How to shoot the moon

The moon has fascinated mankind for as long as we’ve been able to see it. From religious symbols to playthings on birthday cards, the moon and its iconic stages have come to mean all sorts of things. Making it a part of your composition can add a focal point to a night scene, or a touch of drama in a composite image. Unleash your creativity and anything is possible.

You can say a lot with the moon. Steven Spielberg knew that back in 1982 when he made a giant full moon the backdrop to a silhouette of ET flying home. Dreamworks knows it too – the company’s logo of a boy fishing from the tip of a crescent moon conveys feelings of calm and simple times. Have you ever thought about doing more with the moon in your shots?

Time is everything

Since it passes by every night, when you decide to shoot depends on what stage of the moon you’re after. Various apps and websites can tell you where you are in the lunar cycle, but if you’re shooting somewhere unfamiliar you might want to turn to an app like Sun Surveyor (iTunes and Google Play). As well as showing the precise path the moon will take, it also pinpoints sunrises and sunsets.

In The frame

If your aim is to shoot the moon as big as you can in the frame, then when it comes to the lens, bigger is better. A 400mm lens should give you a good-sized moon, but you could get away with 200mm and crop tightly in. If your lens isn’t long enough and you can’t afford a new one, think about using an extender or teleconverter. A 2x extender can turn a 140mm lens into 400mm one. Also, if you’re using a UV protector filter you’ll want to remove it for this shot as it can introduce blur.

None of these zooms will enable you to shoot a detail of the moon. For that, you need an astro-telescope with camera mount. We’ll look at these in a future blog, but if this moon stuff gets you hooked, just wait until you see what awaits with Celestron’s range of telescopes that reveal the secrets of the universe.

Back to our closest celestial neighbour, you’ll find getting the moon exposed correctly is likely to be the hardest part. In a dark black sky, a shot of the moon often turns out over-exposed, but photograph it in the evening, before the sun goes down, and it’s a different story. Against a blue sky, it’s far easier for your camera to focus and expose correctly, giving you a shot that reveals the lunar landscape in all its glory.

Three sturdy legs

Shoot the moon on a bright evening and you might get away without a tripod, but any other time, and especially if you’re using an extender, a tripod is essential, as is a remote trigger (or the camera’s inbuilt timer). If your camera has a mirror lockup feature, this will steady it even further.

When it comes to settings, only manual will do. Opt for around F8 or somewhere around the middle of your aperture range. This is the lens’s “sweet-spot”, where you’ll get the sharpest image and the crispest colours.

Depending on light pollution in your area, any clouds that could reflect the moonlight, and the darkness of the sky, ISO and shutter speed values will vary. The good news is that the moon moves slowly, so you’ll get plenty of chances to try again; but that’s bad news too – because it’s moving, you don’t want your shutter speed much slower than 1/60. Start with around ISO 100-200 and see what you get – keep it low if you can, to avoid noise creeping in.

If you can take your shot before the sky fully darkens, the extra light makes it much easier to keep the ISO low. Put your camera on aperture priority, bring the exposure value down by a full two or three stops and in your shot the blue sky becomes black but the moon is correctly exposed.

Focusing is easy because your camera’s autofocus will have no trouble picking it out. When you’ve got the moon in sight, take a test shot, check the exposure, then zoom in to double-check focusing.

Even when you get all the settings right, you might still find some areas are overexposed and others underexposed. Bracketing can help here, enabling you to pull out extra detail later by merging the shots in Adobe’s Lightroom or Photoshop, but you have to be quick because the moon is spinning faster than you think.

The moon as background

Sometimes you don’t want a shot of just the moon – you want an image with the moon in the background. Here’s where you have to pay attention to focal length at the other end of the scale. If you shoot a scene using wide-angle, the moon will appear smaller than it really is. In fact, use any lens under 50mm and the moon is going to shrink (and if it’s low to the horizon, even 50mm won’t cut it). You can fix it in software but it’s always easier to get it right in camera if you can.

For a really great moon shot, you’ll almost certainly want to take your favourite from the shoot into either Lightroom or Photoshop – it’s the only way to pull out all those extra details on the lunar surface. Play with sharpness, contrast (and clarity), highlights and shadow settings, and you’ll be amazed at just how much extra detail reveals itself.

Michael Clarke submitted this shot via Instagram and has this advice: “All my settings are on auto. You can get a good moon photo without a tripod but unless you have a very steady hand I’d suggest using one, it doesn't have to be anything fancy even a desktop one will do the job. A self-timer is another useful tool to help prevent camera shake, just a couple of seconds is normally enough. I actually get a lot on my pictures of the moon during the day as I feel it is easier to focus on and the blue sky can be darkened in photo shop apps. I also try to get something else in the picture either clouds or a tree/leaves just to add a little extra to the image.” Submitted via Instagram by @michael.a.clarke_photography

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