How to take pictures of the Moon
In this tutorial, I will explain how to take pictures of the moon using a DSLR camera. Capturing Earth’s natural satellite with your iPhone or Android is often one of the first steps into the realm of astrophotography. With the right techniques and a little practice, you too can take amazing photos of the full moon, and during every other lunar phase.
The Full Moon rising through the clouds:
The Moon Effect
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!
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 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, see my Moon photo gallery.
A DSLR Camera is Best
Most of the images on this page were taken using a Canon Rebel Xsi, (Now replaced by the Canon T6i)
This is an entry-level DSLR, and all you will need to capture stunning photos of the Moon in a variety of ways. The standard kit lens that comes with a Canon Rebel DSLR (Usually 18-55mm) is more than capable of some incredible landscape photos.
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 ultimate moon photography experience is capturing a lunar eclipse, like the one below:
I use a 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.
Results using a Point and Shoot Camera
It is not necessary to use a DSLR Camera and a telephoto lens or telescope to capture the moon. My early photos of the moon were accomplished using eyepiece projection astrophotography, using a small Dobsonian telescope.
The benefit of this technique is that you are using the added magnification of your eyepiece. In the video above, you’ll see the view through the Orion 25mm Plossl telescope eyepiece that came included with my telescope.
Here’s a video I shot through my old telescope, looking at the moon:
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.
When you’re ready, upgrading to a DSLR camera will make a huge difference to your moon photography. The precision focus and exposure control will open the doors to new and exciting compositions.
Landscape Astrophotography: Moonscapes
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 areas each night for various compositions.
I absolutely love the color of the moon when it is low on the horizon. On the night of the full moon, plan to shoot from a location where you’ll have a wide open view of the Eastern horizon. This is when the gorgeous oranges and pinks will decorate the disc of the moon.
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.
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 providing lots of composition options. 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. It’s important to know when are where the moon will be on a given night.
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
Video: Photographing the Harvest Moon
In the video above, I used a Canon 5D and a 300mm F/4 camera lens hand-held to photograph the Harvest Moon. You can read the full post about the event here.
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.
Moon Photography Tips
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 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.
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 discernable 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 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, 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
Overexposed – Too bright and details lost
Camera: Canon EOS 7D
Lens: 80mm telescope
Focal Length: 400mm
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.
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.
What about the background landscape?
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 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, 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.
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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