Photographing natural beauty is a common way amateur photographers hone their skills. Admit it, you’ve taken more than a few snapshots of the landscapes surrounding your home.
These photo opportunities are good experiences, but only when you practice good habits.
Amateur shutterbugs often make the mistake of choosing nature’s hardest landscapes while learning their trade.
One tried and true shot seen mishandled time and time again is photographing the moon at night.
Good moon photos capture our orbiting neighbor’s beauty, but most are an over exposed mess lacking clarity and framing.
But fear not! Photographing the moon actually makes for great practice and results when you apply the proper techniques.
Here’s our guide of how to photograph the moon in all its glory.
How to Photograph the Moon: The Variables
Capturing a quality moon snapshot depends on a variety of factors we’ll break down during this article. Even the slightest changes in visibility can dictate camera setup.
The first main variables you’ll need to account for are the moon phases. Moon phases dictate both your photograph’s aesthetic and technical choices.
For example, a full moon will provide more contrast to other photo elements than a waning crescent. More visible moon balances large foreground objects.
The opposite is true for a crescent moon. Prominent foreground objects easily overwhelm small moon fragments.
Moon brightness also factors into deciding which moon phase to shoot.
Never shoot on a full moon if you’re including the night sky in your photograph. A full moon reflects too much light and drowns out the surrounding stars.
Cresent moon phases have the opposite problem. Low light reflection makes shooting early moon phases difficult on cloudy nights.
Check out the U.S. Navy’s moon phase website to determine when each phase will occur.
When explaining how to photograph the moon, we always hear, “why does the moon look like a white blob in the sky?”
The answer is shutter speed.
Adjusting shutter speed is the best way to combat the aforementioned overexposure of many moon photographs.
Shutter speed dictates how fast or slow your camera lens moves. It’s also described as how long your lens stays open.
The main variables influencing shutter speed are the moon brightness (moon phases) and ambient light.
We already discussed how the full moon can block out the stars, and that same principal applies here.
A bright full moon calls for a faster shutter speed. Limit the light that enters your lens and the moon won’t over expose.
The opposite holds true for smaller moon phases. Less light dictates a slower shutter speed to allow more light into the lens.
Shooting in bright or low ambient light environments works the same way.
Cityscapes expose correctly at faster shutter speeds, while lower shutter speeds work in the countryside.
We recommend any beginners learning how to photograph the moon to start with shutter speeds between 1/80 and 1/250, depending on your base ISO.
How you choose to frame the moon in your picture depends on the effect you’re trying to achieve, and the setting you’re working with.
The moon’s distance from earth, an average of 238,855 miles (384,400 km) away, makes variable depth an easy way to stage moon photos.
Close up shots use the sky as framing and result in moon centric photographs. These shots often lack depth.
Try using clouds or nearby trees to bring depth to your photos.
Clouds in front of and behind the moon make it stand out with a distinct foreground and background.
Trees bring a sense of scale that highlights the moon’s size in the sky relative to how we perceive other objects. These photos create a unique sense of depth based on our own perception, rather than reality.
Another strong framing option is emphasizing the moon’s actual distance from earth. Shoot with a short lens to highlight objects in the foreground and give the moon a sense of distance.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to shoot the moon. Experiment with different landscapes and perspectives to find a style that suits your vision.
How to Photograph the Moon: The Constants
So far we’ve looked at variables that affect your moon photography. Now, we’re looking at what constants all moon photos share. Moon phases, framing, and shutter speed won’t matter if you neglect these basics.
Use A Telephoto Lens
To understand why we use telephoto lenses to photograph the moon, you’ll first need to understand how picturing taking works inside of the camera.
Cameras work by capturing light rays and projecting them onto a surface. Film and a digital medium are the two most common surfaces.
Lens length determines the final projection size. That is, the distance between the light rays convergence and the camera medium.
The farther the distance between the convergence and the camera medium, the larger the resulting photo.
This variable projection size is why we use telephoto lenses in moon photography.
Human eyes are around 50mm in “lens length” which means any smaller lens creates a tiny moon, while longer telephoto lenses make the moon appropriate for photography.
Bare minimum lens length for quality photos sits around 150mm, with lens 400mm and above used to shoot highly detailed photos of the moon’s surface.
As a bonus, 400mm lenses are the threshold for spot metering. This type of metering auto configures exposure settings. The “spot” refers to gathering light information from independent objects within the frame.
Sometimes we sit back and observe when teaching people how to photograph the moon. Invariably, someone always ditches their tripod and shoots freehand.
Do not do this!
It doesn’t register with most people, but the moon is moving, and moving fast. Our celestial neighbor orbits the Earth at 2,288 miles per hour (3,683 kilometers per hour).
Any and all shake in your hand can cause motion blur during your photograph. The relatively high shutter speeds used also magnify the effects of hand shake.
Invest in a tripod that is easily lowered and angled. This allows for all of our aforementioned perspective shots.
Don’t worry about the extra cost of a professional tripod. Moon photography isn’t the only instance it’ll come in handy.
Tried and True Settings
While shutter speed varies in moon photography, most of the settings remain constant. Changing them is not recommended for those just learning how to photograph the moon.
First, turn your camera to manual settings. The bright moon contrasted with the dark sky make auto settings essentially worthless.
Now, set up your camera as follows:
- ISO: Set your ISO to whatever base ISO your camera allows. For Nikons it’s usually 200, and with Canon’s 100. Varying your shutter speed makes ISO a non-issue.
- Aperture: Beginners will have trouble adjusting shutter speed relative to the aperture. Keep this value at f/11.
- Focus: Always use manual focus. The moon doesn’t play nice with any auto settings.
As your photography skills grow, try adjusting aperture and ISO slightly to watch their effects on your photos. The moon’s exaggerated effect on settings makes for good examples of what bad settings look like.
Who knows, maybe your slightly tweaking that aperture will produce a stunning photograph. How to photograph the moon isn’t set in stone.
Sometimes your moon photos just won’t pan out how you’d like. Over your photography career, this will happen more than a few times.
Varying moon brightness levels often throw off certain aspects of a photo’s exposure. This is almost impossible to correct on your camera.
However, the magic of photoshop ensures that uncooperative environments still turn out looking like a professional shot.
Shoot problematic photos in two segments. First, shoot the foreground with the proper shutter speed. Next, shoot the moon.
Photoshop allows you to combine the photos and create the original picture you were hoping to capture.
The programs also allows for general photo touch-ups such as correcting over exposure, lightening and darkening, removing glare, cropping, and changing file types.
Of course, this all takes some skill in photoshop.
That’s a topic for another day and an article we wouldn’t mind covering. If you’d like a photoshop centric article, let us know in the comment section.
In fact, leave us any feedback about future articles you’d like to see written.
We’re dedicated to not only bringing our love of photography to the world, but also helping our individual readers become expert shutterbugs.
Learning how to photograph the moon is easy with the right set of instructions, a little guidance, and an open mind.
It’s important to remember that all photography “rules” are more like guidelines. The real learning process is from trial and error mistakes.
Our guides are only meant to give you the basics you’ll need to make the right mistakes, and not waste your time.
We provide the training wheels, and you ride the proverbial bike until you’re ready to branch out into the world.
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