How to photograph the moon like a Pro - 7 steps

So, on Wednesday night I took this awesome photo of the moon just for fun. I posted it on Instagram and received a great response of people asking how I did it, it was even mistaken for a telescope photo.  Living in the north west of the UK, great moon photography opportunities occur once in a blue moon... actually did you know that 'blue moons' are real? I'll explain a little later... [Queue the song] .. Anyway, I digress. Here's how to photograph the moon.

Wednesday night's moon, shot on 20th January 2016 in Preston, Lancashire. Equipment: Nikon D800 (36 Megapixels), Sigma 135 - 400mm Lens. Cropped.

What equipment do I need for moon photography?

  • A camera with adjustable exposure (Manual mode).
  • A long lens - 300mm equivalent minimum, 500mm or more preferred.  
  • A sturdy tripod.

Since the moon is very bright, and the night sky is very dark, it is not advisable to use automatic exposure. Use a camera that has manual exposure (M mode, or Pro). Taking moon photos is one occasion that having more megapixels will help. The more pixels your camera has, the more detail you can get, and the bigger you can crop your moon after the photo is taken. 

The moon is over 250,000 miles away and is small enough in the sky to cover with your thumb nail at arms length. That's a very small. So to capture a detailed photo you'll need a camera with a long lens or zoom. The longer the better. If you have a camera with more megapixels on the sensor you'll be able to use a shorter lens and crop the image more, or have even more detail from a long lens. For those who have a telescope (I don't), you can buy an adaptor for your camera to achieve even more impressive results.

With such a long lens, it's very unlikely you'll be able to get a sharp photo hand-held, so a tripod is a must. With tripods you get what you pay for. For most normal types of photography, almost any will do, however when photographing at such extreme zooms, or with long exposures (astrophotography) a sturdy tripod will be needed. Check the weight of your camera and lens against the allowed weight of the tripod to avoid any unwanted drooping during your shots.

Plan your moon photograph

Sometimes it can be a spur of the moment decision to dash out with your camera and take a great lunar photo, but for most of us who don't have the ideal conditions, some planning is required. You'll need to consider a few important things before rushing out. Oh and remember the blue moon? - Well a blue moon is the second full moon when two appear in a single calendar month. 

For a great detailed moon photo, you'll need to go somewhere dark. Street and house lights will cause glare and wash out some of the more subtle details that you'll need for an amazing photo. There's no need to go to extremes, although the results will be better in much darker skies. I shot my photo in my back garden, sheltered from the street lights by trees, and a few miles outside of the city. 

Knowing when and where the moon will be in the ideal location is a definite bonus to your planning. I doubt you'd be happy travelling out to the countryside with your equipment, on a night where the moon isn't visible. If you're looking for a full moon, this also is essential. 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. 

Next you'll need to 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. Find a spot that affords you the longest viewing time to ensure you have as many opportunities to photograph between the clouds as possible. 

Dress warm! Clear nights are cold. In fact, the colder it is, the clearer the sky is likely to be. Warm air contains moisture, and creates a haze.

Last but by no means least - Charge your camera battery [Beth] and pop a blank memory card in your camera. 

How do I take a photograph of the moon?

I'm not going to do what all the other guides do and give you specific settings that are guaranteed to work. Why? Because they are not guaranteed to work. What I am going to do, is tell you what I know does work, so you can find those settings for yourself. Sounds good? Yes, let's continue. 

Step 1: Set up your camera

Facing the moon set up your tripod ensuring it's very secure and will not move. 
Mount your camera to the tripod, securely. Again, making sure it will not move on it's own.
Attach your longest lens - 300mm or greater is preferred. If your camera has a fixed lens, then any superzoom will work fine. 30x or more is a good guide. 
Centre the moon in your viewfinder, and zoom all the way in. 

Step 2: Focus and Exposure

I've put these together in step two as these can be a tricky point. Most cameras have live view - that is, the ability to see the viewfinder image on the back screen of the camera, however not all cameras can preview the exposure until you take the photo. This can make fine tuning focus difficult. I found however that by using live view, and zooming right in on the image, you'll be able to see the edges of the moon and it's mountains even if the image is overexposed. Use these to adjust focus for the best sharpness. Then set your exposure to get the very best detail out of your moon. 

It's worth mentioning that the moon, being lit by the sun, has a similar brightness to a landscape on a bight sunny day. If you have ISO control, set it to 100 or it's base value (lowest native ISO value) as this will give you less noise in your image and the best detail.
Close your aperture (f number) to somewhere around 11 or more. My 400mm lens goes all the way to f32 so I chose somewhere around the upper middle at f20. This will give you a sharper image. Going too high will loose this sharpness as diffraction becomes an issue so stay around the upper middle of the lenses range. 
Lastly adjust your shutter speed  until you have the most detail. Start at around 1/100th second, take a photo, and adjust from there. 

Step 3: Take your moon photo

Now that you've got your composition, exposure, and focus just right, lets take that super sharp photo. 
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. We do this to allow 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. 

Step 4: Edit your photo

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 a little and adjust the contrast slightly to bring out that amazing luna detail. 

I used adobe Lightroom for the above photo, but you could use Gimp (free) to edit your photo, or Adobe Photoshop, Paintshop Pro, or any other similar application. 

Take care not to crop too much though as you'll introduce pixelation, and you may want to use your application to slightly sharpen the image after the crop.  The amount you can crop will depend on the number of megapixels in the photo. I had 36 megapixels to use, but I've done similar on just 16 in the past, with a 300mm lens see below.
 

This is an older photo of the moon taken in 2012. I shot this at just 300mm on a 16 Megapixel Sony A35.
The detail isn't quite as extreme, but the results are still worth the effort. Be mindful of how far you crop in.
If you can't get a close up crop without loosing too much detail, consider using the moon as a part of a landscape or larger scene. 

Summary

Photographing the moon isn't something that only a professional can do. With some care, and a little help from a good long zoom lens, anyone can take a brilliant moonscape photo. 

How do I take a photograph of the moon?

  1. Plan ahead - check the moon times and location, check the weather, charge batteries, check your card, and dress warm.
  2. Use a camera with manual exposure, and a long lens. 30x Zoom, or 300mm or more is best.
  3. Place the camera on a sturdy tripod and ensure it does not move by itself.
  4. Zoom all the way in on the moon, and focus on the edges around the moon until you see the peaks and valleys.
  5. Expose for daytime - use a high f number (around f8 - to f11), and adjust your shutter speed starting at 1/100th sec.
  6. Use a remote control or timer to photograph hands free. This will avoid camera movement causing blur.
  7. Crop your photo in a photo editing application. 

There's a full moon every 27 days, so you'll be practising very soon. Happy shooting!

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