The moon is a wildly popular photography subject – it has a certain magic that captures nearly every photographer’s imagination – but choosing the right moon photography settings can be quite tricky.
While it’s definitely possible to capture sharp, well-exposed moon images, many beginner photographers don’t use the right approach. As a result, they often just give up in frustration. That’s where I can help.
You see, capturing great moon shots isn’t too difficult once you wrap your head around a few basic elements. Just follow the camera settings advice I share below, and with a little patience and practice, you’ll be taking excellent photos of the moon in no time at all.
Let’s dive right in!
Moon photography settings: the basics
If you want a simple answer to the question of what moon photography settings to use, here’s my advice:
- Shoot with a fast shutter speed of at least 1/180s.
- Use a small aperture like f/8.
- Keep your ISO low – so that when you crop, your picture will remain clean and not noisy.
- Use a telephoto lens.
- Always shoot in RAW; that way, you have plenty of room to edit the colors, sharpness, and other elements of your photo afterward.
Why these settings? Let me offer a short explanation:
The first thing to know about shooting the moon is that it’s deceptively bright. You might not think of this giant ball of rock as particularly luminous when compared to the sun, but it puts out way more light than you might think. This makes it tricky to calculate exposure and get your other moon photography settings just right.
The other important item to keep in mind is that the moon is not a slow celestial body. In Greek mythology, Selene, the goddess of the moon, speeds across the night sky in a glowing chariot. Our ancient ancestors knew what they were talking about! If you take a picture of the moon, you have to keep its constant movement in mind; otherwise, you’ll never get a great shot.
The final part of the equation to remember is that the moon, while relatively close in a galactic sense, is pretty far away when you look at it from the perspective of a photographer. If you want a good picture of the moon, you need at least a 200mm lens – and even then, it’s best to use a crop-sensor camera for a bit more reach. So a focal length of 300mm or greater is recommended, and photographing the moon is one time when megapixels really do matter. Unless you have a very long zoom lens, you’ll be cropping your images quite a bit.
While the above advice is a good starting point, you will need to experiment and figure out which settings are right for you. It’s a good idea to dive a little deeper into aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – as well as different focal lengths, focusing modes, and file types – to find out what effect they have on your moon photos; that way, you can get the shots you’re aiming for.
Choosing the perfect moon photography camera settings: 10 practical tips
The good news? Choosing the right moon photo settings isn’t rocket science. If you read the previous section, you already have a strong foundation – and below, I delve into all the key details, including the power of Manual mode, effective focusing techniques, and more.
1. Use Manual mode
This might be intimidating if you’re used to letting your camera make exposure decisions for you, but moon photography is a great way to learn Manual mode.
Your camera knows what to do in most well-lit situations, but shooting the moon isn’t one of them. You have to take control, and Manual mode lets you choose the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – all of which are critical to getting good pictures of the moon. You must be very specific about your exposure settings, and Manual mode lets you dial in the precise values you need.
2. Shoot in RAW
You have enough to worry about when taking pictures of the moon: exposure settings, weather concerns, cloud cover, foreground obstructions…and that’s just the beginning.
Setting the right white balance and making sure your highlights and shadows are perfectly captured is almost impossible to do in the moment. Thankfully, RAW can save the day.
Shooting in RAW gives you ultimate flexibility when editing your moon photos in a program such as Lightroom. You can adjust the exposure, tweak the sharpening, bring out details you might have missed, and of course, adjust the white balance to your heart’s content.
The JPEG format is fine for many photographic situations, but not moon photography. For best results, use RAW.
3. Use a fast shutter speed
Shutter speed is a good place to start when thinking about moon photography settings because of how fast the moon moves across the sky. Similar to sports photography, you’ll need a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion.
1/180s is a good starting point, but if you can go higher without increasing your ISO, I recommend doing so. 1/250s is good and so is 1/320s (go beyond that, and you start to get diminishing returns).
4. Keep your ISO low
Cameras have come a long way, and what used to be considered a crazy high ISO – like 3200 or 6400 – is now easily achieved without a huge loss in image quality. Things are a bit different when taking photos of the moon, though. Lower ISOs are always preferable, and that holds doubly true for photos of our nearest celestial neighbor.
ISO 100 or 200 is best, but that might not be realistic given the lens you’re using. Generally speaking, you should be fine with ISO 800 or lower, partly because you will get a cleaner image, but also because you will have more leeway when editing your RAW files afterward.
5. Use a (reasonably) small aperture
Most lenses have what’s known as a sweet spot, where the image isn’t too soft and chromatic aberration is well-controlled. This sweet spot isn’t usually at the widest or smallest aperture, but somewhere in the middle.
For that reason, I like to take pictures of the full moon at an aperture between f/4 and f/8. However, the optimal aperture will depend on your particular lens and the type of photos you’re taking.
Honestly, of all the moon photography settings to worry about, I would put aperture at the bottom of my list. Before you consider the aperture, make sure you have a fast shutter speed and the lowest possible ISO. Finally, adjust your aperture until you get a picture you like.
Even if your photos are not tack-sharp because you had to shoot wide open, it’s a trade-off I recommend making. I would rather have a slightly blurry result than a higher ISO setting that will result in noise, especially in the deep blacks of the night sky.
6. Work with a long lens
Let’s get straight to it: you’ll want a telephoto lens for your moon photography venture. With a longer focal length, you’re not just photographing a tiny white circle in the sky; you’re capturing craters, shadows, and all those mesmerizing details.
Starting at around 200mm can yield decent results, especially if you’re using an APS-C camera, but I’d really aim for 300mm or even higher. A 400mm or 500mm lens is even better, and 600mm is better still. Assuming you use a sharp lens, the longer the focal length, the more detail you’ll get in your shots, and the less you’ll need to crop while editing.
But what if you don’t have a long lens? Well, it’s not the end of the world. Shorter lenses can work too, but you’ll be sacrificing detail. Expect to spend more time cropping to make the moon the star of your shot (and expect reduced sharpness as a result of your crops).
Bottom line: whether you invest in a top-of-the-line lens or make do with what you have, the lens is a critical piece of the puzzle. Longer is generally better and will save you time and effort later on!
7. Underexpose slightly
It might seem counterintuitive, but when taking pictures of the moon, you don’t want your images to be as bright as possible. I get my best results when underexposing by one stop or more, depending on the situation.
The easiest way to do this is to set your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO so your light meter indicates a properly exposed picture. Then drop the exposure by one or two stops. The result is a picture without any blown highlights and plenty of room for editing (as long as you make sure to shoot in RAW).
I also recommend using spot or center-weighted metering when doing moon photography. The moon is extraordinarily bright compared to the dark sky around it, which causes all sorts of confusion for your camera’s light meter. Telling your camera to meter based on one small portion of the scene (i.e. the moon) will help you get a better initial exposure value, one that you can then fine-tune.
8. Get creative
Taking pictures of the moon is enthralling, especially if you have never done it before. But after a few shots of that big bright ball of light in the sky, start thinking of a new approach. Try putting trees, buildings, or other objects between you and the moon. Experiment with taking pictures during the waxing or waning crescent phase.
Also, try getting shots at dawn or dusk when you can catch the sky in a rich blue or purple. These are simple, fun ways of taking pictures of the moon that can produce some unexpected results.
9. Manually focus on the moon
Autofocus is convenient, but it often struggles when it comes to moon photography. That’s when manual focus saves the day. This may seem daunting at first, but trust me, it’s easier than you might think.
The goal here is to set your lens to focus at infinity. This is crucial because the moon is really, really far away. However, be careful. Turning your focus ring to the farthest point can sometimes go beyond infinity, making the moon blurry instead of sharp.
So, here’s a pro tip: use your camera’s LCD screen as a focusing aid. Magnify the moon on the LCD, and then adjust the manual focus ring. Keep tweaking until the moon’s surface looks crisp.
Mastering manual focus might take a bit of practice, but it’s worth it. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find it invaluable not just for moon photography but for other genres as well.
10. Tweak your results afterward
You’ve got your shot. Now what? Well, the truth is that capturing the moon is only part of the journey. Post-processing is where you bring your moon photograph to life, and you adjust tones and colors to complement your settings choices.
You’ll likely need to add some sharpening and contrast, both of which will make those craters pop, revealing the moon in all its intricate detail. Software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop offers excellent tools for this! Also, remember that even a slight adjustment can make a world of difference.
But what about color? You might want to adjust the white balance for a natural result – and you can even make some temperature or tint tweaks for aesthetic reasons. Maybe you want a cooler image with bluish tones or perhaps a warmer look. The choice is yours, and color correction tools can help.
Last, don’t forget about exposure. If your image is underexposed, you’ll want to bring up the shadows or overall exposure to reveal lots of detail. And if the shot is overexposed, not all is lost. If you shot in RAW, you can likely recover some of those blown-out highlights!
Moon photography settings: final words
There’s no magic or secret sauce when it comes to getting great shots of the moon. The only real trick is to get the right moon photography settings and to keep practicing until you’re happy with the results.
And remember: The moon isn’t going anywhere, and every lunar phase offers a new opportunity to perfect your skills. Missed a shot? There’s always another night. Moon photography is an ongoing learning process, and the more you shoot, the better you’ll get.
Try some of these settings as a starting point, and then branch out and see what you can come up with. You might be surprised at the pictures you’re able to take!
Moon photography settings FAQ
It’s possible, but this is an area where a DSLR or mirrorless camera with full manual controls really has the edge. A mobile phone can’t zoom in very far, and even those that do have optical zoom lack the light-gathering ability required for good moon shots. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but you’ll likely get significantly better results with a dedicated camera.
A zoom lens helps, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. Even a basic 55-250mm kit lens, like the one that might have come with your camera when you bought it, is fine. Just make sure to follow some of the tips in this article, and you can get some good moon pictures.
That really depends, and there’s not always a good answer. Some people like to use the Daylight setting because the moon is reflecting the sunlight and has no actual light of its own. Just make sure you shoot in RAW so you can adjust your white balance after you take the picture.
First, make sure you are using a small aperture like f/8 or f/11, which will give a much wider depth of field. In addition, you need to put a lot of space between you and your foreground objects. If you’re shooting through tree branches in your own backyard, they will always end up far too blurry. Position yourself so the trees, buildings, or other foreground objects are farther away; this will help make sure they are more in focus.
Many people have asked me this, and it all comes down to your lens. A longer focal length will make the moon appear larger. If you don’t have a long lens, you can rent one for the few days that a bright full moon is visible. Many professional moon pictures are also cropped, and if you use a very high megapixel camera, you have a great deal of freedom to crop without a huge drop in quality.