How to Shoot the Moon

With the right lens you’d imagine it was easy, but the moon moves faster than you think.

The moon has fascinated and intrigued mankind for about as long as we’ve been able to see it. Appearing on everything from birthday cards to religious symbols, the moon and its iconic stages have come to mean all sorts of things. Make it a part of your composition and you’re able to add a focal point to a night scene, or even create a composite image with real drama. Unleash your creativity and anything is possible.

Related image
The iconic Dreamworks logo plays on the sense of timelessness evoked by the moon

You can say a lot with the moon. Steven Spielberg knew that back in 1982 when he made a giant full moon the backdrop to a silhouette of ET flying home. Dreamworks knows it too – the company’s logo of a boy fishing from the tip of a crescent moon conveys feelings of calm and simpler times. Have you ever thought about doing more with the moon in your shots?

Timing is everything

Since it passes by every night, when you decide to shoot depends on what stage of the moon you’re after. Various apps and websites can tell you where you are in the lunar cycle, but if you’re shooting somewhere unfamiliar you might want to turn to an app like Sun Surveyor (iTunes and Google Play). As well as showing the precise path the moon will take, it also pinpoints sunrises and sunsets.

In the frame

If your aim is to shoot the moon as big as you can in the frame, then when it comes to the lens, bigger is better. A 400mm lens should give you a good-sized moon, but you could get away with 200mm and crop tightly in. If your lens isn’t long enough and you can’t afford a new one, think about using an extender or teleconverter. A 2x extender can turn a 140mm lens into 400mm one. Also, if you’re using a UV protector filter you’ll want to remove it for this shot as it can introduce blur.

None of these zooms will enable you to shoot a detail of the moon. For that, you need an astro-telescope with camera mount. We’ll look at these in a future blog, but if this moon stuff gets you hooked, just wait until you see what awaits with Celestron’s range of telescopes that reveal the secrets of the universe.

Back to our closest celestial neighbour, you’ll find getting the moon exposed correctly is likely to be the hardest part. In a dark black sky, a shot of the moon often turns out over-exposed, but photograph it in the evening, before the sun goes down, and it’s a different story. Against a blue sky, it’s far easier for your camera to expose correctly, getting a shot that reveals the lunar landscape in all its glory.

To get incredibly detailed shots like this one you want to think about investing in a Celestron telescope.

Three sturdy legs

Shoot the moon on a bright evening and you might get away without a tripod, but any other time, and especially if you’re using an extender, a tripod is essential, as is a remote trigger (or the camera’s inbuilt timer). If your camera has a mirror lockup feature, this will steady it even further.

When it comes to settings, only manual will do. Opt for around f/8 or somewhere around the middle of your aperture range. This is the lens’s “sweet-spot”, where you’ll get the sharpest image and the crispest colours.

Depending on light pollution in your area, and any clouds that could reflect the moonlight, ISO and shutter speed values will vary. The good news is that the moon moves slowly, so you’ll get plenty of chances to try again; but that’s bad news too – because it’s moving, you don’t want your shutter speed much slower than 1/60. Start with around ISO 100-200 and see what you get – keep it low if you can, to avoid noise creeping in.

Focusing is easy. Switch to manual and set the focus point to infinity. When you’ve got the moon in sight, take a test shot, check the exposure, then zoom in to double-check focusing.

Even when you get all the settings right, you might still find some areas are overexposed and others underexposed. Bracketing is useful here, enabling you to pull out extra detail later by merging the shots in Adobe’s Lightroom or Photoshop.

­­The moon as a background
Oversize the moon, make it the focal point of your shot and a dull scene comes to life.

Sometimes you don’t want a shot of just the moon – you want an image with the moon in the background. Here’s where you have to pay attention to focal length at the other end of the scale. If you shoot a scene using wide-angle, the moon will appear smaller than it really is. In fact, use any lens under 50mm and the moon is going to shrink (and if it’s low to the horizon, even 50mm won’t cut it). You can fix it in software but it’s always easier to get it right in camera if you can.

For a really great moon shot, you’ll almost certainly want to take your favourite from the shoot into either Lightroom or Photoshop – it’s the only way to pull out all those extra details on the lunar surface. Play with contrast (and clarity), highlights and shadow settings, and you’ll be amazed at just how much extra detail reveals itself.

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