Have you ever spent time trying to take photos of the moon—only to end up with shot after shot of a featureless white disk, instead?
Sure, taking photographs of the moon can be tricky, but it isn't as technically difficult as you might think. As with every shoot, it all comes down to a combination of the right settings and equipment. With these 8 night photography techniques, we’ll show you how to capture stunning lunar images in no time.
01. Plan around your moon phase
Since the moon looks different throughout the month, you’ll need to figure out the perfect time to shoot it. Although you can technically take photos of it in its various phases, the crescent and the full moon often look best in pictures.
If it’s your first time taking photos of the moon, then it’s best to wait for the full moon since that’s when it’s the brightest. The more illumination you get, the easier it is to get the right exposure.
However, if you want to go for a more challenging shot, then you can try photographing the waning crescent. Since only a part of the moon is lit, you’ll have less light to work with. Nevertheless, the beautiful shape of the moon during this time looks spellbinding in photos.
Once you’ve decided which moon phase to shoot, you'll need to look at the moon calendar to see when it's going to occur. There are dozens of options online, but among the most useful ones is Moongiant. Apart from showing you a schedule of the moon's phases, the site also lets you see how bright the moon is going to be on any given day.
At the bottom of the site’s page, just remember to choose which hemisphere you’re located in. Although the full moon appears the same in both geographic areas, other moon phases may look reversed depending on which hemisphere you're in. So, for example, if you were shooting in Australia, you can expect the waning crescent to be lit up from the right side as opposed to the left side if you were shooting in North America.
02. Wait for the right conditions
If you want the moon to look more prominent in your photo, the best time to shoot it is when it’s close to the horizon. That’s why it’s essential to find out what time the moon rises or sets in your area. You can look it up online through websites such as sunrisesunsetmap.
Just like with sunrises and sunsets, you’ll need to wait for good weather to take photos of the moon. In most cases, the sky has to be free of clouds so that they don't obstruct your subject. In other situations, however, it’s acceptable to include a few wisps floating by to add to the mood of your image.
Try staying away from places with too much light pollution. Cities and other intensely lit areas can easily drown out the light coming from the moon. Therefore, it would be better if you look for a place that’s relatively dark or remote, so that you get to capture the Earth’s own satellite at its brightest.
03. Switch to Manual Mode
Some photographers may think a slow shutter speed is necessary to compensate for the lack of light when shooting the moon. The truth is that it's actually brighter than what they expect. That’s why it often ends up overexposed in their photos.
Switching your camera to full Manual Mode will help create a proper exposure since you’ll need your settings to be precise. First, use a high shutter speed between 1/125 to 1/250. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s the best setting to use for capturing shadows and details. You can also set your aperture to f/11 or f/16 to make sure everything is sharp. Finally, adjust your ISO to 100, so you don’t have to worry about seeing digital noise in your picture.
04. Use a super telephoto lens
To get close-up shots of the moon, you can mount a super telephoto lens to your camera. Doing so allows you to zoom in and take detailed shots of the moon’s surface. You can start with 300mm and go up to 600mm or higher. The longer your focal length, the bigger the moon will look in your photo.
You can buy affordable telephoto lenses up to 300mm for less than 300 dollars. However, most other options that are longer than 300mm are typically beyond the price range of most enthusiasts. Nevertheless, by attaching affordable teleconverters or extension tubes (some less than 200 dollars) to your optics, you can increase its magnification significantly without breaking the bank.
For instance, if you mount a 2x teleconverter to your 300mm lens, you'll get a magnification equivalent to a 600mm option. Just be aware that when using this attachment, you’ll lose one or two stops of light on average. That means if you set your camera to f/11, the amount of light the sensor receives is, in fact, equal to f/13 or even f/14. Therefore, you’ll need to compensate by adjusting your aperture (f/5.6 or f/8 will do).
If you don't have a DSLR or a telephoto, that doesn’t mean you should give up on taking photos of the moon Even a compact camera with a zoom lens can be just as capable as a professional camera for moon photography. Just make sure that it lets you adjust the exposure manually. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a white blob in your images because auto settings will likely overexpose your shot.
05. Stabilize your camera
Since you’re taking photos using a large lens, even slight movements can ruin your photos. You an employ a tripod for stability. Furthermore, you can use a remote or a self-timer, so your fingers don’t accidentally move the camera.
Take advantage of the Mirror Up function if your camera has one. Using it allows you to take photos without the danger of the mirror creating unnecessary vibrations. If your camera lacks this feature, you can also switch to Quiet Mode, instead. Although it still uses the mirror for taking photos, it flips the mirror back down in a gentler fashion.
06. Compose your image carefully
Even though you’re using a super telephoto lens, you might still need to crop your photo to make the moon look even bigger. Take this into consideration as you’re framing your shot and don't be afraid to give your subject room to breathe.
To help you compose your image, turn on your camera’s gridlines and place the moon anywhere the lines intersect. Just remember to leave enough negative space to allow you to crop your photo later.
You can also apply The Rule of Thirds when cropping your image on your computer. Use the gridlines of your Crop Tool as you trim off the parts of the picture you don’t want. Then, reposition the photo carefully until it’s in one of the intersections.
07. Bracket your shots
The moon can undoubtedly be challenging to shoot, especially when using Manual Mode. Sometimes, the shutter speed you choose might result in an image that’s either too dark or too bright.
To make sure your image is adequately exposed, you can turn on your camera’s bracketing function. Most devices have a dedicated button for this feature, but it’s also always accessible through the menu.
Once bracketing is turned on, press the shutter three times, and your camera will automatically produce three different results for you. Apart from the standard picture, you’ll also get one that’s slightly overexposed and another that’s underexposed. With more choices, you have a better chance of getting a perfectly exposed photo.
You also have the option of creating a High Dynamic Range (HDR) photo by combining all three pictures into one image. Thankfully, most photo editing apps now allow you to merge your bracketed shots and create an HDR output automatically. Just select all the photos you need and look for the HDR tool to integrate them. The result is a realistic picture that appears more vivid than any of the three individual snapshots you took.
08. Create photo composites
When you see any landscape photo with the moon in it, keep in mind that it’s most likely a composite shot. Since you have to use fast shutter speed, the terrain will inevitably be underexposed no matter what you do. So if you want to include sweeping vistas in your shot, you’ll need to photograph it separately from your moon shot. You will then have to combine both shots on your computer later on.
Compositing your photos starts on the field. First, you’ll need to set up your camera on a tripod and include both the moon and the landscape in your frame. Set your shutter speed between 1/125 to 1/250 and photograph the moon first. When you’re finished, change the shutter speed anywhere between 5 to 15 seconds to capture the landscape. Because of the long exposure time, you’ll also have stars in your picture which is a great bonus. Just don't be surprised if the moon looks like a white blob in your second image.
Now that you have the two photos, you can combine them using your favorite photo editing software. The simplest way to do this is to copy the moon and paste it as a layer over the white spot (overexposed moon) in the other image.
Since the pictures were taken from the same spot without changing the composition, the moon you cut out should blend in well with the rest of the landscape. Nevertheless, you should still adjust the exposure, add contrast, and increase sharpness to reveal the details of your shot better.
Photographing the moon is certainly fun, but it also takes a certain amount of dedication to capture the perfect shot. Be prepared to take a lot of photos and make a lot of mistakes if you want to try this type of photography. It may be challenging, but once you get used to the process, it will definitely get easier with practice.