Tips on how to take successful moon pictures

How to take moon pictures
Photo by Joseph M Zawodny

Introduction

In this article I will try to cover the photography technique required to take good pictures of the moon. I have been for a long time fascinated by moon landscapes pictures and by pictures of the moon alone and wondered for a long time how can those pictures be accomplished. However, after some personal experience, it turned out that shooting the moon is not that hard.

The challenges

If you ever tried to take a moon landscape or, to put it in other terms, a landscape showing a moon you have certainly felt those two pressing problems

The moon looks so small

You will directly feel that the moon showing in your picture is x times smaller than how you had visualized it in the scene. This is mainly because of two reasons.
* Landscape photography often requires wide angle lenses and wide angle lenses will make the moon look even smaller
* The ability of our brain to show us the moon bigger than it actually is in the real scene, just because we know it should be bigger

Impossible Exposure

A night scene with a moon is almost impossible to expose, if you expose for the earth you will end up with a completely blown white circle as your moon. Whereas if you expose for your moon, your landscape will be completely black.

Problem solving

Well to solve the above two stated problems, you have two possible solutions

Carefully composed daylight moon picture

Daylight moon pictures can be as great photographsif not more as night scenes with moon. But if you spend enough time looking at some daylight pictures including the moon you will notice two common attributes between all of these shots
* Telephoto shots: Those pictures are usually carefully composed with a long telephoto lens and not wide anglesand thus eliminating problem one
* Daylight shots: No kidding 🙂 Well being taken during the day, these pictures doesn’t need the long exposure of the night shots and this eliminates problem two.

Separate night shots:

Well this might be a surprise for you, but it is true. Mostnot to say all night scenes pictures that includes a moon are blended shots of different exposures taken maybe miles or even months apart. It just seem an obvious solution to the above two stated problems.

Camera Settings

Lens Selection

You will need a fairly long camera lens, from experience and on my Canon EOS 30D which has a 1.6x crop factor a 300mm is hardly enough. Even with it a good crop is still required.

ISO Settings

Set your camera to its lowest ISO speed. Since we are going to be using a tripod anyway then no need to boost the ISO speed, just set it to the lowest value possible because this will give you the cleanest picture your digital camera can give you.

Enable Mirror Lockup and Timer

Moon pictures are very delicate and you’ll really hate a blurry one. So, to minimize camera movements to the max you will want to enable the mirror lockup and, unless you have a cable release for your camera, enable the timer on your camera.

shoot RAW

RAW is much more flexible in editing afterwards and it is not unusual that you will want to develop different versions of your moon shots with different white balance settings.

White Balance

I usually shoot the moon with a tungsten white balance that will give it a nice bronze color. Some people do prefer to set the White Balance to Daylight

Aperture

My preferred aperture for moon shots is f/8 but I think this will also depend on your lens, so I’d say f/8 ~ f/16 range is OK.

Focus

Set your lens on Manual Focus and focus for infinity.
N.B.: Some lenses can focus past infinity, so make sure your lens focus in on infinity

Exposure guide

I have read the following values in some magazine but I really don’t remember which one.

Full => shutter:1/ISO aperture f/16
Gibbous => shutter:2/ISO aperture f/16
Quarter => shutter: 5/ISO aperture f/16
Crescent => shutter: 10/ISO aperture f/16

Exposure compensation
Moon high in the sky: none
Moon in mid sky: +1EV
Moon at/near horizon: +2EV
Mist haze: +1 to +2 EV

N.B.: Don’t forget to bracket your shots 1 and 2 stops on each sides. I found my best settings to be at f/11, 1/60s, ISO 100

Moon Exposure Calculator

I have added to ADIDAP a moon exposure calculator that can be used to determine the correct shutter speed based on the ISO, aperture, moon location, moon phase and weather condition.

Taking the shot

Well all that you have to do right now is to mount your camera on your tripod, put that moon in the dead center and shoot.

Conclusion

The tips and techniques described in this article are not necessarily the best and surely not the only ones available but it is what I’ve been successfully using most for the past 4 years.