The Ultimate Guide to Photograph the Moon

Updated on April 11, 2018
idelafuente profile image

Ignacio started Aerospace Engineering at University Carlos III de Madrid(Spain) on 2015. He is currently studying at Purdue University(IN).

On January 31 and March 31, we were so lucky to experience the Blue Moon phenomena, and the one in January was also a Super Blue Blood Moon. Both represent a really unique photographic experience.

The latter event takes places when a blue moon and a lunar eclipse combine, and besides, the moon is at its closest point to Earth. Although this three elements combined are a once-in-a-lifetime event (the last time it happened was about 150 years ago) you can still photograph each of them separately when they take place (which happens much more often). For example, crescent and three-quarter moons are my personal favorite.To make sure you make the most of these astonishing events, read this guide on how to photograph the moon.

Full Moon at night
Full Moon at night

The moon is truly one of the best subjects to start with astrophotography, as it’s the largest and brightest object in the night sky. It is so large that most of the times you can get a great picture of it just using a telephoto lens, and when the sun lights it properly, you can use a shutter speed fast enough to avoid getting a lot of noise because of the ISO and also avoid having to use a tripod.

However, this is not so easy as going outside on your yard any night and taking a random photo in expectancy of being lucky, you still need to use the right techniques and careful planning to get a nice shot.

1.The Material

Knowing how to photograph the moon starts with the proper gear. Of course you will be able to take an acceptable photo with your phone, but if you really want to capture the details of the moon, you will want to use your camera(or get one).

If you want to ensure you get close enough to capture the details, probably the best combination would be a DSLR camera and a 70-300 telephoto zoom. The good thing about this one is that allows you to get really detailed photos of very far subjects, without losing quality. This one can also be used for nature and animal photography, so if you like both you should check this lens. If you want to get further and get a hugely detailed frame of the moon, you might want to look into getting a super telephoto zoom.

However, maybe you do not want to spend so much in a pack of camera+lense or maybe you think you are not going to use it just for astrophotography. In that case, don’t worry! You can still get a compact camera!...Wait…didn’t compact cameras have less quality than DSLR’s? Well…maybe the sensor is smaller and therefore they do not work as good as DSLR’s at night, but the moon is an exception to this. Why? Because as I said earlier, in most of the cases it’s going to be so bright that you are not going to care so much about the noise caused by the ISO. Besides, the latest compact cameras have huge zoom range lenses, that allow you to get really detailed shots without having to buy a specific lens for it. As an example, you can see a couple of pictures I took with a Panasonic Lumix DMC TZ-80, a small but powerful compact camera.

Example of a photo with the DMC TZ-80
Example of a photo with the DMC TZ-80

However, in not all the cases the moon is fully bright. Then, maybe getting a tripod could be a good option. There are many of them available for not so much money, and I found that the smaller ones can make the job can do the job pretty well, and they can have a really good relation quality-price.

When you’re deciding when to shoot the moon, it’s also worth remembering that it isn’t always the same distance from the earth. Its orbit is elliptical, so this distance varies at different times. For detailed information about the moon, its trajectory and the best positions you can get, try the Moonrise and Moonset calculator.

You’ll need to fill in your location, which will then allow you to discover all sorts of useful information, such as moonrise and moonset times. On this site, you can also find out about a much rarer event, the lunar eclipse. This can be a stunning sight because during a full lunar eclipse the moon can be transformed into a glowing red color. During this event, the moon is much less bright than when it’s illuminated by the sun, so you’ll need to use a higher ISO or wider aperture. But the results can be stunning.

Moon during the sunset.
Moon during the sunset.

2.The preparation

But before we go out there to take nice photos, we have to take into account a main handicap in night photography: pollution. In big cities , this can sometimes get in the way of a crisp clear shot, so consider driving out to somewhere where the air will be cleaner to photograph the moon.

Look online for charts that show moonrise times, and if you can, wait until as late at night as possible, so the sky will be completely dark and the moon will be bright and clear against a black backdrop.

When you're ready to go, make sure your camera is set up so your photos will be saved in RAW format. This will give you the picture quality you need in order to be able to crop your final image to get closer to the moon, as well as edit the exposure, contrast and clarity to bring out the detail on the moon's surface more clearly. In daylight photos, you can do a nice job with just JPEG, but for night photography, RAW is definitely a must. As well as being beautiful in itself, a big, bright moon shot can be useful.

Wrapping up...

As a summary, these are the main thing you have to do when you want to take a picture of the moon:

1. Pick the right date to go out

Start by finding out when and where the moon will be visible in the night sky, and also how much of it will be lit by the sun (the area known as the phase). You can readily find plenty of information about the times and positions of the moon’s ascension and descent, along with its phases, on many meteorological websites like Moon Connection. A perfectly full moon like the one we're shooting has the biggest visual impact.

2. Zoom in Close Enough

But what is close enough? Most of the times, if you increase the lens distance to 300 mm you will almost always get a pretty decent moon size in the frame. A tripod will keep your camera still, and a remote shutter release will reduce shaking further. If you don't have one, set the camera's self-timer to a few seconds and you'll be fine.

3. Get set up

Switch your camera to Manual mode and your lens to manual focus. Your exact exposure will vary according to the conditions, but in manual exposure mode start with ISO800, a shutter speed of 1/250 sec and an aperture of f/5.6. Once the initial settings are adjusted, reduce the ISO and configure the other two accordingly until you cannot reduce more the ISO without getting a too dark or blurry image.

As you can guess, the main goal you should set is using the smaller ISO possible, and also try to get a high enough shutter speed (if it is too low you can get shaky photos even if you are using a tripod, which will result in the moon blurring). Also, you shouldn't expect the moon to fill the whole frame, so using automatic focus can be an issue. The best way to focus is to use Live View mode, then zoom in and carefully manually focus on the moon’s surface.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • idelafuente profile image
        Author

        Ignacio de la Fuente 2 weeks ago from West Lafayette, Indiana, USA

        Thank you Rachel, I hope that someday, with the right type of camera, you'll be able to capture the beauty of the moon.

      • Rachel L Alba profile image

        Rachel L Alba 2 weeks ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

        Hi Ignacio, I found this article helpful and interesting. I try so many times to photograph the moon with no success. From reading your article, I think I have the wrong type of camera. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of "shooting" the moon.

        Blessings to you.

      • The Dirt Farmer profile image

        Jill Spencer 2 weeks ago from United States

        Good information! I don't have the right equipment, but if I did, your directions would be super helpful.

      working