5 Tips for Taking Moon Photos

In this post, I’m going to share  my top 5 tips for taking moon photos. I’ve always been fascinated by the moon and in recent years enjoy taking moon photos with my DSLR camera. The moon can be a bit tricky to shoot which adds the the fun and excitement of capturing the moon.

  1. Planning is key. It’s pretty easy to go out and capture an isolated picture of the moon. All you need is a clear sky, zoom lens and a steady tripod. On flip side, capturing a creative and stunning moonscape image is far more difficult thus requires some planning. I highly recommend to use a smart phone app like my favorite The Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan when and where the moon will be located relative to your shooting location. It is a map-centric sun and moon calculator: see how the light will fall on the land, be it day or night, for any location on earth. This app is 2nd to none to help plan sunset, sunrise and moon shoots by scouting for the best location. The app also enables you to plan when / where to be about 30 min prior to moonrise or moonset. This typically results with the moon lower in the horizon thus it appears slightly larger and there is enough ambient light to capture a creative moonscape.
  2. Use Live View Mode and self time or shutter cable for tack sharp focus. I’ll flip into Live View Mode on my Canon DSLR and zoom into 5x or 10x. Once focus is nailed down, I’ll roll back to the view finder and start snapping. The moon is also constantly moving across the sky having a good solid ball head tripod mount to make minor framing adjustments is a huge help to maintain focus. I’m often too lazy to break out my shutter release cable so most of the time I just set the camera to 2 second timer which ensures it settles down after I press the shutter button.
  3. Use Spot Metering. The moon is a very bright object in the quickly darkening sky thus spot metering is key to obtain a good reading on the camera sensor. By exposing to the moon, it will cause the cause the rest of the sky to go nearly black.
  4. Camera settings determine creative possibilities. Every camera is different but most cameras share a pretty common set of basic settings. The moon is typically much brighter then the ambient light of the surrounding environment. This is why I prefer to use Manual Mode to have full creative control of the shutter and aperture to achieve my desired result. Before switching into manual mode, take a reading from program mode to get an idea of what the camera thinks is the right exposure settings, then switch into Manual mode. I usually set my f-stop to 1 stop over wide open i.e. if the lowest f-stop on my lens is f/2,8 I will set my camera to f/4.0. This is not that critical on professional grade lenses but on prosumer lenses this trick can make a huge difference in image sharpness. After the f-stop is set, take a few pics and adjust the shutter speed to make sure moon is properly exposed. Now its decision time – do you want to expose the image for the moon or the surrounding environment or both? I typically try to capture both so I have more creative options later in post processing. To do so, I’ll take a few captures of a properly exposed moon which typically causes the sky and surrounding area to go black. Then I’ll take a few more captures with the exposure set for the overall scene which over exposes moon. I typically follow the same process to capture a couple of images with my focus set to the moon and a couple more with focus set to 1/3 into the frame. Then the images can be easily blended together in post processing to produce some fun creative moonscape images.I also typically shoot the moon in daylight white balance and set to RAW mode on my camera which helps provide some additional data for post processing.
  5. Use the right lens for the desired result. For an isolated moon image, use 200-300mm zoom lens on a 1.6 crop sensor camera which results in an effective focal distance of 320 – 480mm. If you are using a full sensor camera, try using a 1.4 or 2.0 extender with a 200mm lens. A steady tripod will also ensure a sharp picture without having to use image stabilization. For more creative Moonscape images, use a mid range zoom like 28-135mm to compose a scene with the Moon.

Updated 07/31/2012

Here are a couple of my favorite moon photos that I’ve captured using the tips / tricks mentioned above:

Full Moon over Downtown Detroit

In this image, I timed the moon setting around the same time as the sun coming up so the ambient light was pretty much the same brightness of the moon so I was able to capture in a single exposure.

Hideway Harbor

Hideway Harbor

In this image, I used an HDR of the surrounding area and merged it in Photoshop with a properly exposed image of the moon which resulted in more creative Moonscape image.

Rising Moon

Rising Moon

In this image, I exposed for the Moon which was slightly covered by haze on the horizon which helped limit the difference between the ambient light of the scene vs the light of the moon. Then I applied a creative filter in Lightroom to boost the saturation and color of the sunset.

Total Lunar Eclipse 2010

Total Lunar Eclipse 2010

This was one of the more challenging moon images that I’ve captured. It took a high ISO and some experimenting with the shutter speed to get a good exposure. I was also shooting through a heavy overcast which acted as a huge diffuser allowing me to perserve the detail in the left side of the moon while capturing the glow of the eclipse on the right.

Rocky Moon

Rocky Moon

For this one, my subject was the moonlight in the water not the moon itself so I elected to create a 11 image HDR. I shared the entire process in a recent HDR tutorial.

New Year Blue Moon

I’ve had a lot of questions on this one asking how I captured the ‘blue moon’. It was a simple trick. I set my white balance to Tungsten which created the blue hue.

Well thats all for now! I’ll continue to update this post as I pick up new tips and tricks. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or use the blog ‘Contact’ form. I always enjoy collaborating with fellow photo enthusiasts!

Ken

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