Moon Photography Tips
The Moon is Earth’s only permanent natural satellite and affects the gravitational pull of our planet more in some places than others. It makes a complete orbit around the Earth every 27.3 days, known as its sidereal period.
The Moon is a constant (and obvious) reminder of how astonishing our Universe is, and has a way of captivating others to become more interested in space. Although my deep sky astrophotography efforts often involve avoiding the Moon, I still appreciate its presence.
Moon photography includes much more than close-ups of the lunar surface. Some of the most stunning images of the Moon are landscape-style photographs that feature the alluring feeling of the Moon shining down on the Earth below.
I hope to offer some advice for beginners looking to capture images of the moon, and inspiration to those who may have already started. For some of my favorite shots, have a look at my Moon photography gallery.
I have spent many years taking photographs of the Moon in all of its phases, and I would love to share everything that I have learned. For those interested in astronomy and space, I think it’s important to realize that the Moon has the remarkable ability to capture the interest of the general public.
No matter how wrapped up people are in their day-to-day lives, celestial events like a lunar eclipse, solar eclipse or even a “supermoon” make them stop and think about our place in the Universe.
In this tutorial, I will explain how to take pictures of the Moon using a digital camera. The type of camera you own will determine the types of shots available to you, whether it’s a DSLR, a point-and-shoot, or the mobile phone in your pocket.
From wide-angle landscape photographs that highlight the magic of a Full Moon, to detailed close-ups of its rocky surface, a DSLR camera (or mirrorless variation) will give you complete control over your image.
Having the ability to control individual parameters like shutter speed (exposure), aperture, ISO, and white balance are necessary to properly expose the bright Moon.
Which Camera Should You Use?
DSLR Camera (Digital-Single Lens Reflex)
A DSLR camera with a telephoto lens or telescope is responsible for the majority of the images shared on this page. A telephoto lens with a focal length of 200mm or more is great for collecting sharp images of the Moon in detail.
DSLR cameras give you complete manual control over the camera and lens settings for moon photography. This allows you to make small changes to exposure length, ISO, f-ratio, and much more. All of these settings are useful when photographing an object as bright as the Moon.
Some of the cameras I’ve used for moon photography in the past include a Canon EOS Rebel Xsi, and more recently, and Canon EOS 7D Mark II.
An astronomical telescope goes one step further, giving you the focal length and magnification needed to pull the Moon in for an unforgettable view. Amateur astrophotographers use a t-ring adapter to attach the DSLR camera body directly to the telescope for prime focus imaging.
A DSLR camera with a t-ring adapter to connect to a telescope.
A point-and-shoot camera (or “bridge camera”) is also capable of powerful images of the Moon, especially when held up to the eyepiece of a Dobsonian reflector telescope like the Apertura AD8.
It can be tricky to capture a sharp image while hand-holding the camera up to the eyepiece, so you’ll likely need to take a lot of images and hope for the best.
These cameras are very affordable, which makes them a popular choice early on for many people.
You can also use your phone to take incredibly detailed portraits of the Moon. Capturing Earth’s natural satellite with your iPhone or Android smartphone through a telescope is often one of the first steps into the realm of astrophotography.
Many photographers begin their journey into this hobby using a smartphone because it is often the best camera they currently own.
Use a smartphone adapter to keep your phone camera steady at the eyepiece.
This is called eyepiece projection astrophotography and can be effective when photographing solar system objects such as the Moon or even Planets like Jupiter and Saturn. In this post, I’ll cover a number of different ways you can photograph the Moon including this method.
Related Post: Smartphone Astrophotography with the Celestron NexStar 8SE.
How to take pictures of the Moon
With the right techniques and a little practice, you too can take amazing photos of the full Moon, and during every other lunar phase. I’ll explain the right camera settings to use, as well as some helpful processing tips to bring out the full potential of your photograph in Adobe Photoshop.
While it is possible to capture a fantastic image of the Moon right out of camera, some basic adjustments in Photoshop can help reveal the fine details of the Moon’s surface, while keeping the exposure of the surrounding landscape or sky well exposed.
The full Moon rising through the clouds. DSLR and lens on tripod.
Everyone has looked up at the Moon in awe at some point in their life, and many people would like to know exactly how to take a decent picture of it with their camera. This is exactly the position I was in, early on in my photography journey.
It was one of the first questions I asked an amateur photographer that owned a DSLR camera with interchangeable lenses and full manual control. As it turns out, learning how to utilize a DSLR camera and its basic functions and settings are the most important step towards capturing beautiful photos of the Moon.
The Moon is extremely bright compared to the night sky behind it. This makes properly exposing an image of the Moon difficult to do without the right camera settings.
A thin crescent Moon that appears at dusk is easier to capture, but even then it will be difficult to record the fine details of the Moon’s surface. As you can see in the photo below, sometimes overexposing the Moon can have an interesting effect, but it is not always desired.
A bright, overexposed moon over silhouetted trees in the forest.
The position and lighting available for your photograph will change as the Moon goes through its phases throughout the month. Although there are 8 phases of the Moon, there are 7 phases of the Moon you can capture with your camera:
- New Moon (Moon not visible)
- Waxing Crescent
- First Quarter
- Waxing Gibbous
- Full Moon
- Waning Gibbous
- Last Quarter
- Waning Crescent
Each Moon phase presents new challenges and photographic opportunities. We do not see the New Moon phase, but it is possible to capture a sliver the day before and after New Moon (it’s very difficult!).
The 8 phases of the Moon – astrosociety.org.
1 Day Old Moon
The one day old Moon can be seen and photographed the day after the New Moon phase. Because the moon appears as a small sliver during this phase, it can be difficult to find and photograph.
The best time to photograph a 1 day old moon is just after the sun sets. The 1 day old moon will not be very far behind the Sun, which is why waiting until the Sun has dipped below the horizon makes the process a lot easier.
Here is a photo of the 1 day old Moon captured using a 150-450 telephoto zoom lens.
The 1-day old moon can be seen close to the western horizon at dusk, the day after New Moon.
A DSLR Camera is Best
Most of the images on this page were taken using a Canon EOS DSLR camera.
I began photographing the Moon with an entry-DSLR camera, a Canon Rebel EOS XSi. I camera like this will offer all of the features you need to capture stunning photos of the Moon in a variety of ways.
You can simply use the camera with a lens on a fixed tripod, or attach the camera body to a telescope and tracking mount for an extreme close-up.
A camera mount that is capable of matching the apparent rotation of the night sky (such as the iOptron SkyGuider Pro) opens up even more options for astrophotography.
A standard kit lens like the Canon EF-S 18-55mm that’s often included with the Canon Rebel series DSLRs is more than capable of some incredible landscape photos.
It offers some flexibility in terms of composition for your photos, although you will be limited to a maximum of 55mm focal length (magnification).
I have found it best to focus on creating powerful landscapes that feature the Moon in an interesting composition when using a camera lens in the 18-55mm range. In the photograph shown below, you’ll see that even though there are no details to the Moon’s surface and it is quite small, it is still a captivating natural scene.
The Wolf Moon rising over a snowy country field.
Wide-angle camera lenses force you to be creative about the way you compose the surrounding landscape around the Moon. The basic principles of landscape photography in terms of composition, balance, color, and exposure apply.
Remember to use the rule-of-thirds to your advantage when capturing landscape images that include the Moon. Use lead-in lines to draw attention and importance to the Moon as your primary subject.
Use the rule-of-thirds and lead-in lines to draw attention to the Moon in your landscape image.
The camera settings you use for photos like the ones above are similar to a regular daytime photo, with a few adjustments depending on the amount of light present. Here are some recommended settings for capturing a landscape-style photograph of the Moon with a DSLR camera and lens.
Recommended Camera Settings:
The following settings are a general starting point using an entry-level DSLR camera and kit lens. (18-55mm F/5.6)
- Focal Length: 18mm
- Lens Aperture: F/5.6
- Mode: Manual
- File Type: RAW
- White Balance: Daytime / Auto
- Exposure: 1/400
- ISO: 200
It is helpful to use a remote shutter release cable to take pictures without having to touch the camera (this is the one I use). As is the case for all forms of astrophotography, keeping the camera steady when activating the shutter is essential.
A DSLR camera will have many advantages over an automatic point-and-shoot style camera. However, as I’ll explain below, there are still plenty of photographic opportunities with a camera like this.
One of the ultimate Moon photography experiences is to capture a lunar eclipse, like the one below. A photograph like this can only be accomplished by using a DSLR camera with full manual control of the settings, and a tracking camera or telescope mount that has been accurately polar aligned.
A total lunar eclipse. Canon EOS 70D through an 80mm refractor telescope.
Most point-and-shoot style digital cameras give you limited control over the camera settings, and do not perform well in low-light situations. As an example, my Canon SX series point and shoot camera offers an impressive 50X zoom feature, which can be useful for capturing the Moon.
Capturing the Moon’s Surface
For a textured photo of the rocky, cratered surface of the Moon, you’ll want to shoot it when it is not full. The lunar terminator is the division between the illuminated and dark portions of the moon, and creates dramatic shadows on the Moon’s surface.
As the Moon transitions through its phases, the terminator will highlight new textured features of the Moon’s surface. Along this division line you may find interesting shapes and formations such as the famous “Lunar X” that occurs during the first quarter phase.
Some notable features of the lunar surface include Mare Serenitatis (Sea of Serenity), Mare Humorum, and Mare Crisium. All of the lunar mares have their own interesting characteristics that can be enjoyed and studied through photography.
For a complete map of the Moon’s surface see Google Moon.
Results using a Point and Shoot Camera
It is not necessary to use a DSLR camera and tracking mount to capture the Moon in detail. My early photos of the Moon were accomplished using the eyepiece projection method, using a point-and-shoot camera and a stationary Dobsonian telescope.
I would line up my Canon Powershot into the eyepiece, and snap photos of the Moon using “Auto” mode. This method is hit or miss.
The benefit of this technique is that you are using the focal length of the telescope, along with the added magnification of an eyepiece. In the video below, you’ll see the view through an Orion 25mm Plossl eyepiece that was included with my telescope.
Here’s a look at the camera I used in the video, a Canon Powershot A720 IS. This was the first camera I ever used for any type of astrophotography before I knew how to operate a DSLR. The photo of the Moon was captured using the camera’s built-in optical zoom.
One of the (only) advantages this camera had over a DSLR, was the conveniently small zoom lens that fit into the eye relief of a standard 1.25″ telescope eyepiece. Just like the adapters used for smartphone astrophotography, a camera mount to steady the lens is recommended.
Although you can capture some impressive images with a camera like this, you may find that it is holding you back in terms of progress. These cameras were not designed for night photography, and have limited uses under a night sky.
Upgrading to a DSLR camera and interchangeable lenses
When you’re ready, upgrading to a DSLR camera will make a huge difference to your Moon photography. Having complete control over the camera’s functions such as exposure length and ISO will allow you to control the amount of light you collect from the Moon.
You will also be able to photograph the Moon at different focal lengths using dedicated prime lenses rather than a zoom. A telephoto lens such as the Canon EF 300mm F/4L can deliver exceptionally sharp results.
The Moon using a Canon EF 300mm F/4L Lens.
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.
The Moon presents itself in different phases at different times, giving you endless opportunities to photograph it from a new perspective. One of the best times to take pictures of the Moon are when it is full, and low on the horizon.
The Harvest Moon (2016). Canon EOS 5D, 300mm F/4L Lens.
A rising Full Moon is full of dramatic warm colors as it peeks over the eastern horizon. The distinctive orange/pink hues are due to the composition of Earth’s atmosphere and the angle at which it is viewed.
On the night of a Full Moon, our natural satellite lies on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun. During a Full Moon, the Sun lights up the entire face of the Moon we see.
For a truly unforgettable photo of the Full Moon, get to a location with an unobstructed view of the eastern horizon. Use a planetarium app such as Stellarium to simulate the exact position the Moon will be in so you can prepare your composition before it rises.
The moment you spot the Moon low over the eastern horizon as a giant, warm-colored disc is exceptionally rewarding and exciting. I often bring my wife along for the ride when I travel to a remote location to photograph a moonrise!
Planning your photoshoots around the different Moon phases will help you prepare for the many challenges involved with documenting this astronomical subject. It’s important to know when are where the Moon will be on a given night.
I use Moongiant to keep track of the Moon phases
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
Moon Photography Tips
It’s time to get into the nuts and bolts. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, one of the most challenging aspects of photographing the Moon is revealing the details of the Moon’s surface.
How to set the correct exposure
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 DSLR 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.
While in manual mode, roll the exposure value wheel back until the Moon turns from a featureless blob of light to a gray disc with discernible craters. This won’t necessarily be the exposure you end up using, but it will give you an idea of the exposure you are trying to achieve.
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 use a shutter speed that is fast enough to tame the Moon’s glaring glow. Eventually, you will begin to see the darker areas of the Moon present in your image.
If you are worried about missing out on all of that great detail and color in the background sky – don’t worry, you will 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.
Here are some 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.
This method applies whether you are taking pictures of the Moon through a camera lens or a telescope. The exposure control of a DSLR camera is needed to produce images like the ones below.
Properly exposed to show lunar surface:
- Camera: Canon EOS 7D
- Lens: 80mm telescope
- Focal Length: 400mm
- ISO: 100
- Aperture: F/6
- Exposure: 1/400
Overexposed – Too bright and details lost
- Camera: Canon EOS 7D
- Lens: 80mm telescope
- Focal Length: 400mm
- ISO: 100
- Aperture: F/6
- Exposure: 2 seconds
Composite Image combining both exposures
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.
The photo below shows a view of the Moon during the Waxing Gibbous phase. For this image, I used an 102mm refractor telescope with a focal length of 714mm to get in close. The telescope was mounted to an equatorial telescope mount that allows me to take sharp images using a lower ISO setting, and a longer exposure.
The Moon captured using a DSLR and telescope on a computerized equatorial mount.
Selecting 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 faster f-stop means more light.
The depth of field comes into play with this setting, but it does not drastically effect an image of this type. Generally, the lowest f-stop your camera lens can offer is best for astrophotography.
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.
Photography Tips and Ideas
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.
Blending Exposures Together in Photoshop
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 will undoubtedly 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, but ensuring your 2 exposures were shot in the same orientation will help.
When the Moon is low and dim, it’s possible to capture the details of the Moon’s surface and your landscape in a single exposure.
Capturing Earthshine involves adequately exposing the lunar night side of the moon. This can only be accomplished during the crescent moon phases, and is best when the Moon appears close to Earth’s horizon.
Earthshine is light reflected from Earth’s oceans back on to the Moon. It is enough to see the rest of the Moon’s disc even if the Moon is in a crescent phase. To photograph this phenomenon, you may need to experiment with shutter speeds, and a small star tracker will really help to keep your image sharp.
As you can see in the image above, exposing for the dim Earthshine portion of the Moon often results in an overexposed “lit” side of the Moon. This can be corrected by capturing 2 exposures at different exposure lengths, and blended together in Photoshop.
I hope that this article has helped you learn how to take pictures of the Moon by using the techniques that I have mentioned. At the very least, I hope my photos have inspired you to spend more time enjoying Earth’s amazing rocky neighbor.
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