The changeable and mysterious Moon is our nearest neighbor in the galaxy. Making it and its phases many a photographer’s muse! In Moon photography, it shows many faces — be it a foreboding crescent, a looming Supermoon, or a reticent New Moon.
Besides its drastically differing appearance in the night sky, the movement of the Moon itself tangibly affect our home planet and psyche. From the tides to moods and eerily-moonlit horror stories, it seems it’s always at the back of our minds.
However, if you’re planning on putting it front and center of your trusted camera, you’re in the right place. In this post, I’ll discuss the various eccentricities of lunar photography — including the ideal gear, settings, and techniques to use.
Moon Phase Considerations
When planning to photograph the Moon, it’s important to understand its cycles. The Moon follows a specific pattern — otherwise known as Moon phases — over the course of each month. Typically, an entire Moon phase cycle lasts 29.5 days. Comprising the New and Full Moon, as well as various degrees of the waxing and waning Moon.
On each night, it will either wax (enlarge) or wane (shrink), depending on whether it’s building into a Full or receding into a New Moon. The New Moon is called so because it’s the phase when the Moon reflects no light from the Sun, becoming “invisible” in the night sky — at least, to the human eye. In contrast, the Full Moon is when its face catches all of the Sun, appearing perfectly bright and round.
Other commonly-known phases of the Moon include:
- Gibbous: when more than half of the Moon is lit up, but less than half of it is still dark.
- Quarter: when exactly half of the Earthward face of the moon is illuminated. And the other half isn’t, such as the First Quarter Moon.
- Crescent: when a sliver (less than half) of the Moon is lit up, and the rest is dark. An interesting phase, the crescent Moon looks rather eery — just like in the photo I took below.
Pro Tip: Use a Moon phase calendar or app to track Moon position and phases, including New, gibbous, crescent, and Full Moon dates. Plus, other notable unique phenomena, such as a total lunar eclipse, Blood Moon, Supermoon, Blue Moon, Earthshine, and its conjunctions with notable celestial bodies.
What Time is Best for Full Moon Photography?
Nighttime and twilight – from dusk until early morning — is the best time to capture the Full Moon. The Moon appearing from the horizon just as the colorful sunrise shades fade looks stunning — as well as when the bright moon appears all lit up in the dark night sky. However, you can also play around with various light scenarios, including golden hour and daylight, to capture stunning images of the Full Moon.
Can the Whole Moon be Photographed?
No, because of the Moon’s unique synchronized rotation with the Earth, only one side of it’s ever visible to us. During most of a lunar month, a part of or most of this particular face of the Moon will also be in darkness. On or nearing Full Moon is the best time to capture the full face of the Moon, as this is the time when it’s entirely — or almost entirely — illuminated.
Do Moon Phases Differ in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres?
The Moon follows the same waxing and waning pattern in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. However, it can look very different — in terms of the Moon’s position, shade, size, brightness, and intensity — depending on where in the world you’re viewing it.
How to Photograph Lunar and Solar Eclipses
When a solar eclipse occurs, it lasts only a few minutes, while a total lunar eclipse can last up to a few hours. Featuring varying stages of “eclipse,” both are similar to the different Moon phases — but jammed into a tighter window of time!
As such, lighting conditions vary drastically from one stage of a lunar or solar eclipse to the next. Necessitating a smart use of time and adjustment of your camera settings. A solar filter is also a must for solar eclipses, as the contrasting light can destroy your exposure.
What is the Difference Between a Solar and Lunar Eclipse?
A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon covers the Sun, obscuring it and any daylight temporarily. In contrast, a lunar eclipse happens when the Earth obscures the Sun from the Moon, casting a shadow that turns it red. Hence why lunar eclipses are often called “Blood Moons.” They are usually visible only at night, whereas solar eclipses can be seen only during the day.
How to Capture Earthshine on the Moon
Earthshine is a unique phenomenon whereby the dark side of the Moon is also visible to the human eye — albeit a little less bright. It occurs when the dark side of the Moon reflects light from the Earth. Naturally, Earthshine is a worthwhile phenomenon to capture. It usually occurs just after the New Moon, when it’s still a crescent.
Photographers can also capture the Moon when it’s not visible to the human eye by combining two separate exposures. One long exposure of the dark side of the Moon and one regular photo of the Moon. The technique is called double exposure photography.
The Best Camera Equipment for Moon Photography
Additional equipment is needed to ace your Moon photography, including avoiding camera shake and achieving a clean, close-up shot of the Moon.
A Full Frame Camera
Mirrorless or DSLR camera — a full-frame body is preferred. Since full-frame cameras pack a larger sensor than your run-of-the-mill digital camera, they’re better at capturing detail. A useful capability when photographing the far-off Moon and other hard-to-see astronomical phenomena and bodies!
A Super Telephoto Lens or Long Zoom Lens
Since the Moon is very far away, being able to zoom in on it is vital, necessitating the use of a long telephoto lens or long-zoom lens. Like the Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III lens, I used to snap the close-up of the Moon below.
Hence why, interchangeable lens cameras are also a must for Moon photography, as these lenses don’t usually come in stock! Super-telephoto lenses (400mm+ focal length), in particular, are of value when taking Moon pictures.
Thanks to the longer focal lengths, you’ll be able to better capture both the Moon and the lunar surface, as well. The Moon’s surface is full of texture and detail that a stock lens will probably be unable to do justice. Though, some photographers prefer to use wide-angle lenses to capture images of the Moon. Since the wider field of depth can fit in more of the vast night sky.
Do you need to upgrade your lens setup? Here are our top picks for night photos!
Camera shake is a reality — particularly when using a telephoto lens and longer shutter speeds or long exposure techniques. As such, it’s necessary to pack a sturdy tripod (preferably with a ball head attachment or similar). Plus, other worthwhile image stabilization equipment for your DSLR or mirrorless camera.
Activating the shutter delay setting or mirror lock-up feature (MLU) on your camera is advised for reducing camera shake. Or, you can use a remote shutter release cable or app to avoid camera shake.
A Light Meter
Photographing an object as bright as the Moon on a background as dark as the night sky is the real art of lunar photography. However, one can “cheat” — particularly by using specialized equipment like a light meter to fine-tune your exposure settings.
Light or exposure meters read the ambient light and use this information to calculate the optimum exposure settings for you — in particular, shutter speed, f-stop (aperture), and ISO. So, you can use this information to produce a nicely exposed photo every time. No messing with camera settings, taking multiple images, or editing required!
A Telescope, T-Ring & Telescope Adapter
Sometimes, a telephoto lens is not sufficient to capture astronomical bodies and phenomena — at least, as close-up or accurately as a photographer may require. That’s why many professional astrophotographers actually go one step further, attaching their camera body directly to a proper telescope — just like I did when photographing the Supermoon pictured below in Chiang Mai.
Doing so enables them to capture a sharp image of what they see through the viewfinder in film or images. In fact, the telescope acts much like telephoto and super telephoto lenses — but with a deeper depth of field and accuracy than many, especially if it is a professional astronomy telescope. You can use a compatible T-Ring and adapter to attach your camera body to your telescope.
The Ideal Moon Photography Camera Settings
As with night sky photography, a higher ISO, slower shutter speeds, and manual focus are important with Moon photography. However, since the Moon can be quite bright, you’ll likely need to use slightly different settings to accommodate its brightness — at least if you don’t want to end up with an over-exposed Moon image!
When selecting camera modes for moon photography, manual mode is your best bet. It allows you to fully adjust all of your settings — including focal length, exposure, shutter speed, and aperture. So, you can get the best results when photographing the Moon, which can be a rather tricky subject to capture!
Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO
When the moon rises, it does so very fast — and any accompanying twilight or golden hour shades can disappear just as fast. All the changes can make choosing the right Moon photography settings a challenge.
However, there are some basic guidelines to follow:
- Shutter speed: To get a sharp moon image, you’ll need to shoot at a fast shutter speed — around 1/60 to 1/125 or faster. Only shoot at slow shutter speeds then this to capture a dimmer Moon, Earthshine, foreground, or long-exposure images.
- ISO: start low at 100 and move up to 800 for night photography, if necessary. Ideally, you want to avoid creating too much noise, which happens at higher ISOs.
- Aperture: You want to get as much of the lunar surface in focus as possible while reducing the likelihood of over-exposure. So, avoid shooting wide open. Instead, aim for a narrower aperture of around f/9 or higher to achieve sharp images.
- White balance: since the Moon is white, white balance drastically affects its color in photos. To capture a whiter or bluer Moon, set your white balance cooler (7000K<) — and vice versa (>4000K) for a warmer effect — or neutral (4000-7000K) for mid-range shades.
The examples below illustrate the effect white balance had on my photographs of the Moon conjunct with a planet:
Pro Tip: Use the Looney 11 rule to adjust your core camera settings. Essentially, adjust your shutter speed and ISO according to your aperture. For example, for f/11, select 100 ISO and 1/100th second shutter speed. For f/12, select 200 ISO and 1/200th second shutter speed — and so forth.
Shoot in RAW
We recommend shooting in RAW and JPEG if the option is available on your camera. Shooting in RAW will give you the option to more accurately and effectively edit your exposure settings. When photographing the Moon in RAW, you’re recording ALL of the image data from your camera’s sensor.
So, you can adjust more — including those all-important exposure, contrast, shadow, and highlight settings. As such, making adjustments in RAW will help you bring out the stunning detail in your photos, including the Moon’s surface.
Zoom in When You Photograph the Moon
Once you’ve decided on a suitable time to snap Moon picture after Moon picture, the technique is pretty straightforward. You’ll need a 300mm or longer telephoto lens or a longer super telephoto lens to adequately zoom in on and frame the Moon. But remember to leave enough clearance around to get the Moon framed and allow for cropping later on.
Manual Focus on Just the Moon
Manually focusing using your lens’ focus ring is generally the best choice when taking Moon pictures, as your camera sensor can struggle to focus properly in low light conditions. However, you can use set your lens to Autofocus, too — just make sure to use one AF point and aim it directly at the Moon.
Ideally, settle on a focal length that balances clarity with zoom. Most importantly, make sure the surface of the Moon is in focus — especially in close-up moon images. You can double-check this factor by taking test images and previewing them close-up by zooming in.
Why May You Not be Able to Photograph the Moon?
If the Moon isn’t visible in the sky — be it because it’s not risen yet or at the New Moon phase — you won’t be able to photograph it. However, if it’s visible, other obstacles may be obscuring it — like in the photo I took below on a cloudy day. Or you could be using the wrong camera settings to capture it adequately.
4 Moon Photography & Composition Tips
The best part about Moon photography is the variety of creative compositions possible — whether it be a landscape photo or a high-magnification close-up of the Moon taken through a telescope. Here are some composition tips to get you started!
1. Photograph Just the Moon
The Moon itself is quite mesmerizing, alone in the night sky. Photographing only the Moon is perfectly adequate — but best done when it’s at an interesting phase, larger than usual, or accompanied by an interesting sky. No matter how you photograph your Moon shots, be sure to pack a long lens, as it will help you zoom in to get all the detail.
2. Juxtapose the Moon With Interesting Foreground Objects
Incorporating foreground elements in your Moon compositions is a surefire way to make them unique. You can even use a slow shutter speed to photograph darker foreground objects and landscapes. Then stack these images with photographs of the bright Moon taken at faster shutter speeds.
3. Prevent Camera Condensation When You Photograph the Moon
If you live in an area where temperatures drop close to freezing in the evening, you should be concerned about condensation. Moisture in your camera, viewfinder, lens, and rear screen can ruin your Moon shots — and potentially damage your equipment. Minimize the probability of condensation by acclimatizing your camera and equipment gradually. You can do so by keeping it in its camera bag (or even a ziplock bag inside of it) out in the cold for a few hours.
4. Edit Your Moon Photos
A little post-production editing never harmed anyone. In fact, the Moon features in many edited images — perhaps, not least, because of its symbological associations. So do try editing your Moon pictures beyond the standard white balance, contrast, texture, and exposure settings. For example, you can crop your Moon into various scenarios or add details to your Moon photos for the best effect.
Not sure where to start? Try out some of these top free and paid editing software programs for yourself.
Moon Photography: The Ins and Outs
Photography of the Moon falls under astrophotography – along with the photography of other celestial bodies and movements. Though it is sometimes also labeled lunar photography instead of Moon photography.
Be it a Full Moon photo or the Moon framed against a landscape, or an interesting scene, this celestial body makes for an excellent subject. However, the distance between the Earth and the Moon relative to that of other astronomical bodies makes it somewhat different to photograph.
Hopefully, this post helped unveil some of the mysteries of photographing the Moon compared to other astrophotography subjects. Just remember, Moon photography is a lot like the night sky and Milky Way photography — except that you don’t need to shoot at slow shutter speeds or avoid a long focal length. In fact, both these techniques are beneficial for Moon photography!