How to photograph the moon

If you're new to astro-photography and just want to capture a great photograph of the moon, then this is the guide for you. I'll show you exactly how to photograph the moon with a DLSR and a long lens. No telescopes required. 


The moon. Photographed with a 400 mm lens on a Nikon D800.

What equipment do I need for moon photography?

  • A DSLR or Bridge camera with manual exposure.
  • A long lens - 300mm minimum, 500mm or more preferred.  
  • A sturdy tripod.
  • A camera remote, or self-timer mode.

Use a DSLR camera that has manual exposure (M mode). Using manual mode will allow you to fine tune the photograph and prevent your camera from over-exposing the moon. A camera with at least 16 megapixels is the minimum recommendation, and if you have 24 megapixels or more you'll be able to capture an amazing amount of detail. 

The moon is over 250,000 miles away and is small enough in the sky to cover with your thumb nail at arms length. So to capture a detailed photo you'll need a long lens. The longer the better.

With such a long lens, it's very unlikely you'll be able to get a hand-held sharp photo, so a sturdy tripod is a must. Check the weight of your camera and lens combined and ensure your tripod is rated to handle at least that weight.


Step 1. Plan ahead

Sometimes it can be a last minute decision to dash out with your camera and take a great lunar photo, but planning can increase your chances of getting a perfect moon photograph.

Know the moon phases and where the moon will be visible.

There are some great websites and apps that can provide this information. moonconnection.com is a great website that shows the phases of the moon by date.  Another great website and app is The Photographers Ephemeris - this shows the location and elevation of the sun and moon at any time and place, on an interactive map. 

Check the weather forecast.

These things can never be one hundred percent reliable, but it'll give you a head start on your plans. From experience, it's always a great idea to plan a moon watching session around the weather. Obviously a clear night is ideal.

Dress warm!

Clear nights can be cold. In fact, the colder it is, the clearer the sky is likely to be. Warm air contains moisture, and creates a haze which in turn will lower the sharpness and contrast in your photograph. Dress appropriately for the weather.

Check your equipment.

Charge your camera battery, find your tripod head, clean your lens, and have a blank memory card in your camera. 


Step 2. Go somewhere dark - away from bright lights

Bright lights can cause glare and haze on your photograph, washing out the subtle details on the lunar surface and causing low contrast. Remember to stay safe - ensure someone knows where you are, and carry a light. 


Step 3. Use a tripod and long lens

Facing the moon, set up your tripod ensuring it is very secure and will not move. 
Attach your longest lens - 300 mm or greater is preferred. 
Mount your camera to the tripod securely, again making sure it will not move on it's own.
Centre the moon in your viewfinder, and zoom all the way in. You may have to adjust the tripod occasionally as the moon will slowly move across your frame.


Step 4: Focus using 'live view'

Most DSLR cameras have 'live view' - the ability to see the live image on the back screen of the camera. By using live view, and zooming all the way in on the image, you'll be able to see the edges of the moon and it's mountains. Set your focus point to one of these prominent features, let auto-focus do it's thing, then turn off auto-focus and manually adjust until you have the sharpest image possible and leave it there.


Step 5: Exposure settings for moon photography - the looney 11 rule

Similar to daylight photography's sunny 16 rule, the loony 11 rule can be used to judge the exposure for photographing the lunar surface.
The loony 11 rule states that at an aperture of f/11, set your shutter speed to [the reciprocal] of the ISO setting.
Setting your aperture to f/11, and your ISO to 100, you would need a shutter speed of 1/100th second. 
If this is too slow to stop the blur from the moons movement with very long focal lengths you can raise your ISO to 200, and your shutter speed to 1/200th second.


Step 6: Use self-timer or a remote

If you have a remote for your camera, it's time to use it. If not, then activate the timer on your camera, about 10 seconds should be ok. This will allow time for the camera to stop moving after the shutter is pressed. You'll notice when focusing your image that the slightest touch on your camera will cause the image to wobble and blur. Using a remote, or timer solves this problem. 


Cropping the photograph too far can cause soft results. 

Step 7: Crop and Edit

Usually very little editing is required, but unless you used a telescope you'll notice that your moon still looks quite small on your photo. Using an editing application, you should be able to crop your photo just enough to fill more of the frame, then adjust the contrast and sharpness slightly to bring out that amazing lunar detail. 

Popular image editing software includes Adobe Photoshop & Lightroom, or you could use Gimp (free) to edit your photo or any of many other capable photo editing applications. 

Take care not to crop too much though as you'll lose quality.
You may also want to use your application to slightly sharpen the image after the crop.  
 



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