Moon Photography

Moon Photography. The Ultimate Guide

If you've ever looked up at the night sky, seen the moon hanging large and low on the horizon and tried to take a picture with your smartphone, you'll know that moon photography isn't as easy as it might seem.

Your smartphone's wide-angle lens reduces the moon to a tiny pinpoint of light, and the photo looks nothing at all like what your eye can see.

Even if you've tried to get better results with a more serious camera, mastering the art of photographing the moon can take some time.

In this post, we're going to look at everything you need to know about how to photograph the moon properly.

We cover it all: from the best times to shoot the moon to the kind of gear you need to the best camera settings for great moon photos.

Let's dive right into the good stuff.

Phases of the Moon

The most important thing you need to know about photographing the moon is also one of the most obvious – the moon is not always visible in the night sky!

Without getting into too much astronomy, the way that the moon orbits around the Earth affects how much of the moon is illuminated by the sun at any one time, so the moon seems to appear in several different shapes known as 'phases'.

The four phases of the moon are full, waning (decreasing), new, and waxing (increasing).

The full moon phase is pretty obvious, as it's when the moon is completely illuminated by the sun and is a full complete circle, which only lasts for one night - although you can see a mostly-full moon on the day right before and right after the actual full moon.

The waning phase is when the illuminated section of the moon is growing smaller with each passing night until it reaches the new moon phase, when the moon is not illuminated at all by the sun.

After this point, it moves on to the waxing phase, growing larger and larger until it's a full moon, and then the whole cycle starts all over again.

Each phase is visible at different times depending on where you are on the planet, which can make it difficult to plan ahead.

As if that didn't make it hard enough, the moon rises and sets at different times throughout the year, sometimes even during the day! So what's a moon photographer to do?

Pro Tip: Get a Moon Phases App

Much like the astronomy app we recommended in our post about photographing the Milky Way, there are some great apps for tracking the phases of the moon based on your GPS coordinates.

My personal favorite for Android phones is the Moon Phase Pro app

It has a great high-res widget you can put on your home screen, but there are plenty of great free moon tracking apps in the Google Play and iTunes Stores .

They will all show you the current phase of the moon for your specific location, and show you a calendar of upcoming phases.

The Perfect Camera Settings

Shutter Speed

Unlike most night photography, when shooting the moon you can actually use similar shutter speeds to what you might use during the day.

It makes sense if you think about it - the moon is bright because it's actually still in sunlight even though the earth around you is in shadow, so you can shoot it as though it was during the day.

Try starting with 1/250th of a second and go from there, or see below for our pro tip about the Looney 11 Rule.

That being said, if you want to include any other elements in your scene such foreground elements, you're going to have to adjust your shutter speed to ensure that you get the exposure you're looking for there.

ISO

Since there are several ways you can go about shooting the moon, your choice of ISO depends on what you end goal is.

If you want to include stars or other elements in your shot, you might want to use a very high ISO to ensure you get a solid exposure.

If you want to shoot using the Looney 11 rule, read on to learn more.

Aperture

The biggest concern for aperture during moon photography is to ensure that you get maximum sharpness throughout the frame.

This opens up a lot of options, as most high-quality lenses only have sharpness issues at the extreme ends of their aperture range.

Stopping down from the widest aperture should be enough to give you sharp images, although some lenses have their so-called 'sweet spot' somewhere closer to f/8 or f/11.

White Balance

The color temperature of moonlight is roughly 4100K, just a little cooler than typical sunlight due to the composition of the moon's surface.

You can use that as a baseline setting in camera, but it's usually better to take your photographs in RAW so that you can adjust the white balance later.

Pro Tip: Looney 11

If you do a lot of daylight photography, you've probably heard about the 'Sunny 16' rule.

What even many photographers don't know that there is a similar rule for photographing the moon called the 'Looney 11' rule.

It works very similar to the Sunny 16 rule, except your aperture should be set to f/11 instead.

So if you set your aperture to f/11, you can shoot the moon at ISO 400 and 1/400th of a second shutter speed, or ISO 100 and 1/100th of a second. 

The thing to keep in mind when using this rule is that it only applies to the exposure of the moon itself, because it is still in direct sunlight.

Any other elements in your scene will be so underexposed that they are invisible.

If you want to create a more complex scene, you'll need to stick to our earlier advice about camera settings.

The Gear You'll Need

The Camera

Almost any camera that has a manual mode and the option to shoot RAW will work for photographing the moon.

You'll get better results with a good DSLR camera, but even a point and shoot camera with some level of optical zoom can work.

The key thing to remember if you're using a point and shoot is that you should never use digital zoom. 

All that does is simply scale up the image data, creating a very low-quality picture.

The Lens

If you've got a DSLR, your best option for photographing the moon is to use a telephoto lens with a focal length of at least 200mm, but the longer the better.

This will enable you to resolve the fine details of the moon's surface, and keep your images nice and crisp.

Shooting with a wide angle or even a normal lens will simply reduce the moon to a barely noticeable feature of the night sky, which is never a good plan!

The Tripod

As we pointed out in the Loony 11 Rule pro tip, it is possible to shoot the moon handheld without a tripod - but it seriously limits your options.

Because of that, we strongly recommend that you take a good, solid tripod with you for any moon photography shoot.

You will have plenty of flexibility when it comes to composing your shots, working with long exposures, and using other elements in your scene.

The Remote Shutter

A remote shutter is one of the best investments you can make for your DSLR, whether you're dedicated to moon photography or not.

It's especially useful for shooting the moon and other night photography where long exposures are common.

It allows you to avoid the camera shake that's caused by the action of pressing the shutter button.

If you don't have one of these handy little devices, you can try using your camera's self-timer to allow any vibrations to stop before the shutter actually fires.

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Tips and Tricks for Moon Photography

Ditch the Filters

A lot of photographers tend to keep a UV filter on the front of their lens in order to protect the front glass element.

They do this even though modern lenses have such solid UV coatings that the filter doesn't actually do much to remove extra UV.

When you're shooting the moon, you want to make sure there is as little distortion as possible, so remove any filters that you're using.

The only exception to this tip is if you're shooting the moon during the late afternoon or early morning.

In these situations using a graduated polarizing filter helps to darken the sky and make the moon more noticeable.

Preventing Camera Shake

There's a lot more to preventing camera shake than just using a tripod, although you should definitely be using one for all your night photography.

Mirror Lock Up

One of the most useful but least used features of modern DSLRs is called 'mirror lockup', which allows you to lock the viewfinder's mirror out of the way.

Normally, this mirror flips up out of the way to allow light coming through the lens to reach the sensor, and the vibration caused by that movement can cause some serious camera shake.

Locking it out of the way will prevent this, but it will also disable the optical viewfinder, so either use Live View or compose your shot before enabling the lockup.

Disable Autofocus

It's also important to disable any autofocus system and focus manually.

The motors that control the focusing elements of the lens can cause camera shake and ruin an otherwise great photograph.

This is especially true at night, since the autofocus won't have anything to lock onto and will simply cycle endlessly.

The last tip is a strange one, because it is very counterintuitive.

Camera shake is usually dramatically reduced when using an image stabilization system, but when you're using a tripod it doesn't always turn out that way.

The motors in the lens or camera try to compensate for your handholding but find nothing to compensate for, and their cycling back and forth ends up creating camera shake.

Shooting RAW

Shooting your images in RAW mode is always a good idea, no matter what your subject is, but it's especially useful when shooting the moon.

The colour temperature of the moon is close to 4100K, as we mentioned earlier.

If you shoot in RAW you'll be able to easily adjust this later on during the editing process without any loss of quality.

Shooting RAW also gives you better image quality overall, and since you might want to crop your moon photographs a bit, the higher your source image quality the more you'll be able to crop and zoom.

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Watching the Weather

The moon is beautiful all by itself, but for really dramatic moon photographs it's a good idea to include some other subject matter.

Clouds

Watch your local weather during the visible phases of the moon for a day with cloud cover, and get yourself set up for a perfect shot.

Keep an eye out for the moon breaking through the clouds, and you might even find yourself lucky enough to catch a moon-bow or lunar rainbow!

Temperature Change

Another important aspect of the weather to consider is temperature change, especially when you're shooting the moon close to the horizon.

Since you're shooting through so much atmosphere, air masses of different temperature can create a shimmering effect similar to the one you can see above pavement on a hot summer day.

This can sometimes make shooting during the height of summer or the depth of winter a better choice, since there will be less of a change in the temperature of the atmosphere after the sun goes down.

Conclusions

With these tips and tricks - and some dedicated practice - you'll be on your way to mastering moon photography in no time at all.

Once you get confident shooting the moon on a typical night, look ahead in your moon phases app to find out when the next lunar eclipse will be in your area.

Moon Photography

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About the Author Luca

Hi, I am Luca, founder and editor in chief at photographyambition.com. I am crazy about photography and I always have a camera with me. When I am not busy with my day job, enjoying my family or taking photos, I am on Photography Ambition to share what I have learnt so far.

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