Learning how to photograph the moon is one of the techniques that budding night photography enthusiasts seek to learn first. That’s because the moon’s ethereal qualities can evoke powerful moods and emotions, which is why the moon has enthralled artists for centuries.
Photographing the moon can prove difficult, though. Shooting a bright subject in the midst of total darkness is going to throw up all sorts of challenges in terms of exposure and focusing, but with some careful planning and the right conditions, anyone can photograph the moon and come away with great results.
Perhaps the biggest challenge you’ll find when photographing the moon is that it’s difficult to record detail in the surrounding landscape without burning out that crucial detail in the moon.
Some people like to create composite images of the moon. What this means is they will take a photograph of the moon exposing for detail on the lunar surface. Then they’ll take another shot exposing for the surrounding landscape.
Later, on the computer, they’ll use their photo editing software to blend the two images together to create a perfectly exposed photograph of the moon.
Some people might say this is cheating, and everyone has their own tastes and rules to live by. But it’s worth noting that compositing isn’t new to the digital age. Photographers were making composites in traditional wet darkrooms long before Photoshop came around.
When to photograph the moon
Autumn and winter are the best time of year to photograph the moon. This is because the colder air at night holds less moisture than the warmer air in spring and summer. This means it’s easier to get sharper images when shooting at long focal lengths.
And as an added bonus, the shorter days mean you don’t need to stay out too late to be able to photograph the moon in the night sky.
In this tutorial we’ll show you how to photograph the moon by first planning your visit so that you know when the moon will rise in the best locations.
We will show you how to read moonrise timetables and check weather forecasts for a clear night, then head out to the countryside, away from the city lights, to find a great location.
We’ll then show you how to set up your camera to photograph the moon to capture striking lunar images.
01 Plan your shoot out in detail
The first thing you need to do is think about your image and decide whether you would like your image to feature a full or crescent moon. Both create different types of moods and are visible at varying times throughout the month. You can check moonrise times online, or download one of the many apps available for Android or iOS.
Next you’ll want to leave the city behind and venture out to the countryside to avoid light pollution spoiling your image. It’s worth remembering that it can get quite cold at night at this time of year, so make sure you dress for the weather, and don’t forget a head torch.
What’s more, one of the most useful camera accessories you’ll find for moon photography is a quality pair of fingerless gloves.
02 Use a long lens
To capture images of the moon with any reasonable detail, you’re going to want a telephoto lens – ideally 400mm or more. But, really, the longest you can go, even if it’s 200mm, will be fine.
Because the moon appears larger closer to the horizon, a long telephoto lens will magnify it even further in your frame. What’s more, the crop factor on a DSLR with an APS-C sensor, for instance, brings you closer even further, so your 400mm focal length might increase to an equivalent of 640mm, depending on the brand of camera you use.
And if you were to add a 2x extender to that mix, well, you could be shooting at an effective focal length of up to 1200mm!
However, it can be difficult to photograph the moon nearer to the horizon because you’ll encounter more ambient light and air pollution. So with this in mind, the best place to photograph the moon in the night sky is to frame it when it is halfway between the horizon and its highest point.
03 Secure your camera
If you’ve ever shot at long focal lengths on any type of camera, you’ll know that keeping your camera completely still and the subject pin-sharp is a real challenge. Add a long exposure to that, and the risk of camera shake goes right up.
For this reason, a tripod is absolutely necessary for photographing the moon in the night sky. Mount your camera on a sturdy tripod, use a remote shutter release and you’ll be in a good position to get a sharp image.
If you use a DSLR with a Mirror Lockup option, this will help reduce the chance of camera shake even more. If you really want to take every precaution, you can also use small sandbags – one on the camera and one on the lens – reduce vibrations.
A lot of experienced night photographers use what’s called a gimbal head to keep their cameras stable, but any decent tripod-and-head combination should serve you well.
04 Focus manually
Focusing to infinity isn’t really a viable option when shooting a subject as far away as the moon at night. You’ll find that there isn’t enough depth of field with a telephoto lens to fix focusing errors, especially at an aperture of f/8 which you’ll likely be shooting at.
An aperture of f/8 is a popular choice for night photographers because it affords a generous depth of field and will be close to the sharpest image quality available on most lenses.
For best results, we suggest switching to manual focus and then turning on your Live View screen. Here you can zoom in on the moon and fine tune your focus on the details on its surface.
If there’s cloud cover, though, perfecting your focus in Live View will prove difficult. Ideally, you want to photograph the moon on a cold night with low humidity for best results.
05 Use your histogram
It’s best when photographing the moon to always shoot raw files. A raw file gives you so much more flexibility to make adjustments to colours and tones and exposure, particularly if you plan to make a composite.
That said, like any night photography, any time you’re photographing the moon it will require some trial and error before you get the exposure right. A good way to speed this along is to use your camera’s histogram so you can see where highlights are overblown (make sure you turn on your highlight warning) or shadows are too dark.
06 Shoot in manual mode
Because of the trial and error involved in shooting the night sky, and how much fine tuning you’ll be doing, using your camera’s manual exposure mode is the best way to photograph the moon.
Because the moon is so bright and surrounded by so much dark, as we mention earlier, your camera’s metering system is going to have a tough time ascertaining the correct exposure on its own. It needs your help!
A good starting is setting your camera to 1/125sec at f/8, ISO 100. This will get you ‘in the ballpark’ to take a good photograph of the moon, and you can adjust from there as needed.
07 Use a fast shutter speed
You might wonder why we shot at 1/125sec. This is because even though it’s very subtle to the human eye, the moon is in motion across the night sky as you photograph it. A long exposure will only result in a sharp surrounding landscape and a blurred photograph of the moon.
So to counter the motion of the moon you’ll need to dial in a fast shutter speed.
How to photograph the moon with a phone
Smartphone cameras has come a very long way, and advancements in AI technology and stabilisation mean that you can now photograph the moon with a phone and expect good quality results.
Because you’ll likely be zooming into the sky to enlarge the moon, you’re going to want to mount your smartphone to a gimbal or mini tripod. Many phones now have excellent stabilisation and superb night modes, but shooting zoomed in at night, it’s still very difficult to keep the camera still enough to completely avoid blur.
For best results, you’ll want to shoot in your phone’s manual mode, provided it has one. Sometimes this will be indicated by a Pro mode option.
In manual mode you’ll want to set as low an ISO as possible. Then set your metering to Spot and expose for the moon. You’ll probably also want to dial in some negative exposure compensation to ensure you capture detail in the moon.
Don’t have a manual mode? No problem. Some phones, like Huawei’s P20 and Mate 20 series, have a night mode that takes a series of shots and stacks them to create a sharp, well-exposed image for both shadow and highlights.
How to photograph the moon with an 18-55mm lens
We’ll be honest: it’s not easy to photograph the moon with an 18-55mm lens. You won’t be able to take the classic close-up shot of the moon in the sky because the focal length is too short. This is because longer telephoto lenses not only have farther reach but have the effect of compressing perspective.
So objects in your background appear closer, and bigger. With an 18-55mm you won’t get that effect, and the moon will be fairly small in your frame.
But don’t fret: there are still some ways to get interesting images of the moon with your kit lens.
As well as the focal length being too short, exposure will be an obstacle for you. In the thick of night, there will be so much black sky in your frame that the moon will probably be an over-exposed white dot.
To overcome this, you’ll want to photograph the moon with an 18-55mm lens just after sunset (or before dawn) when there is still a bit of light in the sky. There will be less contrast between the sky and foreground allowing you to capture detail in both.
And because the moon will be fairly small in your frame, think about the surrounding environment and how you can include that in your composition. Maybe stage your shoot around an old cathedral or familiar landmark to give your moon shot some extra context or interest.
Shoot in manual mode and bracket your shots. Set your lowest aperture and increase your ISO (try starting at 800 and adjusting as necessary). You’ll probably need to adjust your settings until you find the right balance.
What lens do you need to photograph the moon?
You want the moon to be as big as possible in your frame to reveal that detail of its landscape. To do this you’d ideally want a telephoto lens with a focal length of 300mm or 400mm.
That said, lenses at this length can be quite expensive. You’re more likely to have a lens that reaches 200mm in your arsenal, and if this is your longest lens you should still be able to get a nice photograph of the moon.
And it’s worth noting that you shouldn’t worry too much if your long lens doesn’t have a fast aperture. The moon is so bright, that when it fills your frame you’ll be able to use an aperture of f/5.6 or even f/8.