Moon Photography: A Complete Guide (with Tips)

My first attempt at moon photography was a failure. The moon was going into a total lunar eclipse and I had a vantage point overlooking a historic ranch. The moon came, eclipsed, and went. I saw none of it.

Whether the moon is just part of the overall image or the only thing in the image, following the right steps and with the right gear you can create stunning moon photography.

This article will give you the knowledge needed to equip yourself with the proper tools and a solid plan to photograph the moon, which I did not have.

A crescent moon was photographed with a balancing foreground element
A crescent moon was photographed with a balancing foreground element.

But First, Some Challenges

With a steep learning curve, moon photography can be frustrating and disheartening. At times, you may want to give up. Persevere. Moon photography is highly rewarding and once you learn and master the basics, you will be a better photographer.

Moon photography is a great way to learn various photography techniques. You need to know how to reduce camera shake. Most likely there will be weather to contend with as you’ll be working outdoors.

Even though the moon is bright relative to the night sky, it is still a form of low-light photography. Finding the balance between the bright moon and the dark landscape takes finesse and practice.

A quarter moon was photographed by itself
A quarter moon was photographed by itself.

Phases of the Moon

The moon is believed to have formed after a small planet impacted the earth and knocked debris into space. The space debris hung around and now we have full moons, lunar eclipses, folklore, tides, and the occasional blue moon.

Understanding how the moon is illuminated is imperative in planning a moon photography outing. There are eight phases of the moon. The synodic period of the moon phases is 29.53 days long.

  • New Moon – The moon is directly between the earth and the sun placing the illuminated side away from the earth.
  • Waxing Crescent – Waxing means the illuminated portion is growing from a new moon toward a full moon.
  • First Quarter – While the moon appears to be half-illuminated, we only see a quarter of the illumination.
  • Waxing Gibbous – Often the best stage to photograph, the gibbous moon is just before or after a full moon.
  • Full Moon – Fully lit by the sun, the moon is now on the opposite side of the earth from the sun.
  • Waning Gibbous – This is the same as a waxing gibbous. Gibbous refers to more than half of the surface being illuminated.
  • Third Quarter – The opposite “half” of the moon, from the first quarter, is illuminated.
  • Waning Crescent – The illumination is waning, or reducing in size towards a new moon.
Phases of the moon
Phases of the Moon

Knowing whether the moon is waxing or waning is a good skill to have. It will give you an idea of when to expect a full or gibbous moon. When the moon is in a crescent phase, there are about 10 days until a full or new moon. A gibbous moon will happen in about five to seven days.

The Supermoon

The distance from the moon varies due to the non-circular shape of the moon’s orbit. When it is closest it appears larger; this is known as a supermoon. A micro-moon is when the distance between the earth and the moon is the greatest.

A supermoon’s location in the orbit is known as the Lunar perigee. To visualize this, imagine a slightly flattened circle with a coin inside and closer to one side.

The point of the circle closest to the coin is the Lunar Perigee which is about 363,104 km from the surface of the earth. The part that is furthest from the coin is known as the Lunar Apogee, and it is farther away at 405,696 km.

A supermoon can be up to 30% brighter and 14% larger in the night sky. Making it more challenging, yet rewarding, to photograph due to the difference in dynamic range between the moon and the low-lit scene. This increased illumination can be used to light up the landscape, adding to your composition.

A supermoon happens a few times a year and this year’s Lunar Perigee supermoon will occur in July.

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Lunar Eclipse

While North America just had a lunar eclipse in early May, they happen a few times a year around the globe. These are fun and challenging goals for any moon photographer. A lunar eclipse occurs when the sun, the earth, and the moon are closely aligned.

The moon slides into the earth’s shadow and becomes enveloped in a coppery-red hue. The color comes from the light of the sun passing through the earth’s atmosphere. A lunar eclipse can only happen with a full moon and at night.

Mays Lunar Eclipse just before reaching totality All Rights Reserved © Richard Bednarski
May’s Lunar Eclipse just before reaching totality. All Rights Reserved © Richard Bednarski

Moon Photography – The Basics

The first decision you need to make is whether to photograph the moon by itself or include it in a broader image with a foreground. This will determine which gear you need and how to properly expose the image. If you want to photograph the moon all by itself, you will need a telephoto lens. While a wide-angle lens will work for an image including a foreground.

Be sure to consider which phase the moon is in at the time of creating your images. A full moon is bright, making for a difficult exposure, but when done correctly can look stunning when balanced with foreground elements. However, the full moon lacks depth and texture due to the directness of illumination.

A gibbous or crescent moon is the preferred phase because the illumination is coming from an angle. This throws shadows across the surface of the moon, giving texture to the surface of the moon.

Waning gibbous moon image
Waning gibbous moon image

Planning a Moon Photography Outing

With any type of photography, being prepared and having a plan will lead to your best images. For moon photography, a strong plan will include knowing what phase the moon is in and what time it will rise.

Arrive at a destination at least 30 minutes before the moon rises, though an hour is better.

You have to know what the weather is going to do before and during your planned outing. Will it be cloudy? How cloudy? What is the temperature? Knowing the weather will lead to success. Colder weather leads to clearer images of the moon. Heat waves and air pollution bend the light before it enters the camera, reducing the clarity and sharpness of the moon.

Finding a high elevation location that is away from an urban center and light pollution will lead to clearer images. There will be fewer particulates in the sky, less ambient light, and cooler temperatures.

Be sure to wear the right clothing and pack extra layers. Being cold is uncomfortable and often leads to rushed images. The cold makes everyone hungry so bring snacks. Pack extra water and a headlamp as well. You’ll be working in the dark.

Finally, you need to know where the moon will rise when it rises. This means you can create your composition before it rises. When it moves into your composition, all you have to do is double-check exposure and create the image.

Here are a few apps/websites that will help in the planning process. 

  • Moon Phases – this is a great resource to find the current moon phase and rise times.
  • Dark Sky Finder – This helps find dark areas where light pollution is low.
  • The Photographer’s Ephemeris 3D – You should not go without it if you want to improve your photography.
  • Photo Pills – This one is great to look up Moon phases and help visualize an image with  Augmented Reality (AR) mode.
  • Stellarium – This web-based app allows you to track the moon’s, or any celestial object’s, path through the sky and know exactly where it will be whenever you want.d

The Proper Equipment

An ideal set-up for moon photography is a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a long lens. The lens should have a focal length of at least 300 mm. Focal lengths longer than this become quite expensive and large.

A good alternative is a high-quality telephoto zoom. Something like Nikon’s 200-500mm f/5.6E VR. Tamron and Sigma also offer zoom lenses in this focal length range.

Another option includes using a teleconverter. These attach to the camera side of the lens and can double the focal length. However, these do reduce the image quality because of the additional glass elements.

A higher resolution camera allows the image to be cropped in post. This gives you a way to make the moon larger in the final image. The Sony A7iii is a great choice for moon photography. A lightly used body can be purchased for under USD 2,000 and packs a decent 42-megapixel image size.

It has a full-frame sensor which allows for a greater resolution and increased low-light capabilities. A crop sensor is just as good in moon photography.

Because the sensor is smaller, the focal length of a full-frame lens will be one and half times greater. For example, if you have the Tamron 150-500mm lens, it becomes a 225-750mm lens without the added glass of a teleconverter.

A tripod is essential. Spend money on a solid tripod head. The moon is constantly moving. When you zoom in on the moon with a camera, you’ll be able to see it moving through the frame.

To account for this, a geared tripod head such as this one will allow you to make quick and smooth adjustments to compensate for the movement.

Another piece of valuable equipment is a shutter-release cable. These devices allow you to activate the shutter without touching the camera. What this accomplishes is reducing any camera shake.

A longer lens will pick up even the slightest camera shake and result in an out-of-focus moon. Mirrorless cameras (and some DSLRs) have an exposure delay setting which will expose the image up to three seconds after the shutter release button is pressed.

You want the camera to be as still as possible when creating an image of the moon. As the focal length increases, the importance of this increases.

Create a Packing List

Have a packing list you can refer to so you can be positive you have everything you need before heading out. Here is a concise list of what I pack when I go out for a moon photography session.

  • Camera Body
    • Telephoto lens
    • Tripod
    • Shutter release cable
    • Extra batteries
    • Extra media cards
    • Snacks
    • Water
    • Layers
    • A plan

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How to Photograph the Moon

The Perfect Exposure

When creating images of the moon, setting the exposure takes trial and error. Every situation is different. If your camera can shoot in RAW image format, choose RAW instead of JPEG. This will provide the most information and allow for the best editing.

Keep the camera in manual mode. A low-lit scene with the moon will be challenging for the camera’s light meter to calculate a proper exposure. Since you have a tripod, you want to use your camera’s base or native ISO, usually 100. Read this article I wrote about ISO and photography. Turn off Auto ISO.

The full moon was photographed in a forest soon after sunset
The full moon was photographed in a forest soon after sunset.

You may have come across the Looney 11 rule. This is setting the aperture to f/11 and choosing a shutter speed reciprocal to the ISO. For example, f/11, at 1/125 of a second, and ISO 100.

This may be a good place to start, but I  have found it results in a slower shutter speed. Also, many lenses have reduced focus beyond f/11 due to diffraction. It is better to start at f/5.6. If you want to have a wider depth of field, you can focus stack your images.

Now you can set a shutter speed around 1/250 of a second and set the white balance to daylight.

The perfect starting exposure for moon photography:

Shutter Speed1/250 – 1/500
White BalanceDaylight

Use the camera’s spot meter and point it at the bright portion of the moon. Set the exposure to overexpose the image by ⅓ to ½ a stop. Once you dial in a good exposure bracket your images. Create an image one-stop above and one stop below. In the post, you will combine all of these to increase the dynamic range of the image.

Use the rear LCD screen of your camera to lock in focus. With the lens on manual focus, zoom into the moon as much as possible. If you have a mirrorless camera, make sure peaking is on to assist focus. If using a DSLR, slowly rotate the focus ring until the moon comes into sharp focus.

Make sure image stabilization is turned off because you have a tripod. Use mirror lock-up mode to eliminate the vibration of the mirror locking. To reduce vibrations from the shutter mechanism (both DSLR and mirrorless cameras), make sure to turn the Electronic Front Curtain Shutter on.

Post Processing

The following steps are things you can do in Adobe Lightroom to bring your moon photography to the next level.

Post Processing
Post Processing

This goes beyond moon photography but set all your moon images to the “Adobe Landscape” profile. This profile is designed to bring out the natural tones of landscapes.

Next, you want to adjust the white balance. Select Daylight white balance and zoom in on the moon. If it appears too orange, move the Temperature to the left until the moon looks natural.

  • Bring the contrast up to around 10 or 20.
  • Keep the highlights between -30 and -15 to bring out the detail in the moon.

A more precise way to boost contrast is by adjusting the Whites and Blacks.

  • For moon photography, a good starting place for the Whites is between +20 and +30.
  • For the Blacks, a good starting point is -20 and -30.
  • Boost the Texture to around +10.
  • To further raise the texture of the moon, you can bump up both Clarity and Dehaze to around +5 and +10.
  • Finally, be sure to “Remove Chromatic Aberration” in the Lens Correction Tab and enable “Lens Corrections”.
Lens Corrections
Lens Corrections

Summary of Steps to Photograph the Moon

Below is a quick overview of moon photography to refer back to when in the field.

  1. Use an interchangeable camera with a long telephoto lens.
  2. Set Your Camera to Manual mode.
  3. Set ISO to your camera’s native ISO
  4. Set Aperture to f/5.6 and adjust accordingly
  5. Set Shutter Speed to 1/250 a second and adjust accordingly.
  6. Be sure your lens and camera are both set to manual focus. Use the live view screen to dial in the focus.
  7. Compose the image and take three to five bracketed exposures.
  8. Adjust the above settings as necessary to get the best results.

 Frequently Asked Questions

Why Photograph the Moon?

Moon photography is a fantastic way to improve your photography skills. You’ll learn to plan and edit a tough lighting situation, making you a stronger photographer and you’ll enjoy the entire process.

Why Does the Moon Look Smaller in Pictures?

Without a telephoto lens above 300mm, the moon will appear small in the frame. This is not a bad thing but offers a unique compositional element if using a wide-angle lens.

Why Do I See the Moon as a White Blob?

When the camera’s sensor measures the light of a moon photo, the majority of the scene is dark so it selects an exposure based on those values. It is best to use Manual Mode and spot meter the moon to dial in the perfect exposure.

Which Camera Gear is Best for Moon Photography?

An interchangeable-lens camera body, either a DSLR or Mirrorless, is ideal for moon photography. You will want a minimum focal length of 300 mm. A wide-angle lens is also a good thing to have to include the moon in your landscape images. A tripod and shutter release cable is essential.

How do I keep the moon as sharp as possible?

Use a tripod, and a shutter release cable, and choose to photograph in as little wind as possible. Additionally, you can lock up your mirror in your camera to reduce mirror shake.

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