If there’s one shot you need to take it is a photograph of the moon. Capturing a good photo of the moon is easy, however capturing a great photo of the moon is a real challenge and more difficult than you’d think. For some tips and tricks to help you capture a stunning photograph of the moon, or two, check out the following tips and tricks.
Photography equipment you need to photograph the moon
First things first, you are not going to be able to photograph the moon with an automatic camera. If you want to take a photo of the moon you need a camera that allows you total control over the exposure settings. This means you will need to use a professional compact camera (like the Canon G1X), an interchangeable lens compact system camera or an slr camera. The choice of camera you want to use is entirely up to you, and the sort of gear you have of course, however I would always recommend using a slr camera to photograph the moon.
Full frame dslr cameras obviously have higher image quality than crop sensor dslr cameras however it is worth noting that the crop factor should be considered. A crop factor dslr will get you closer to the moon and make it bigger in the frame. Whilst the image quality of a crop sensor dslr camera may not be the highest the difference will be negligible when photographing the moon and you won’t notice the difference. I shoot a full frame 6D and a crop sensor 7D and my camera of choice for photographing the moon is the 7D, because of the crop factor.
A wide angle lens is no good for moon photography because the moon will end up a tiny white speck in a sea of darkness, which isn’t going to make a good photo. When taking photographs of the moon you need to use a tele lens, and the longer the better. The longer the focal length of the lens the bigger the moon will appear in the photo.
Photographing the moon is going to require pretty fast shutter speeds, but will they be fast enough to combat camera shake? The answer to this depends on the tele lens you use, whether the lens has image stabilisation (or an equivalent) and how steady your arms are. If you use a 200mm lens you may be able to get shutter speeds fast enough to take hand held shots. If, however you use lenses with a longer focal length, such as the Canon 100-400 lens (for a full review take a look at Canon 100-400 review) the chances are you won’t get the shutter speeds fast enough. A tripod is an essential bit of kit for moon photography.
When pressing the shutter button it is all too easy to move the camera and make it vibrate, resulting in camera shake and blurry photos. You could use the camera’s self-timer to overcome this problem but when pressing the shutter button there is always the risk of nudging the camera and accidentally altering the composition and the focal point, neither of which you want to do.
When taking a photograph of the moon you need to use a remote shutter release. You can buy wired remote shutter releases (the cheaper option) or wireless remote shutter releases (the expensive option) both of which do the same job. I personally use a wired shutter release because it is cheaper, it doesn’t require batteries and it does everything I need it to. I don’t see the point in using anything more.
When to photograph the moon
Most people try and photograph the moon when it is full, which makes perfect sense until you actually stop and think about it. When the moon is full the sun is shining on its face proving uniform and even lighting. When taking photos of the moon you want to show as much detail as possible (as many craters and mountains as possible) and to do this you need contrasting light, and this is at a maximum when the moon is in its quarter phase.
If the conditions aren’t right you won’t be able to get a good photo of the moon, so Mother Nature has to be on your side. If it is too cloudy it isn’t even worth getting your gear out. That said, if there are light wispy clouds you can use these to your advantage and capture photos of the thin clouds passing through the moon. The best conditions for moon photography are clear nights, since this is when the moon will be at its most visible.
Where to photograph the moon
The city centre or anywhere that suffers from a lot of artificial light and light pollution is no good for photographing the moon. You need to venture out in to the countryside or wilderness and go somewhere that is dark. You know, the kind of places where there are no streetlights, no house lights, no factory lights etc.
As well as going somewhere dark you should also aim to go the highest point possible. The higher you can get, the closer to the moon you can get and the bigger the moon will appear.
Put these together and it is clear that you want to be up a dark mountain, but this isn’t always possible. If you can’t get to a dark mountain don’t worry, as long as you get away from the light and the light pollution that is the most important thing.
Exposure settings to photograph the moon
The moon is a very bright subject and it is easy to underestimate just how bright it is. Because of this exposing for the moon can be tricky and if you leave the camera to its own devices it will either correctly expose the moon and render the rest of the sky in the frame totally black, or correctly expose the dark sky and render the moon as a white blob. Given the choice you want to correctly expose the moon however neither situation is ideal.
Set the aperture at your lens’ sweet spot, which is typically f8 – f11. The sweet spot is where the lens is at its sharpest, and this is where you want it for the best image quality. Use an ISO no higher than 400 to make sure the final photos don’t suffer from too much digital noise. Next, point the camera at the moon and adjust the shutter speed until the exposure needle shows a correct exposure. With the camera set this way take a test shot and review the results.
If there are any hotspots on the moon increase the shutter speed and take another shot. . It is important to keep the shutter speeds up not only to prevent over exposure but to also keep the moon nice and sharp. The moon moves faster than you think and if you use a long exposure you will get a blurry photo, not because of camera shake/movement but because of subject movement. If there are still hotspots increase the shutter speed and take another shot. Keep repeating the process until you get the exposure right.
Okay, I appreciate that this chimping method isn’t the best practice, and nailing the shot through trial and error may seem a bit of a cop-out but it is the best way of getting a decent shot of the moon. Trust me.
Follow the above and I can guarantee you will capture stunning photos of the moon that show it in all its glory.
Other night time photography articles that may be of interest
If you want to have a go at night and low light photography but haven’t got a clue where to start “Night photography tips for stunning low light photos” is a good starter for ten. This article provides the basic tips and tricks you need to capture great low light photos.
If you want to get the best shot you need to use the best lens for the job, and the same can be said when taking night time and low light photos. “And the best lens for night photography is…” is an article that explores the best lenses for night and low light photography.
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.