There are many factors go into the making of a sharp, well-balanced moon photo. Between obtaining the right gear for your shoot, planning your location based on moon phases, and implementing advanced photographic techniques, taking excellent photos of the moon is far from easy. That said, if you’re willing to put in the work, capturing great pictures of the moon is not only possible but enjoyable. Here, we’ll prepare you for each step in the process of taking top-caliber moon photos.
1. Bring the Right Gear
Before photographing the moon, it’s essential to consider your camera equipment. Your gear will determine the type of moon images you can successfully create. So, take an inventory of your gear and plan your shoot around its capabilities.
While you can make any camera work for moon photography, DSLR or mirrorless cameras with a telephoto lens are the best option. DSLR and mirrorless cameras have large enough sensors to capture the detail of the moon against a dark sky. The smaller sensors of a smartphone or point and shoot camera leave much to be desired in moon photography.
A DSLR with an extreme telephoto lens, like the Nikon D850, are viable options for close-up images of the moon.
Remember to use a quality, sturdy tripod to prevent any instability or shakiness throughout your shoot.
Camera shake will significantly impact your images when you’re working with long focal length lenses. At longer focal lengths and slower shutter speeds, the smallest movements can make your image blurry. To photograph the moon with a telephoto lens or a slow shutter speed, you’ll need a reliable tripod.
I recommend the Benro Mach3, this tripod is extremely sturdy and efficient to use. Adjusting and locking the legs is easy and smooth which makes setting up a breeze.
A three-way pan-and-tilt-head is more conducive to shooting the moon and will allow you to make more accurate adjustments. Pan and tilt heads allow you to adjust each plane of your image independently without affecting the other. Unlike, ball-heads which are less precise and difficult to make small adjustments with.
Remote Shutter Release
To further minimize the chance of a blurry image from camera shake, use a remote shutter release. This eliminates camera shake that may occur when you press and release the camera button. I prefer to use a wireless shutter release rather than a wired remote to limit the chances of moving my tripod with the wire. The great thing about this shutter release is that it functions as both a wireless and a wired remote.
You can also try Mirror Lock Up (MLU) in combination with a remote if you’re working with a DSLR camera. This combination cuts down on mirror vibrations for an even crisper, clearer shot. This method works well when you are using a tripod with slower shutter speed, but it can still be effective when shooting handheld.
Long Zoom Lens
If you’re trying to photograph the moon by itself, a long zoom lens of at least 200mm is your best option to shoot the moon. This will allow you to fill your frame with the moon and capture sufficient detail.
When I am shooting with my Nikon I use a 200-500mm f/5.6 lens. A telephoto lens with this range is great because it offers flexibility. At this range, you can have a decent view or your scene or you can get very close. Most camera brands offer a lens with a similar range.
Telephoto lenses are expensive, for example, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 is around $1,200 and the Sony 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 is around $2,000. A good alternative is to use a 3rd party lens manufacturer such as Sigma or Tamron. These brands produce quality lenses that can be just as good as brand names but at a fraction of the price.
I recommend the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 for those of you trying to save money while still getting the range you need for moon photography. The Sigma produces great quality images and includes built-in image stabilization and a minimum aperture of f/22.
However, if you’re trying to photograph the moon with an interesting foreground, using a shorter lens will likely be more beneficial. Lenses with a focal range of 70-300 mm work well because they give you great range, yet you still can include a foreground.
I use personally use the Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 when I am traveling because it is extremely versatile and it’s fixed maximum aperture of f/2.8 is perfect for low light situations. A cheaper alternative is the Tamron 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 lens which still produces high-quality images at nearly half the cost of the Nikon version.
This focal length range between 55 and 300mm is common and as a result, there are many very inexpensive kit lenses available. I highly recommend you avoid buying one of these lenses because of their poor image quality at longer focal lengths and the level of vignetting. You will want a lens that remains sharp throughout the entire focal length and less vignetting.
Your choice of lens will depend on your composition and the amount of detail you want to capture on the moon. It is also important to take to consider if your camera is a full-frame or crop frame. If you have a crop-sensor then you can use a smaller focal length due to the crop factor.
For example, if you have a Nikon APS-C sensor has a crop factor of 1.5x, meaning that a 200mm lens effective focal length is approximately 300mm. A great tool to use to calculate your effective focal length is the mm calc.
2. Use the Right Settings
When you’re using extra-long telephoto lenses and even telescopes, your camera settings will have an even larger impact on your compositions. Make sure to consider each camera setting carefully to avoid blurriness in your moon photos.
Shooting Mode: Manual Mode
Shooting in full manual mode is typically the best choice for the moon. This will give you the most flexibility and control over your exposure. If you’re unsure about shooting in manual mode, using aperture priority is the next best option.
Use the lowest possible ISO to help minimize the appearance of noise in your image. The lighting conditions and the phase of the moon will determine how high you need to set your ISO.
In moon photography, you want to achieve a clear, sharp image. Every lens will have an aperture “sweet spot”; at this aperture, your camera produces the sharpest images.
For most lenses, the aperture sweet spot is two to three full stops smaller than its maximum aperture. For example, if your lens has a maximum aperture of f/1.4, then your aperture sweet spot would be around f/2.8 or f/4.
It’s also good to check which aperture value within the sweet spot range in in-fact the sharpest. To check, take the same photo, at each aperture value, and compare the sharpness using post-processing software.
The right shutter speed to use can depend on several factors. The moon phase, your location, and the clarity of the sky can all affect your choice of shutter speed. But, generally speaking, you can begin with a shutter speed of 1/160th to 1/100th when the sky is clear.
What Is The Looney 11 Rule?
The looney 11 rule is a guideline to follow to find the right exposure when shooting the moon. This rule is the nighttime version of the sunny 16 rule, which can help you accomplish the same feat for daytime photography.
The looney 11 breaks down moon exposure into a few simple steps. The baseline for the looney 11 rule, is to set your aperture to f/11.
The next step is to set your ISO. Try to avoid setting your ISO to0 high to avoid generating noise. The final step is to set your shutter speed to the reciprocal of your ISO.
For instance, if you set your ISO to 100 then you should set your shutter speed to 1/100 of a second. Likewise, if you set your ISO to 200 then you should set your shutter speed to 1/200 of a second.
For well-exposed moon photography, the looney 11 rule is a helpful criterion to keep in mind. It is important to note that the Looney 11 is more of a rule of thumb than a strict rule that you must follow.
For example, I prefer to use my lenses sweet spot rather than f/11. In my case, when I am using my Nikon 70-300mm I typically use f/8 because it’s the aperture sweet spot. On the other hand, for other lenses, the aperture sweet spot may be f/11.
Likewise, I do believe that the shutter speed rule in looney 11 works relatively well unless you are trying to capture movement in your image. In this case, you will need to use slower shutter speeds.
Use the Looney 11 rule as a baseline for setting your exposure settings and then adjust accordingly until you reach the desired exposure.
3. Plan Carefully
Planning is a critical stage in the process of moon photography. If you can plan the timing of your shoot and the layout of your composition carefully, you’ve already won half the battle.
Plan your shoot in accordance with the weather. You’ll want to aim for a clear sky to capture the moon in great detail. Warm temperatures can also warp the appearance of the sky, making it exceptionally difficult to take sharp photographs.
In rare circumstances like lunar eclipses and supermoons, take extra time to plan out your shoot. Organize your shoot around the event and make sure to prepare for unforeseen circumstances, including bad weather.
In the case of a lunar eclipse, moon photography becomes more difficult. While this event is undoubtedly stunning, it also requires a considerable amount of expertise to capture a high-quality image.
Your gear, location, weather, and moon phases all impact moon photography. Take time before your shoot to consider each of these factors and plan accordingly.
4. Choose An Ideal Location
In moon photography, your location is one of the most crucial factors to consider. Location is often the distinction between a top-quality shot and an unsuccessful shot.
In general, you want to travel to a remote, minimally-populated area for your shoot. Ideally, this location should have minimal ambient light and as little air pollution as possible.
Remember that the goal is to capture as much detail in the moon as possible. You want as few obstructions between your lens and the moon as possible.
5. Use Best Mobile Apps in Your Research
Photopills is a wonderful app for moon photography. The App provides the moon’s real-time phase and position, along with the Milky Way’s position and elevation. This App also includes the rise and set times for the moon, along with access to a moon calendar and Supermoon dates. It is important to note that the App is not free, but it is totally worth all the additional features it has.
If you are looking for a free version, The Photographer’s Ephemeris is another great app with similar functionality. Another great feature of this App is that it also has a web version that you can use on your desktop or smartphone internet browser to avoid downloading the App.
My other favorite moon photography app includes SunSurveyor. SunSurveyor offers a visual representation of current conditions and the potential appearance of the moon.
6. Consider Moon Phases
When shooting the moon, the moon phase will determine how dark your image is. The moon can either have complete illumination, partial illumination, or no illumination.
Below you will find the moon phases in their order.
The moon phase begins with the New moon is followed by the waxing moon phases.
The Waxing moon phases indicate that the moon phases will be growing in illumination. This means that all the phases following the full moon will increase in illumination until it reaches a full moon. The waxing phases of the moon are waxing crescent, first quarter, and waxing gibbous.
After the full moon, the moon phases enter the Wanning phases. During the waning phases, the moon will progressively experience less illumination until it finally reaches a new moon, and the cycles begin again.
The waning phases are waning gibbous, third quarter, and waning crescent.
In night photography, both shooting under some moonlight and in complete darkness have their relative advantages and disadvantages.
Now that we have covered the moon phases, I will discuss the implications that certain moon phases will have on your photography.
The moon phases begin with a full moon, which results in a completely dark moon. During a full moon, the night will be its darkest of any other phase. Shooting during is a full moon is great for capturing the Milkyway, but it can be difficult to capture the moon.
At times, you may see a glow around the moon during a new moon, which can produce stunning images.
Shooting during the new moon will produce the best results because the moon looks the largest, and you can capture the most details from the surface. However, since the moon is at its brightest during a full moon, it can be the hardest to expose for.
As a result of the bright light during the new moon, you can typically avoid raising your ISO to capture details. Also, keep in mind that if you plan to include stars in your composition new moon is the worst time.
Crescent and Quarter Moon
Shooting during the waxing or waning crescent and quarter moons is my favorite when I want to include a foreground in my scene. Typically, during these phases, the light is sufficient to illuminate the foreground without the need to use a high ISO. Also, the stars are not overshadowed by the brightness of the moon, which can make for a striking scene.
Location and Appearance of the Mono Phases
It is important to note that your location in the world will determine what the moon phases will look like. In particular, the phases of the moon are reversed depending on which side of the hemisphere you are on.
For example, in the Northern hemisphere, the Waxing crescent starts on the left side of the moon while in the Sothern Hemisphere, it begins on the right side of the moon.
Keep this in mind when you are traveling and plan accordingly. Most of the apps mentioned above will give you a preview of what the moon will look like, given your location. Therefore, this won’t be an issue if you use one of the recommended apps.
Moon Phase Considerations
Many photographers prefer to choose a full moon as their subject. However, while beautiful, the full moon isn’t always the most exciting choice in photography.
When the moon is fully illuminated to our view, we can’t see all of its details. Without shadows to emphasize its craters and texture, the moon appears to lack depth. This doesn’t always make for the most interesting images.
Instead of shooting a full moon, try working with other moon phases. You’ll be able to capture far more detail on the surface of the moon when shadows are present. The mountains and craters on the moon’s surface can seem to take different shapes in different phases. Plus, by capturing the moon in all of its phases, you’ll learn more about the moon than you otherwise would.
7. Decide on a Close-Up or a Foreground
Consider is whether to capture a close-up shot of the moon or make it a smaller element within the frame. There’s no right or wrong answer here, as both options can be great.
A close-up image of the moon, when done well, can be visually striking. That said, it’s not as adventurous choice and unique as a photograph of a moon against a foreground, such as the back of a forest, skyscrapers, or a placid lake. When you include foreground elements in moon photography, you can tell your viewers more about the photo’s setting and mood.
8. How to Shoot the Moon by Itself
Capturing a close-up view of the moon is a sizable feat. The more detail you want to capture and the larger you want the moon to appear, the harder your shot will be to pull off.
If you are looking to get an ultra-close up of the moon, you’ll need to venture into an ultra-telephoto lens such as a 200 – 500mm, or even 800mm. If this type of telephoto lens isn’t within your reach, you can also use a high-resolution digital camera with a telescope latched onto it.
To connect your DSLR to a telescope, you will need a few pieces of equipment. The first will be a T-ring that attaches to your cameras lens mount. The second piece of equipment will be a telescope focus adapter.
It is pretty common to find these sold in a package, but always be sure the T-ring is specifically made for your camera. Once your camera the process for capturing a great photo will be the same as if you were using a lens.
Another important note is to make sure your camera is securely tightened when you attach it to your telescope. The last thing you want is for your DSLR to fall off and hit the ground.
To Photograph Only The Moon:
- Set your camera on a tripod with a pan-tilt head.
- Choose a long lens(ideally over 200mm in length) or connect your camera to a telescope and zoom in as much as possible.
- Set your camera to an ISO setting of 100.
- Select an aperture around f/11 to f/16, working to find the optimal setting for sharpness
- Select a shutter speed of about 1/160th to 1/125th
- Manually focus your camera with the setting at infinity
9. How To Shoot The Moon With A Foreground
The main challenge involved with shooting the moon with a foreground is properly exposing both the moon and the foreground. You’ll likely find that the moon appears as a blurry spot in the frame. Almost all photographers experience this issue, and most opt to create a composite image instead. This means that they’ll photograph the foreground and the moon separately, combining the two in post-processing.
Here’s a brief guide to making moon composites:
- Choose a lens that works for your composition. This is typically a somewhat wide lens.
- Set the ISO to 100.
- Choose an aperture between f/11 and f/16.
- Bracket your exposures to +2 and -2, making adjustments as needed.
- Use Photoshop to make a composite of the images.
10. Nail Your Focus
For shooting with a DSLR camera in moon photography, the “live view” feature is your best bet. Using live view will help you later when you are adjusting your exposure settings to try and increase the detail in your image. After setting your camera to live view, zoom as closely into the moon as you can, using the autofocus functionality to sharpen the image.
Since mirrorless cameras use an electronic viewfinder which reflects your scene on the LCD as it would in your image there is no need to switch to live view. Instead, use the LCD screen to zoom in as close as possible on the moon. Then, place your focus on the moon or its perimeter to focus on the moon. You can use focus peaking on your mirrorless camera to make sure your image is perfectly in focus.
The majority of DSLR cameras will be able to autofocus on the moon with this method. But, if it’s not working properly, try placing the focus point at the perimeter of the moon. If this method doesn’t work either, try shutting off the autofocus function to adjust the focus ring manually. Continue to make manual adjustments until the moon is in sharp focus.
With certain DSLR cameras, the moon will look like a vague circle. In this case, start by changing your shutter speed until you can make out details on the moon’s surface. If this tactic is ineffective, your camera is likely automatically upping the exposure.
Be sure to shut autofocus off as soon as the moon is in sharp focus. This can typically be done with a switch on the camera or the lens, or with a camera setting. It would be best if you turned autofocus entirely off so that the camera doesn’t attempt to re-focus every time you take a photo.
11. How To Photograph The Moon With Your Phone
For a sharp image of the moon, start by eliminating all possible sources of camera shake. Select an aperture setting that can achieve the sharpest result that your lens is capable of. Finally, for a super-sharp image of the moon with foreground elements, be sure to take several photos and use editing software to stack them. This will cut down on distortion caused by the atmosphere.
Before you take photos with your iPhone, it is essential to understand what features your iPhone has and how it will impact your photography. First, determine if you have one camera or more than one camera. Second, decide whether you can control your camera settings manually, such as ISO, shutter speed, and white balance.
Typically, if you have a camera with more than one camera, you can adjust your settings manually. In either situation, download a camera app that will give you control over more settings.
Realistically, for iPhones with one camera, your moon photography will consist of the moon as a smaller portion of the overall shot. iPhones with a single camera have a wide-angle lens, and this typically results in a moon with little detail. To adjust for this, you can purchase a telephoto lens and attach it to your iPhone.
Moment offers a great 55mm telephoto lens that attaches to both Android and iPhones very easily. I highly recommend the moment lens, their quality is unmatched, but they are on the more expensive side if you are looking for a cheaper alternative you can get the MACTREM telephoto lens.
Before you begin, I highly recommend attaching your camera to a tripod just as you would with a DSLR or mirrorless camera. This will allow you to compose your image properly and use slow shutter speeds without experiencing any blur.
Once you have the proper equipment and app to photograph the moon, you can follow the same steps if you have a single camera with a telephoto lens or a dual camera.
The first step is to compose your image and zoom in as much as possible on the moon. Next, focus on the moon by touching its location on the screen. Then adjust your ISO or brightness setting until the details of the moon become clear. If your image is still too dark, you can use slower shutter speed to add more detail. Once your details are clear, you can take your photo.
Android phones present many of the same obstacles as iPhones in moon photography. This includes the inability to adjust exposure settings manually and a short focal length.
When taking a photo using a telephoto lens or an Android phone with two cameras will significantly improve your moon photography. Similar to iPhone photography, you will need several pieces of equipment to improve your success in moon photography.
Before you begin, make sure you have a camera app that allows you to control your settings manually, a tripod, and a telephoto lens. Once you have all your equipment, you can begin by composing your image.
If you want your moon to have details, you will likely have to zoom-in to your lenses full capacity. Once you have done this, place your focus on the moon and adjust your exposure settings until the moon’s details become visible.
You will likely need to adjust your ISO/brightness or your shutter speed. Once the details of your image are sharp, you can take your photo.
Smartphone and Telescope
If you are unhappy with the results and would like to get a closer view of the moon, you can attach your smartphone to a telescope in the same way that you attach a DSLR. You will need to have a smartphone adapter that will allow you to attach your smartphone to the telescope and take photos.
I recommend the Celestron Universal Smartphone Adapter; this adapter can be attached to a variety of different telescopes as well as other devices. The 3-axis system makes it easy to position your camera perfectly on the telescope, so you get the exact image you are looking for.
Once your smartphone is connected, you can follow the same steps as you would if you were not using a telescope. The telescope will allow you to take close-up images of the moon that you otherwise would not be able to. One benefit is that your images will not suffer a reduction in quality due to the large focal length.
12. Take Time To Post-Process
Post-processing is often the key to creating depth and visual interest in an image of the moon. Unedited moon photos, especially those taken in RAW format, can appear flat and boring.
For up-close shots of the moon, the clarity and contrast sliders will likely be your priority in post-processing. These tools can help you achieve the clarity and detail that you’re looking for.
For moon shots with a foreground, you’ll need to spend more time in Photoshop, working with the bracketed images. But, you must take your time in this process so that the image looks authentic and well-balanced.
If you want to switch things up, black and white works exceptionally well with most moon photography, you can check each image in Lightroom to see whether it’s more effective in color or black and white.
Another thing you should consider is your white balance. Moon photography is difficult when it comes to color temperature. In Lightroom, you can experiment with various options until you reach your desired result.
Once your white balance is set, it’s time to move on to vibrancy and saturation. Due to its natural light, the moon can appear too low in saturation in photographs. You can fix this by adjusting your saturation slider in post-processing.
Adjusting your saturation and vibrancy is especially effective if you used a low ISO setting. By doing so, you’ll likely be able to create a noise-free photo with the saturation and vibrancy sliders close to their maximum. But, if your ISO setting is up too far or your color temperature isn’t quite right, saturation and vibrancy changes can lower the quality of your shot.
All landscape photographers should try their hand at capturing a sharp, detailed, and balanced image of the moon. With this type of photography, you can enhance your skills as you plan for the shoot, capture the moon in focus, and make adjustments in post-processing.
Plus, by using your creative vision in moon photography, you can create an entirely new composition. So, start planning a shoot for the next full moon in your area – besides an incandescent shot of the moon, you’ll walk away with valuable experience to apply towards future shoots.