One of the first words I learned how to say was, “Moon.” All of my life, I have been fascinated by our natural satellite and I have been photographing it for as long as I have had a camera. My photos have gotten better over the years, but I still search for the perfect photo of the moon. Here are some tips and thoughts for your own lunar photography.
Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp
1. Plan Your Shot
There are two basic types of lunar photography:
1. the moon is the main (or only) object in the image,
2. the moon is an element of a landscape image.
For the first, the main planning you will have to do is know the weather and the phase of the moon and have the right gear. (More on gear later.)
For the second, you need to engage in more extensive planning. Where do you envision the moon in your shot? When is it rising or setting? Again, what phase is it in? There is software, websites, and mobile applications that can help you track the moon’s position at a given location. Sometimes you may stumble on a lucky shot, but there are rewards for being prepared and planning an epic landscape featuring the moon overhead.
2. Moon Phases
The majestic full moon is what grabs most people’s attention. Unfortunately, the full moon makes for the most boring lunar photos. Why? Because the entire disc of the moon is illuminated, you get a relatively low-contrast white disc overhead. When waxing toward a full moon, or waning following one, the partially illuminated moon reveals its wonderful texture of craters and their shadows. If you want to capture a “full moon,” photographically speaking, you are better off the night before or the night after the true full moon.
Gibbous, quarter, and crescent moons all have their places in the world of photography and they can all be visually interesting and engaging. Don’t limit yourself only to when the moon is full (or near full). One thing to note: A small crescent moon can be difficult to photograph due to the smaller reflecting visible surface area of the satellite. Two things are working in the photographer’s favor: 1) the sky is brighter when the crescent moon is overhead and, 2) today’s digital cameras are getting better and better, with high ISO images allowing faster shutter speeds that will help reduce motion blur and keep the crescent moon sharp.
3. Moon Position
The position of the moon overhead is something to consider. If you are only photographing the moon, you’ll have a better chance at a sharp photo when it’s well above the horizon. This is because when the moon is lower on the horizon, the light it reflects must travel through greater distances of Earth’s atmosphere. Of course, if the moon is an element in your landscape photo, its position is critical to your image, regardless of its distance above the horizon.
Clear nights are preferred by many photographers. But, on nights with scattered clouds, or thin overcast layers, do not be deterred from attempting to photograph the moon. There are times when cloudy skies can part or be penetrated by the moon and lead to great photographic opportunities.
5. Atmospheric Turbulence
There are nights that, at first glance look crystal clear, but on closer inspection, are not. Air is not uniform in density. Because of this, we get twinkling stars overhead. That twinkling is caused by atmospheric turbulence and it can turn any ground-based lunar image into a not-so-sharp rendition of the moon (see shaded section at the end of the article).
When photographing the moon alone in the sky, the natural tendency is to center the moon in the image. If you dare, try to mix things up. Center the moon’s shadow if photographing a crescent moon. Use the Rule of Thirds. Rotate a quarter moon 90 degrees. As passengers on Spaceship Earth, we are used to the moon having a certain look and perspective. As a photographic artist, you are not restricted to that perspective.
7. Lens Choice
If you are shooting the moon as part of a landscape, your lens focal length will be determined by what portions of the landscape you want in the frame. With a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera, the moon’s size in the photograph will resemble, more or less, what your eye sees in real life—it will be fairly small. When you go with a wide-angle lens, the moon will appear smaller in the frame.
If you are shooting the moon alone, you can get pretty good results with a 200mm or 300mm lens, but to really fill the frame, you will likely want an even longer telephoto lens or you can use a teleconverter to extend a lens you already own.
With modern image-stabilization lenses, coupled with a fast shutter speed and noiseless higher ISO performance, it isn’t unreasonable to take a handheld photograph of a bright moon with a 300mm lens—or longer. Photographers using image-stabilized 2000mm super-zoom cameras have captured amazing handheld images of the moon.
Minus some steady hands and some electronic luck, you will want to photograph the moon from a steady tripod to get the best results.
9. Mirror Lock-Up and Remote Release
When photographing the moon through long telephoto lenses, any amount of movement can soften the image. Therefore, use a remote shutter release (wired or wireless) and, on an SLR camera, use mirror lock-up to minimize vibrations.
There are no hard and fast rules for exposure for the moon because there are many variables. Some charts provide a baseline, but be ready to adjust as you work with your heavenly model above.
ISO Lets start here. When photographing a gibbous, quarter, or even a larger crescent moon in the sky by itself, there is often enough reflected sunlight to allow you to shoot at your camera’s native ISO. Even though you will likely be photographing the moon at night, remember that it is a relatively bright object and will not require higher and noisier ISO settings. More extreme crescent moons may require an ISO bump, as will handheld lunar photography.
For moon-in-landscape photos, you may need to adjust your ISO to help maintain a certain aperture or shutter speed.
Aperture Sharpness is the name of the game when photographing the moon. Because of this, shoot your lens at its sweet-spot aperture and adjust shutter speed and then, ISO as needed. Shooting wide open may make the moon softer, as will diffraction from stopping the aperture down too much. Shoot in the sweet spot for whatever lens you are using.
If the moon is a part of a landscape, and you need shallow depth of field, by all means, shoot with wide apertures, but know the moon will not be sharp in those images.
Shutter Speed Short shutter speeds are used to freeze action. The moon orbits the Earth at approximately 2,290 miles per hour. That is fast. Luckily, because it is a mean distance of 238,855 miles, it doesn’t streak overhead at more than three times the speed of sound. However, it is moving, and shooting with a slow shutter speed will cause the moon to blur in your images. A good rule of thumb is to keep your shutter speed at a 1/125-second minimum.
When you point the camera skyward to catch the moon, depending on the metering mode selected, the camera is going to take the inky black of space into account when exposing your image. You want to expose for only the moon because it doesn’t matter if the blackness of outer space remains black in your frame. Therefore, it is best to use center-weighted or spot metering to tell the camera to expose only for that really bright section of the frame.
Guess what? This is usually a part of lunar photography that isn’t challenging at all because the moon is bright and modern autofocus systems should have no problem locking good focus on the moon. For manual focus, use electronic focus guides, viewfinder prisms, and/or live view and focus peaking.
13. Dynamic Range
When shooting at night, the moon may very well be the brightest object in the frame. If you are including landscape in your image, it will be relatively much, much darker than the moon. This will make it difficult to properly expose the moon and still retain some detail in the landscape. This is why silhouetted landscapes are prevalent in images where the moon shows contrast and definition. The dynamic range of digital cameras is getting better all the time, but many lunar photographers use composite images, or allow the moon to go pure white to show the foreground.
Regardless of the type of moon photos (alone or landscape), you may want to try bracketing your exposures. Digital photography gives you the opportunity to take “free” photographs, so when you are photographing the moon, shoot a lot and shoot some more. In post processing, you will find that some photos are sharper than others taken with identical settings, due to atmospheric interference and other factors. Bracket or adjust your exposure to see if you get better results at different apertures or shutter speeds.
My grandmother used to call it “Todd’s Moon,” but I will gladly share it with you. What other tips and techniques do you have for photographing the moon? Tell us in the Comments section, below!
For more tips and interesting facts about the moon, please check these articles: