One of the first words I learned how to say was, “Moon.” All of my life, I have been fascinated by our natural satellite and I have been photographing it for as long as I have had a camera. My photos have gotten better over the years, but I still search for the perfect photo of the moon. Here are some tips and thoughts for your own lunar photography.
Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp
1. Plan Your Shot
There are two basic types of lunar photography:
1. the moon is the main (or only) object in the image,
2. the moon is an element of a landscape image.
For the first, the main planning you will have to do is know the weather and the phase of the moon and have the right gear. (More on gear later.)
For the second, you need to engage in more extensive planning. Where do you envision the moon in your shot? When is it rising or setting? Again, what phase is it in? There is software, websites, and mobile applications that can help you track the moon’s position at a given location. Sometimes you may stumble on a lucky shot, but there are rewards for being prepared and planning an epic landscape featuring the moon overhead.
2. Moon Phases
The majestic full moon is what grabs most people’s attention. Unfortunately, the full moon makes for the most boring lunar photos. Why? Because the entire disc of the moon is illuminated, you get a relatively low-contrast white disc overhead. When waxing toward a full moon, or waning following one, the partially illuminated moon reveals its wonderful texture of craters and their shadows. If you want to capture a “full moon,” photographically speaking, you are better off the night before or the night after the true full moon.
Gibbous, quarter, and crescent moons all have their places in the world of photography and they can all be visually interesting and engaging. Don’t limit yourself only to when the moon is full (or near full). One thing to note: A small crescent moon can be difficult to photograph due to the smaller reflecting visible surface area of the satellite. Two things are working in the photographer’s favor: 1) the sky is brighter when the crescent moon is overhead and, 2) today’s digital cameras are getting better and better, with high ISO images allowing faster shutter speeds that will help reduce motion blur and keep the crescent moon sharp.
Want to learn more about the various moon phases? Be sure to check out our detailed article on moon phases and full moon names.
3. Moon Position
The position of the moon overhead is something to consider. If you are only photographing the moon, you’ll have a better chance at a sharp photo when it’s well above the horizon. This is because when the moon is lower on the horizon, the light it reflects must travel through greater distances of Earth’s atmosphere. Of course, if the moon is an element in your landscape photo, its position is critical to your image, regardless of its distance above the horizon.
Clear nights are preferred by many photographers. But, on nights with scattered clouds, or thin overcast layers, do not be deterred from attempting to photograph the moon. There are times when cloudy skies can part or be penetrated by the moon and lead to great photographic opportunities.
5. Atmospheric Turbulence
There are nights that, at first glance look crystal clear, but on closer inspection, are not. Air is not uniform in density. Because of this, we get twinkling stars overhead. That twinkling is caused by atmospheric turbulence and it can turn any ground-based lunar image into a not-so-sharp rendition of the moon (see shaded section at the end of the article).
When photographing the moon alone in the sky, the natural tendency is to center the moon in the image. If you dare, try to mix things up. Center the moon’s shadow if photographing a crescent moon. Use the Rule of Thirds. Rotate a quarter moon 90 degrees. As passengers on Spaceship Earth, we are used to the moon having a certain look and perspective. As a photographic artist, you are not restricted to that perspective.
7. Lens Choice
If you are shooting the moon as part of a landscape, your lens focal length will be determined by what portions of the landscape you want in the frame. With a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera, the moon’s size in the photograph will resemble, more or less, what your eye sees in real life—it will be fairly small. When you go with a wide-angle lens, the moon will appear smaller in the frame.
If you are shooting the moon alone, you can get pretty good results with a 200mm or 300mm lens, but to really fill the frame, you will likely want an even longer telephoto lens or you can use a teleconverter to extend a lens you already own.
With modern image-stabilization lenses, coupled with a fast shutter speed and noiseless higher ISO performance, it isn’t unreasonable to take a handheld photograph of a bright moon with a 300mm lens—or longer. Photographers using image-stabilized 2000mm super-zoom cameras have captured amazing handheld images of the moon.
Minus some steady hands and some electronic luck, you will want to photograph the moon from a steady tripod to get the best results.
9. Mirror Lock-Up and Remote Release
When photographing the moon through long telephoto lenses, any amount of movement can soften the image. Therefore, use a remote shutter release (wired or wireless) and, on an SLR camera, use mirror lock-up to minimize vibrations.
There are no hard and fast rules for exposure for the moon because there are many variables. Some charts provide a baseline, but be ready to adjust as you work with your heavenly model above.
ISO Lets start here. When photographing a gibbous, quarter, or even a larger crescent moon in the sky by itself, there is often enough reflected sunlight to allow you to shoot at your camera’s native ISO. Even though you will likely be photographing the moon at night, remember that it is a relatively bright object and will not require higher and noisier ISO settings. More extreme crescent moons may require an ISO bump, as will handheld lunar photography.
For moon-in-landscape photos, you may need to adjust your ISO to help maintain a certain aperture or shutter speed.
Aperture Sharpness is the name of the game when photographing the moon. Because of this, shoot your lens at its sweet-spot aperture and adjust shutter speed and then, ISO as needed. Shooting wide open may make the moon softer, as will diffraction from stopping the aperture down too much. Shoot in the sweet spot for whatever lens you are using.
If the moon is a part of a landscape, and you need shallow depth of field, by all means, shoot with wide apertures, but know the moon will not be sharp in those images.
Shutter Speed Short shutter speeds are used to freeze action. The moon orbits the Earth at approximately 2,290 miles per hour. That is fast. Luckily, because it is a mean distance of 238,855 miles, it doesn’t streak overhead at more than three times the speed of sound. However, it is moving, and shooting with a slow shutter speed will cause the moon to blur in your images. A good rule of thumb is to keep your shutter speed at a 1/125-second minimum.
When you point the camera skyward to catch the moon, depending on the metering mode selected, the camera is going to take the inky black of space into account when exposing your image. You want to expose for only the moon because it doesn’t matter if the blackness of outer space remains black in your frame. Therefore, it is best to use center-weighted or spot metering to tell the camera to expose only for that really bright section of the frame.
Guess what? This is usually a part of lunar photography that isn’t challenging at all because the moon is bright and modern autofocus systems should have no problem locking good focus on the moon. For manual focus, use electronic focus guides, viewfinder prisms, and/or live view and focus peaking.
13. Dynamic Range
When shooting at night, the moon may very well be the brightest object in the frame. If you are including landscape in your image, it will be relatively much, much darker than the moon. This will make it difficult to properly expose the moon and still retain some detail in the landscape. This is why silhouetted landscapes are prevalent in images where the moon shows contrast and definition. The dynamic range of digital cameras is getting better all the time, but many lunar photographers use composite images, or allow the moon to go pure white to show the foreground.
Regardless of the type of moon photos (alone or landscape), you may want to try bracketing your exposures. Digital photography gives you the opportunity to take “free” photographs, so when you are photographing the moon, shoot a lot and shoot some more. In post processing, you will find that some photos are sharper than others taken with identical settings, due to atmospheric interference and other factors. Bracket or adjust your exposure to see if you get better results at different apertures or shutter speeds.
My grandmother used to call it “Todd’s Moon,” but I will gladly share it with you. What other tips and techniques do you have for photographing the moon? Tell us in the Comments section, below!
Here is my $0.02 on sharpness of solar, astronomical, and lunar images:
The sun is a mean distance of approximately 93 million miles away and the moon is a mean distance of 238,855 miles away. Neither the moon’s cratered surface nor the sun’s explosive surface make them perfectly smooth spheres.
When I pixel-split my solar images, be it the ones captured with a sharp Nikon 300mm f/4, a sharp Leica APO-Televid 77 spotting scope, or any other optic, regardless of whether I am using a glass or metal-type solar filter, the sun is only, at its best, "kind of" sharp.
The same applies to images of the moon. I get sharp images, but never as sharp as I really, really want to get.
This got me thinking.
When you photograph something outside of our atmosphere, there is a fair amount of air between you and the subject. The thickness of Earth’s atmosphere is approximately 300 miles, with most of the dense air in the lower altitudes (obviously). Light is transmitted from the sun (or stars) or reflected from the moon (and planets) and it travels through the vacuum of space until it reaches earth. Once it arrives in the atmosphere, all your sharpness bets are off.
If you took a photo of a building, mountain, or person miles and miles away, especially on a hazy day, you probably wouldn't really expect a super-sharp image, right? Now, think about an image of something captured on the far side of dozens of miles of air. Sharp? Probably not.
So, if you are wondering what lens or filter is the sharpest to photograph distant things, or if you are wondering why your lunar craters or sunspots are not tack-sharp, even though you spent a ton of money on a super-sharp lens, just be grateful that earth has a protective shield around it that gives us air to breath and protects us from the harshness of outer space. And, also remember that there is a reason they try to put telescopes in dry places at high altitudes—or in orbit above the atmosphere!
For more tips and interesting facts about the moon, please check these articles:
Superzoom the Moon with These 10 Tips
22 Tips for Photographing a Lunar Eclipse
Take a 5-Minute, 4K, Virtual Tour of the Moon, Produced by NASA
Just stumbled across this - retired recently to Portugal and am starting my photography again and wanted to see if I could take better moon shots. I got one clear crater crescent shot years ago very early in the morning in Maui and wanted to see how to do that here. After reading the article I used timeanddate.com to find out what phase the moon was back in 2014 when I took the shot. You can use that site to document the shots you've already taken. For example, in Maui on 2.23.14 at 06:52 the altitude of the moon was 49 degrees and the heading was 170 S. The moonrise that day was 01:37 110ESE and the moonset was 13:01 249WSW. This guide is amazing - thank you so much including all the commenters as well :)
Luckily the same moon that rises over Maui is the exact same one that travels over Portugal! :)
timeanddate.com is an amazing website. I visit it often!
Thanks for sharing, reading, and thanks for the kind words!
Great planning guide! Like you I also have been looking at the moon and capturing. You hit the SS right 125 but add the ISO is also 125 SS/ISO 125. Manual focus then set f/ at f/8 to f/11 for fine focus. A key to remember is ISO/SS should stay the same, a faster SS but also raise ISO to the same number. I have used a 10, 12, 24, 50, 200, 600 and even 2x teleconverter and in APS-C mode to get a full frame 1800mm and did hand held except the 1800 I used the roof of my car as support. Also hit on the nose is how fast it travels, the bigger the image the more movement "ring" on the sides even at 600mm, a reason for increasing SS (also ISO). A tracker should be used also because it will be like tracking a bird in flight but on a arc across the sky, a lot tripod adjusting. I started doing the moon with my T2i but wanted the foreground to be bright but an infocus moon so I used the Promote Control to do bracketing or HDR. Went mirrorless and a camera that had 5 @ +/- 3ev, setting ISO/SS 125 at f/8 and start at SS .5, the first image is focused/ sharp moon in black sky and the last 30s image is bright and sharp of foreground. The problem is ghosting some programs are good some not, I could say here but not the place, but used the Nik Collection way back because you could pick a center frame and other options, now part of DxO. Today people just shoot a night scene with blown out moon and blend a moon in, like PS but long ago PS was $800+ about every two years with updates so some of us had to do some workarounds. The main takeaway is the moon wobbles and the lower belly button (crater) moves side to side and every night is in a different place even from rise to set, so a stock images is not the best to use. Like doing an eclipse of 5 hours every image from start to finish the crater will be in a different place and even the time of year, so fakes are easy to see. There is a lot of skill and time sometimes cold in moon captures some will notice your skills!!!
Great stuff! Thank you for reading and sharing your lunar photography experiences!
I don't miss those days of the $800 software!
Great article! One of the best I've read. And the comments are really eye-opening and educational.
I did some moon photography a while ago, and I was never really satisfied. The night sky in my neck of the woods is often cloudy, so my opportunities are a bit limited. But when the time comes again, I'm going to heed the many suggestions everyone has commented on.
The last time I tried this, I had just bought a big 100-400mm zoom lens. And because I had to aim my rig sort of vertically, I used a right-angle viewfinder to accommodate the angled position. I had everything mounted on my modest tripod, and I was feeling pretty smug, puffing out my chest, thinking I was going to be the next Ansel Adams.
Lo and behold, all that gear on top of the tripod started to tip it over! Duh! I had the weight of all this stuff positioned over the open spot between two legs on the tripod! I did catch it all before it hit the ground, and all I had to do was rotate the pod a bit to get all the weight over one leg. Problem solved! All my companions were laughing like crazy; somehow, I didn't think it was very funny! I felt like Alfred E. Neuman; not Ansel Adams!
So be careful of how you arrange your gear! Maybe not as important as exposure, metering etc. But you've been warned!
Thank you so much for the kind words!
Great advice there! Yep, big lenses and cameras can make tripods top-heavy! Another trick you can do is, if your tripod is so equipped, hang your camera bag from a hook at the bottom of the center column to lower the CG a bit more.
Have you re-tried lunar photos? And, have you made some keepers?
A full moon is about the size of the nail on your pinky finger if you hold your arm straight out. You'd need a 2350mm lens to get the edge of the moon to touch the edge of your frame (with a FF camera)
One small correction, yea the moon is orbiting along at a good speed, but 90% of it's movement can be blamed on the photographer. Or at least the planet he/she is standing on. The rotation of the Earth causes most of the apparent movement. if you have a star tracker, that will steady up the moon a great deal, even though it's moving in front of those stars.
Thanks for the kind words and the stats!
Many star trackers have a solar and lunar tracking speed mode, but, in my experience, you still want to have a pretty good shutter speed to "freeze" the action.
Thanks for reading! Happy shooting!
Great article. I'm currently trying to photograph the moon, and I'm using an analog Nikon and I'm spotmetering it with a Pentax spotmeter.
It gives about 10 EV and I was wondering if this could be correct (for a waning gibbeous moon)? Also, where does a measurement of the moon fall in the zone system? Is this zone V? Is there anyone who has an idea about this?
10EV sounds pretty accurate to me, but the truth will be in the print, I guess, right?
Regarding Zone System and the moon, I have never researched that, but will see what I can find.
I am sure there are some detailed exposure charts for lunar photography on the web and another thing you might do is take a deeper dive into a site like Flickr where you can see different images and (usually) detailed metadata on exposure.
Interestingly, I get much faster shutter speeds photographing the moon with my f/5 astrograph than I do with a telephoto lens at f/4, so take the data from others with a grain of salt!
Keep on shooting film and let me know if you have more questions! I am curious what lens and camera you are using as well!
This is great. Love how you got the shot in Watch Hill. I grew up across the river in Pawcatuck. Going back home for shooting next month.
Thank you for the kind words! I am in Westerly now and can sometimes be found shooting in the dark near Frosty Drew or in my backyard! Feel free to reach out when you are home, if you want.
Thanks for reading!
Thanks for the tips... I was scratching my head for the upcoming full moon and setting for the some "action" shots. Don't be a stranger old friend.
Did you get some good shots last night?
Thanks for stopping by to check out my article!
Wow this is such a cool article! I've recently been taking my own photos for my landscaping company and I've actually been thinking about trying to take some pictures of the moon eventually. VERY happy I stumbled upon this article! Thank you for sharing this.
Thank you for the kind words! Well done on your website's photos! Nice work!
And, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment!
I'm assuming the great photos with the glorious lunar detail were shot "in a dry, high altitude" setting. Can you share the location of those shots, please? Thanks for the words of wisdom, I'm new and super excited to capture better than a sad little blob from my new camera vs. previous iPhone attempts.
Thanks for your question! Believe it or not, I have lived near the coasts my entire adult life, so none of these photos were from high-and-dry places!
The photos in the article are from San Diego, CA, Oak Harbor, WA, Eureka, CA, and Westerly, RI...all within miles of water and the oceans.
I hope you get some great stuff! Let me know if you have questions when embarking on your journey!
PS. Sorry for the delay in replying...I was out of the office for the holiday.
Check out the Android app "Moon Locator", it predicts the Moon position and displays it in the Augmented Reality view. It's very helpful to prepare for a photography shoot.
Thanks, Rainer! Another good one is PhotoPills.
About to use Photopills for the first time in shooting a full or near full moon in the next couple of days. Super excited as it's a really comprehensive app!
Yes! Photopills is awesome!
Thanks for stopping by!
I use iso 100 and simply stop it down 3 stops from the automatic exposure metering. Exposure time can't be more than several seconds to 12-15 seconds before you get "star trails" movement of the moon. (It moves prety darn fast!) So the shorter is clearer. Works great. Oh, tripod is mandatory; do everything posible to stop vibration. Mine come out looking like they came from an observatory. I used to have a Celestron C8... that telescope made the surface of the moon blindingly bright. You got lost on the moon. 500mm or so is plenty.
Thanks for the tips! What kind of camera are you using?
5D4, A7R3 and PhaseOne XF 100Mp
Nice quiver there! I try to keep my shutter speed over 1/125th for moon shots to keep the blur from happening...bumping up ISO if needed. Thankfully, our sun is bright, and the reflection of that light off of the Moon is bright, too—average albedo of 0.12! :)
Some great information in the comments. One tip I do not see comes from an astronomer I talked with some months ago. He noted that there was software available that would determine "a moment of clarity" within a video of the moon or planet and extract a photograph. He showed some examples he had of the moon and Saturn that were crystal clear. The software he used was supposedly public domain (free) and simple to use. Unfortunately I did not write down the name of the software and have yet to find it, or similar software.
Bruce, There is a family of techniques for getting around atmospheric turbulence that collect 'lucky frames' or 'lucky patches' from video or a burst of frames. M. A. Voronsky at the 'Intelligent Optics Lab' of U of MD has done a lot of work like this if you want to do some recon on the subject. My understanding is that sections of an image are analyzed for sharpness and then a collection of 'lucky patches' are stitched together similarly to extended depth of field stitching. (Typically using a pyramid method.) Anyway, if there's software out there, make sure it can register your series of images before it operates on them because the moon will shift between frames. Good luck!
Thanks for the assist, David! I might try image stacking the next time I do a lunar shoot!
If you find it, let me know! David is correct about folks using image stacking. I have never tried it, but should!
Sometimes, the atmospheric turbulence will leave some craters on the surface super sharp while others are lost in blur. In the very next frame, things have shifted. It is frustrating! Darn that atmosphere that protects us from dangerous space stuff!
Thanks for reading!
The free software you are talking abot is called RegiStax, it works by using video captures (or a large number of individual frames), registering the individual images, stacking them, picking the best ones out of the batch and then running through the NASA drizzle algorythm. The results are nothing short of amazing. Currently version 6.1 I believe.
I might be missing it, but do you know of a Mac-compatible version of RegiStax?
Todd, my understanding is that Registax will run pretty well under Wine on Mac and Linux. Alternately you can use parallels or other VM to run it. A google for "registax mac" will get some results that look like a good starting place. I also see that there are some other stacker programs out there that I am unfamiliar with. ("DeepSkyStacker" and "Autostakkert") As with any such software, careful of sources, etc. Our computers security is our own responsibility!
Thanks again, Patton! I recall searching last summer to try to stack some solar images, but did not find anything that was too user-friendly and fast...maybe I will search again!
I appreciate the tips!
Thank you for this very helpful article and for sharing your beautiful images. A few years ago I started shooting a series of night images with a medium format 6x7 film camera. With it, I did the opposite of trying to get a sharp image of the moon: I left the shutter open for hours. This allowed me to get images that show the trajectory of our beautiful satellite (which are also not that common), along with cityscapes full of rich details. I would not know how to do this with a digital camera, but surely there is a way.
Thank you for the kind words! You are very welcome! Sounds like a cool idea, Dante! I am sure you can do it digitally, but instead of film reciprocity, you will have to deal with uncool amounts of digital noise! Were you using ND filters for your shots?
No, I did not use any ND filters. Mostly shot Portra 160 NC as iso 100. And then the longer you expose the film, the sensibility is lowered.
Very cool! Thanks, Dante!
Thank you for this useful article. I was taking pictures of the full moon as part of a landscape (with a few distant lights in the scene) setting on a night when one could see the details and shades of the craters on the moon particulary well. I was using my Sony A6500 with a Sony 16-70mm lens (cropped to 24-105mm) with my ISO set at 400, aperture at different settings between F4 and F8 and shutter speeds between 0.4 and 4 seconds, to try and nail the details of the moon. (I also used a tripod and the camera's 10 second timer.). I was disappointed that not one picture showed any of the detail I was after. Should I have been using a much faster shutter speed, or was the lens I was using unsuitable?
So, there could be a few things that kept you from getting the shot you wanted...
1. Lens. That is a fine lens, but shooting the moon with a normal-ish telephoto lens will generally not show you a lot of detail on the lunar surface. As big as the moon is, it is far away. In order to get exquisite detail on the surface, you need to get much closer (virtually) to the moon. Your mind's eye sees a lot of detail on the lunar surface because we have all been exposed to close-up images of the moon, but, remember, only 400 years ago, scientists had never even seen the moon with enough magnification to know there were craters on the surface.
2. Dynamic range. The human eye has a much better dynamic range than a digital (or film) camera. That means your eye can see those details on the moon as well as the details in the foreground much more (and longer) than the camera. Unless you are shooting the moon as it rises or sets during relatively bright dawn or dusk, the camera is going to have the option of exposing for the foreground (leaving the moon super bright in the frame) or the moon (leaving the foreground super dark).
How are those two hypotheses working with what you experienced? Standing by for follow-ups and thanks for reading!
Good info. As others have already mentioned, I always shoot with my D800 in full manual mode when doing moon shots. I usually shoot at ISO 100, @ f8 and start with 1/200 second shutter speed and see how my exposure comes up. I adjust up or down depending. I have a 150-600mm f5.6-6.3 zoom that is my primary lens for moon shots, shooting at 600mm. Unfortunately I can't use a teleconvwrter on it. I want the new version which can be used with TC's. I also tend to shoot my exposures slightly to the low side. I can always bring it up in post processing. It is much easier to bring out detail in a slightly under exposed shot than it is one that it very well exposed to border line over exposed.
Great tips and thanks for sharing your experience! I also shoot a bit underexposed, but one needs to be careful not to shoot the moon so dark that you induce noise into the image as you compensate for the dark exposure in post processing!
Thanks for reading!
This was VERY helpful. Thanks for going through it.
You are VERY welcome, Evan! :)
Thanks for stopping by!
PLAN your shots first and foremost. Use Accuweather or whichever weather forcasting website you trust most.
Decide the phase of the moon you wish to capture... full moon, crescent, waxing, waning percentage etc and then compare the moon phase you wish to image with the local weather prediction.
Rent a 600mm, or 800mm, prime lens from your local camera shop. It's a very simple process and not intimidating at all (despite the fact that a Nikon 600mm prime costs over $12,000). Renting a lens like the Nikkor 600mm costs about $95/day or $285/week. Rent a 2X Teleconverter... a QUALITY teleconverter.
Place your camera in fully automatic mode whatever that might be, set it to capture iamges in .raw mode (Nikon is .dng) and write down the settings it recommends.
Use a rock stable tripod, place your full frame DSLR in APS-C mode (DX mode on a Nikon full frame), and adjust the ISO (as low as possible if shooting a full mooon). Your 600mm rented lens, combined with a 2X teleconverter, in APS-C mode, is now approximately an 1800mm lens.
Place your camera in MANUAL mode and enter the settings you recorded when your camera was in fully automatic mode. See what the image looks like in Live View and adjust focus/brightness from there. When you're happy, set your camera to capture images with it's intervelometer or a remote shutter release.
In Lightroom or Photoshop, depending on the image sensor capabilty, you should be able to crop at least once, perhaps twice, adjust contrast and highlights as you see fit.
I bet the images you captured will amaze you.
Great tips! Thanks for sharing!
I have had great luck with keeping it simple -- i.e. my Canon Powershot SX50 HS has been a great little camera for 'shooting the moon'. I usually zoom out to the max in Auto, and alternate that with shooting in P mode at 200 ISO. I am strictly an amateur photographer but have been pleased with my moon shots. I especially love shooting the full moon low on the horizon as it sinks behind the trees. The contrast of the tree limbs against the moon make a neat picture. I live on the water on the Eastern Shore of MD, and also like photographing the moon far enough above the horizon the capture it reflected in the water. As you said in your comments, trying to get landscape in the shot makes for a fuzzy moon. You have some great tips that I plan to try. Thank you!
Yeah, I might be jealous of you superzoom shooters! I have to break out the spotting scope, remove the eyepiece, attach the camera adapter, attach the camera, find the moon, focus and shoot. You just point and shoot! Yep, jealous!
I am glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks so much for the compliments and good luck shooting the moon!
Fabulous article as always Todd!
Thank you, Karla! Glad you stopped by!