How to take pictures of the Moon: Beginners Guide
Anyone with a digital camera equipped with basic photographic settings can capture the Moon! By using the camera settings and tips below, you will learn how to take pictures of the moon using your DSLR or point-and-shoot digital camera.
Truth: If you own a digital camera, you can take amazing pictures of the moon!
The types of images you take will vary depending on your current photography equipment. However, moon photography doesn’t just mean close-ups of the lunar surface. Some of the most stunning images of the moon are wide angle landscape shots. I have had success using both types of cameras, but even an entry-level DSLR will have many advantages over a point-and-shoot.
The moon is Earth’s only permanent natural satellite, and an unavoidable reminder of how incredible our Solar System and the Universe is. We all live on a rock, orbiting a star in space. The Moon is a constant reminder of how small we really are!
I use DSLR camera and a telescope for most of my Moon photos. However, with the right approach, a smaller zoom lens can get the job done.
Many experts will tell you that a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) Camera with an expensive 200-400mm lens is needed to take detailed photographs the moon. However, in my experience, you can take incredible close-up photos of the moon with an inexpensive camera, and entry-level telescope. Have a look at the photo below taken with a Canon Powershot digital camera and a small Orion Dobsonian telescope. (No tracking) Check out the video I made using this camera and telescope to look at the Moon’s surface in detail. Video: Looking at the Moon through a telescope.
Even without the telescope, you can still capture beautiful landscape images of the moon with a compact digital camera. Before I owned a DSLR or even a telescope, I took pictures of the moon all of the time. This was back before I had even heard the term astrophotography! Using the methods discussed below, I was still able to capture a decent image of the Moon using nothing but a compact point-and-shoot digital camera. Check out that old camera and modest moon photo below:
Landscape astrophotography seems to grow in popularity each day, and the majority of the photos I see on Instagram with the hashtag #astrophotography are of just that! While I mainly focus on deep-sky astrophotography, seeing all of these incredible landscape images has completely inspired me to put a concentrated effort on this type of photography in the future. This is especially relevant to this article because the Moon is a perfect subject for any night sky image.
The same rules of landscape photography apply when shooting at night, including the basics such as the rule of thirds, and composition techniques like including foreground interest. Consequently, the Moon can help with both of these aspects by producing additional light for your foreground, and presenting itself in different areas each night for various compositions.
Moon photography can be tricky, but with the right approach, you can increase your chances of success. Planning your photo shoots around the different moon phases will help you prepare for the many challenges involved with documenting this astronomical subject.
Here are some of the challenging aspects of moon photography:
- The moon is a moving target, which can make focus difficult
- It is very bright, combined exposures may be needed
- You need a long focal length to capture close-ups
- A tripod or telescope mount may be required for your goals
- The “auto” function on your camera will not likely work on the moon
If you really want to take your moon photography to the next level, follow the steps below to ensure that your image is on the right track. These are basic photography guidelines that should help you on your quest to capture the Moon in all its glory.
Video: Photographing the Harvest Moon
How to take pictures of the moon
The key to taking a breathtaking image of the moon that will make your friends and family say “You took that!?” is exposure. By setting your digital camera at the ideal exposure length, you will be able to capture details and craters on the moon’s surface.
Most cameras set to “automatic mode” will blow out the lunar features on the moon, as the camera is trying to properly expose the surrounding landscape and/or sky. By switching your digital camera to “manual mode”, you will have much more control of the exposure speed, and the amount of the light the camera sensor picks up.
Having a “live-view” backlit display on your camera will be a tremendous help during this process. However, you can still accomplish your task by taking a series of test exposures of different lengths if your camera does not have a live-view mode.
The key is to underexpose the bright moon to tame it’s glaring glow until the darker areas of the moon are present in the photo. If you are worried about missing out on all of that great detail and color in the background sky – don’t worry, we’ll add that in later! A successful exposure length could be anywhere between 1/50 and 1/1000 or more, depending on your ISO and Aperture settings.
Camera Settings for Moon Photography
Here are two examples of photos taken using different exposure lengths. These images were taken through a 480mm telescope on a German Equatorial mount. This is known as Prime-focus astrophotography and requires a specific set of equipment to accomplish.
Properly exposed to show lunar surface:
Camera: Canon EOS 7D
Lens: 80mm telescope
Focal Length: 400mm
Overexposed – Too bright and details lost
Camera: Canon EOS 7D
Lens: 80mm telescope
Focal Length: 400mm
Exposure: 2 seconds
Composite Image combining both exposures
Sharp focus is essential when photographing a bright, detailed and interesting subject like the moon. A blurry, soft image of Earth’s satellite isn’t suitable for framing! The most important factor to remember at this stage is to keep your camera steady! The moon is a moving target. (Ever looked at the Moon under high magnification through a telescope?)
By using a sturdy tripod or a rock-solid surface, you should be able to freeze the moon in its tracks. If your camera has a 2-second or 10-second timer – use that! The slightest nudge will erase any chance you had at a crisp shot. If you have a remote shutter release, now would be a great time to use it!
This is another instance where having Live-view mode on your cameras backlit display will make your life a lot easier. If your camera can zoom-in during live-view mode, even better! The trick is to zoom-in on the moon’s surface once you have found the ideal exposure length. Once you have the moon in view, you can adjust your focusing ring gently until the surface of the moon looks crisp.
3. Aperture and ISO
If either of these 2 camera settings is off, you will likely not be experiencing the results you are looking for. ISO is basically the camera sensors sensitivity to light, so a higher setting will expose a subject like the Moon in a shorter period of time. Aperture is the size of the opening in your camera’s lens. A smaller “f-number” means more light! Depth of field comes into play with this setting, but it does not drastically effect an image of this type. Generally, the lowest f-number your camera lens can offer is best for astrophotography.
4. Focal Length
How big is your lens? Or better yet, your telescope? A telephoto camera lens and a telescope are both capable of taking incredible close-ups of the moon. Your camera lenses focal length is listed on the lens itself. A common “kit lens”, for example, will have a focal length of 18-55mm.
A longer focal length such as 300mm or more will increase the magnification and detail of the moon, but capturing a shot with crisp focus will be much harder to accomplish. The higher magnification will intensify even the slightest amount of camera shake.
Okay, I know how to take pictures of the moon…
As you know, the moon has many different phases, and rises and sets at different times. Each of these phases offers a new photographic opportunity to capture the moon from a different perspective. My favorite phases to capture the moon in are when it is completely full, and when it is in the thin waxing crescent phase.
Although the full moon shows the least amount of shadows and surface detail, it rises at the same time as the sun sets and can create amazing landscape compositions in a colorful dusk sky.
What about the background landscape?
To create a composite image of a landscape and the moon, you will need to combine 2 separate exposures. Take your landscape shot as you normally would, being careful not to clip your histogram. This should inevitably completely blow-out the Moon, rendering it as a glowing orb that resembles the Sun! Leaving your camera in the exact same spot as your landscape image, expose for the moon. That is, make the adjustments needed to your exposure length to capture the surface details on the moon. Finally, you can overlay the detailed image of the moon into your landscape. Blending the two images together seamlessly in Adobe Photoshop can be tricky!
I hope that this article has shown you how to take pictures of the moon by using the camera settings and techniques that I have used to produce the photographs on this page! For additional information about the astrophotography equipment I use to take pictures of the moon, as well as deep-sky objects, click on “My Equipment” in the main menu.