to 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 applies to sun photography. The only difference is that, eclipses aside, the sun has no phases: it is always full.
To focus, check the sun has sharp edges, as there are no craters to focus on.
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 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.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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