The moon is a very popular subject for photographers of all skill levels to shoot. But if you’ve ever tried to photograph the moon, you’ve probably discovered that it’s not that easy to accomplish. In this article let’s look at some dos and don’ts to take your moon shots from snapshot to artwork.
To begin, the first and most important DON’T is: Don’t assume that photographing the moon is going to be easy.
#1 Do use a tripod
One of the most important pieces of equipment for any low light photography is a good tripod. Since the moon is so far away, it is very important to have a sturdy base as even the smallest movement of the camera will cause your image to blur. You might be tempted to think that if you use a fast enough shutter speed you can hand-hold the camera, but you need to realize that your subject is 238,900 miles away and even the slightest movement will be exaggerated.
#2 Don’t use a slow shutter speed
The moon is actually moving very quickly around the earth at a speed of 2,288 miles per hour (3,683 kilometers per hour). The moon is so distant, it doesn’t appear to be traveling very quickly to the naked eye. Because of the moon’s speed and the long focal length necessary to capture an image of the moon, you need to use the fastest shutter speed possible. A good rule of thumb for tack sharp moon photos is nothing slower than 1/125th of a second.
#3 Do use a telephoto lens
To successfully shoot any kind of detail of the moon in your image, you need at least a 300mm telephoto. For a full frame image, you will need around an 800mm lens.
#4 Don’t use any filters on your lens
Remove ALL filters from your lens! To prevent any chance of distortion, don’t use any filters. Yes, even remove the UV filter. This may sound scary if you never remove the UV filter from your lens, but it’s best to remove to do so in this case. Some may suggest using a neutral density (ND) filter for moon photography to cut back the bright light of the moon. But, all this will do is require you to use a slower shutter speed, and you want to use the fastest shutter speed possible to get that crisp, tack sharp, image.
#5 Do try the Looney 11 rule
The Looney 11 rule is similar to the Sunny 16 rule. Set your f-stop to f/11, then match the shutter speed to your ISO. For example, if your ISO is set at 100, set your shutter speed to 1/125 of a second. (This is not an exact science but will give you a good starting point.)
#6 Don’t touch the camera to start your exposure
Do not manually press the shutter release or even touch your tripod when initiating your moon shot. Remember that even the slightest touch could add enough vibration motion to blur the image. Using a cable release or remote trigger is the best way to start your exposure. If you don’t have either of these gadgets, use the self-timer feature on your camera to begin your shot.
#7 Do use Mirror Lock-up
If your camera gives you the option to lock up your mirror this can greatly increase your chances of getting a tack sharp image. Even the slightest shake of your camera’s mirror can be enough to blur your image. If your camera has this option, use it! Lock the mirror up and wait a few seconds to allow any vibration to settle before beginning your exposure.
#8 Don’t use Image Stabilization
Canon’s IS (Image Stabilization) or Nikon’s VR (Vibration Reduction) must be turned off anytime your camera is on a tripod. Turning on any vibration reduction feature with your camera mounted on a tripod will actually create blur in your image.
#9 Do know the cycles of the moon
There are 29.5 days between full moons. There are many online and smart phone applications that can help you track the phases of the moon. One must- have app is The Photographer’s Ephemeris which will not only give you the phases of the moon, but also show you when and where the moon will appear in the sky. This is especially useful when planning your moon shoots in advance. By far the most photographed stage is the full moon, which is also the brightest and the most difficult to expose correctly. The side lighting of the Gibbous stage produces some interesting shadows which may allow you to capture craters and mountains. The crescent moon is, of course, the darkest stage, but one which may create some interesting effects when added to a nighttime landscape.
#10 Don’t always place the moon in the center
While you can use all the usual rules of composition for your lunar photography, don’t be afraid to break the rules if the shot calls for it. Don’t just put the moon in the center of your image with nothing else – it’s been done a million times before and there is nothing exciting about this. Try to include other objects in the frame with the moon.
#11 Do switch to manual focus
There are a couple of different methods you can use to focus on the moon: First, try using your camera’s autofocus, and once you have a desirable focus, turn off the autofocus and switch to manual focus. Alternatively, you can set your camera on manual focus, and with your live view feature turned on, zoom in on the moon and turn the focus ring until the moon becomes sharp. Then do not touch the ring again.
#12 Don’t just shoot the moon at night
The best time for photographing the moon is just after it rises or just before it sets, when it is very low in the sky. When the moon is near the horizon, it is closest to Earth and will appear larger in your images. Also, as the full moon rises the sun will be setting, and as the full moon sets the sun will be rising. This may give you great lighting to include or accentuate foreground or landscape objects. Shooting the moon in the day time will give you opportunity to include foreground objects, and you also may be able to capture some craters on the moon’s surface.
#13 Do use exposure bracketing
Once you have found the exposure that you feel happy with, it is best to bracket around that setting. The view of your images in the dark, on the back of your camera, can often be deceiving. In the dark, images always appear brighter on the LCD of camera than they actually are when opened on your computer. After you are satisfied with the exposure you have dialed in, bracket two stops under and two stops over, just to ensure that you get an exposure you will be happy with later.
#14 Don’t use Auto White Balance
Using auto white balance will give you very inconsistent results. What is the source for the light of the moon? That’s right, the sun! So try daylight white balance, but if you are looking for a different effect, try tungsten or cloudy. Don’t be afraid to experiment, but also remember that if you are shooting in RAW you can change the white balance in post-production.
#15 Don’t depend on your meter
Most likely your camera’s light meter will be fooled by the amount of light reflecting off the moon. Also it is important to note that as the moon rises, the exposure will continual change. It gets brighter as it rises, so you need to keep adjusting your shutter speed.
#16 Do shoot in RAW mode
Shooting in RAW will allow you to capture more details of the moon’s surface, and also give you more latitude for adjustments in retouching. So, unless you are not at all comfortable with using camera RAW software, always shoot the moon in RAW.
#17 Don’t be afraid to crop your image
Unless you are shooting with a very large telephoto lens, you will want to crop your image to display the moon at a decent size. But remember, the more you crop, the smaller the final image can be printed at high resolution.
#18 Do tweak and sharpen
Most moon photography is going to require some post exposure retouching in Photoshop or other photo editing software. Adding clarity and contrast will help bring out details which will enhance the craters and mountains of the moon. As mentioned above, white balance and exposure may also be tweaked to finish your optimal image, as both are somewhat difficult to perfect in camera.
#19 Don’t be afraid to be creative
Don’t be afraid to get creative with your images of the moon. Most great moon images have been manipulated in post-production because of the difficulty of capturing a great moon shot in one image. HDR or exposure blending are great methods to enhance the captures of otherwise impossible moon images. A popular method used by many photographers is to combine two exposures: one set to bring out the best of the foreground landscape and a second exposed for the moon only. When combining these two images, try enlarging the moon slightly to achieve a more dramatic effect, but don’t overdo it to the point that it looks fake. It needs to look believable unless you are going for a science fiction affect (which isn’t a bad idea, creatively speaking!).
#20 Do Practice, Practice, Practice
Now get out there and shoot the moon! Remember it is not as easy as it looks, so keep trying if your first results are not as dramatic as you expected.
If you have any moon images or other dos and don’ts that work for you, please share them in the comments below.