We seem to be having a lot of lunar happenings at the moment—every week there’s either a “super-moon,” a “blood-red moon” or some sort of partial eclipse. It’s very tempting to just whip out your smartphone or point-and-click camera to try to capture the event in its full glory.
Photographing the moon should be easy, it is after all the second brightest object in the sky and the nearest celestial body to Earth. Yet, we all have those blurry or overexposed photos on our phone of the last lunar event. Where are we going wrong?
In this complete guide to moon photography, we will look at why those photos bear no relation to the majestic moon you may have seen. We will also look at how to photograph the moon with the right equipment and what settings you should use. We will discover whether you can you use your telescope as a lens for your camera, and, if so, how easy is it?
Note: Most lenses will be measured in metric and millimeters (mm), whereas physical dimensions will be measured in inches.
Can You Take Photographs of the Moon With a SmartPhone?
It was all going so well! The sky was clear, and directly above me was the “supermoon.” I had it lined up perfectly on my iPhone—perfect lunar photography conditions. Yet all I had to show for my efforts was a fuzzy glowing soccer ball in an overexposed sky.
Let’s start by saying you are going to struggle to get any sort of decent shots of the moon on your smartphone. Smartphones, particularly the fruit-based variety, are notoriously bad at night shots. Even worse when it comes to astrophotography, the lens is too wide, and the sensor will generate too much digital noise.
The only way I have ever taken quality lunar shots on my iPhone is to cheat and take it with something else before uploading it to the Camera Roll. Good for Android bashing, but anybody who knows about lunar photography will soon catch you out.
So what type of camera should you be using and what other equipment do you need for those stunning moon shots?
The Best Camera Equipment for Moon Photography
A misconception is that lunar photography will be expensive, but the fact is you can use a lot of the gear you already own for stunning moon vistas.
One of the big problems when photographing the moon is that it will often appear smaller on photos than it did to your naked eye. An optical trick known as moon illusion doesn’t help. The human eye is thought to act like a 50mm fixed focus lens, and many cameras with wide-angle lenses will feature a shorter focal length for a smaller resulting image.
A DSLR camera with a long lens will give optimal lunar shots. If you are shooting just the moon, a telephoto lens of 200mm or 300mm will give pretty good results. If you really want to fill the frame of the photo with the moon, you will need an even longer lens or a teleconverter which can extend a lens you already own.
Any DSLR camera or a mirrorless camera will work for capturing the moon and some of your super-zoom 35mm cameras with manual settings can also work. You will need to be able to take control of things like the aperture, the focal length and the shutter speed—more on settings later.
As you may have already experienced with astronomical telescopes or binoculars, the more magnification, the more the image is susceptible to vibration or shake. You may be able to get away with holding your camera very still for some shots, but the best results will definitely come from investing in a tripod.
Most quality cameras will come with a threaded 1/4–20 adapter on the base, which can be used to directly attach it to a tripod to steady the view. These standardized adaptors can also be used to mount your camera to a telescope or binoculars using an afocal camera bracket.
A shutter release cable or remote can also help prevent any camera shake once you have the shot lined up. If you don’t have one, or your camera doesn’t support one, you can always cheat and use the self-timer function found on modern cameras. When a camera features mirrors, check it has a mirror lock-up mode to further reduce vibrations.
Using Your Camera with a Telescope
Obviously, the longer lens and more magnification you have, the more detailed shots of the moon you will take. You may already have a super long telephoto lens in the form of your telescope. Astronomical binoculars will also offer more magnification to capture all those craters in detail.
The simplest way of using your telescope or binoculars to extend the magnification of your camera is known as the afocal method. Basically, you line the camera lens up with the viewfinder of your usual moon-gazing equipment, either by hand or with a tripod.
Afocal brackets which hold your camera to the telescope are a better solution with less need for realigning the camera every time you move the telescope. Using the same 1/4–20 threaded adapter you use for attaching to a tripod, afocal brackets hold the camera steady to the eyepiece.
Some cameras may have threaded rings used to attach filters, which can also be used for fixing to the telescope for a steady shot. Another solution is a DSLR camera with a t-ring adapter which attaches the telescope like a lens to the body of the camera. This, however, can often be an expensive setup more suited to advanced astrophotography.
What Are the Best Conditions for Moon Photography?
Unfortunately, we are not always blessed with those stunning blood supermoons we all want to capture. Sometimes we may not even have a clear view of the moon, especially if the sky is cloudy or heavily light polluted.
It is recommended that you get away from the pollution of larger cities and travel to a remote location and preferably at a higher elevation for the best shots. The less distance there is between the moon and you, the better results you will get.
When Is the Best Time?
When to take the photos can be determined by the phases of the moon, waiting for the right night can give a much better shot. The full moon provides a great image but can be much harder to get right due to the brightness. The time of day can also affect when you will get the largest images.
The moon will appear larger when it is closer to the horizon, so taking a photo at moonset or moonrise will often give the best shots. At twilight, there will be a residual light in the sky which can help pick out some details of the surroundings while adding interesting colors to the sky.
Although the moon can be seen in the day, it will not be as prominent and is best used to compliment the foreground features. Moon photography at night will give a really clear and crisp moon against the background of the pitch black sky.
You can use the following US Navy Moon Phases page to find out what phase the moon will be in and calculate the moonrise or set by date. The best periods for imaging the moon tend to be the first few days around the first or last quarter moon phases when craters and mountains cast longer shadows on the surface.
How to Photograph the Moon—The Camera Settings
So you have the right equipment, chosen the best time, and are now ready to take those lunar shots. Here’s where it gets quite technical, but don’t worry, lunar photography is fairly easy once you understand the basics. It’s a great introduction to the world of astrophotography that just about anyone can do.
No two cameras are the same, but in general, no preset or auto function will be able to properly meter the moon. Ideally shoot in a fully manual mode, or at the very least Aperture Priority mode.
The full moon will actually cast a fair amount of light. The bright moon on a dark background throws the camera’s auto exposure settings into disarray, so you will need to set them manually. The exact settings may depend on the environment you shoot in—at dusk, for example, you could use a faster shutter speed than night time shoots.
The brightness of the moon means you should set a low ISO of 100 and an aperture of f11. A low ISO will help to eliminate any noise or grain from the image. When adjusting the aperture start at f11 but some lenses may have a sweet spot which could be anywhere up to f16.
The shutter speed can depend on the many variables which we have already discussed, like geographical location, the phase of the moon and the desired shot. Short shutter speeds are generally used to freeze action. The moon actually orbits over the Earth at approximately 2,290 miles per hour—wow! Fast!
Fortunately, because it is a distance of 238,855 miles away, it doesn’t streak through our skies at more than three times the speed of sound. However, you have to remember it is moving and too slow a shutter speed will cause motion blur. A general rule of thumb is to keep your shutter speed at 1/100 to 1/125th second.
The Looney 11 Rule
A simple rule to memorize which should enable you to get a good exposure of the moon is the “looney 11 rule.”
Looney 11 Rule: Set the aperture to f11 and the shutter speed at a reciprocal value of the camera or film used.
For example, if you set the camera at f11 and use an ISO of 100, you should aim for 1/100th-second shutter speed.
When the ISO is 200 with an aperture of f11, then the shutter speed should be 1/200th second.
Although you may have to tweak it a little, depending on your lens, the camera, and the environment, using this rule should point you in the right direction.
Focusing On The Moon
You might think the hard bit was the camera settings, and focusing on the moon should be easy. The moon is large, it’s bright and your eye can focus on it quite easy, so why not a camera?
If you try to use autofocus, your camera may attempt to focus on the moon but will be unable to lock focus. Some may suggest trying to autofocus then turn to manual focus, but more people would recommend that you use purely manual focus. Set the camera lens barrel to infinity and then manually adjust until you see the moon in focus.
Features on modern cameras like Live View, Focus and Magnification Peaking will all help, but it may take a few attempts. Try a few shots on the plain moon first, then mark the barrel with some gaffer tape or a white marker when you find that sweet spot.
Whether you are taking photographs of the moon alone or as part of a landscape, bracketing your exposures can help build clearer imaging. Bracketing is where you use multiple shots, in the same way as HDR photos do, to build the perfect photo.
Think of it as taking a photo in a dark room with a bright light bulb—you can either get a clear image of the light bulb but very little detail, or plenty of detail of the room but an overexposed bulb. Sometimes dimmer parts of the moon may be clear but the brighter parts will be an overexposed haze.
Focus on the different parts of a scene for different shots and then use post-processing software like PhotoShop to build the image. You may find one shot has everything you need and you can just delete the other shots sometimes—that’s no hardship.
The following YouTube eHow video explains how to reduce glare and other common issues you may get when photographing the moon.
The Take-Home Message—Patience is the Key
Taking photos of the moon, it can be quite easy to get some amazing lunar shots. The moon is an incredible object of beauty and can add atmosphere to any night sky shots.
It may take a few attempts to get it right, but armed with the correct camera settings and a little practice you will soon be snapping like a pro.
If not, you can always use PhotoShop to jazz up those shots. Learning how to photograph the moon is a great introduction to astrophotography.
We hope you have enjoyed the complete guide to moon photography above, and as always, the best way to learn is to get out there and start photographing.