Photographing the Moon is a fundamental step for any photographer. Photographing the Moon seems easy. It is there, in the sky, beautifully bright. Just point and shoot. Sure? In reality, it is not a simple technical exercise. First, you need to master the exposure. In addition, it is essential to have a certain type of equipment. It is impossible to photograph the Moon by setting the camera to automatic mode. You will continue to get a very white ball, with no details and of poor quality. Have you ever tried taking pictures of the moon with a smartphone? The result, if it suits you, will be something like a landscape! With your DSLR camera, you can get truly spectacular photos of the moon.
The minimum equipment needed to photograph the moon
You just need an entry-level camera but coupled with the right lens and some fundamental accessories.
If you want to get a very high magnification of the moon, you will need a telephoto lens with a focal length of at least 300mm. Such a focal length allows you to get very close to the moon, without being forced to crop in postproduction, losing resolution. In this sense, a camera with an APS-C sensor is even to be preferred. This is because, thanks to the crop factor , you can get higher magnifications than a full-frame sensor.
By setting slower speeds, you can close the aperture and lower the ISO (I’ll tell you about the benefits it brings later). By lowering the times, however, if you shoot resting with hands you risk shaking. Keep in mind, if you’re using a 300mm telephoto lens, you’ll need to be careful to set a shutter speed of at least 1/300.
Shooting in the evening, therefore in low light, these settings can be a problem. Fixing the camera on a tripod, on the other hand, solves the problem. At that point, you can also go to slower times, for example around 1/100.
Automatic or remote shooting
You have the right camera and telephoto lens, you hook everything on a solid tripod, you shoot but…the photo is equally blurred. Unfortunately, it is easy for that to happen. By using slower shutter speeds, your camera will record the slightest movement. Even that is caused by the finger pressing the shutter button!
To avoid this, you have two options: use the self-timer or the remote control. The self-timer is set via the camera menu. You can usually choose between 3 or 10 seconds. It is a cheap solution, but sometimes a little inconvenient. With the self-timer, you are not in full control of the situation. Sometimes 3 seconds is not enough to position yourself. While in 10 seconds the shooting conditions can change. If you have a long night session, waiting for the self-timer every time is unnerving.
With remote shooting, on the other hand, you have full control of the situation. It is as if you were pressing the camera key at that moment. A remote shutter is a simple shutter button, which connects to the camera. It Can Be wired or wireless. It is a simple and inexpensive accessory, which you would do well to add to your outfit.
Now in 95% of situations, autofocus is used. It is a wise choice: technology has reached such high levels, that this mode often proves to be infallible.
To photograph the moon, however, I recommend manual focus. The advantage is practical. If you use the tripod, using manual focus you will only have to focus once, without thinking about it anymore. It will save a lot of battery and decrease the irritating sound.
Furthermore, if you shoot in live view (i.e. framing from the camera screen and not from the viewfinder), you can zoom in on the image and be extremely precise. With autofocus, on the other hand, you will have to focus on every shot. In the long run, it can be a big pain.
The correct exposure to photograph the Moon
Photographing the moon is a fairly unusual shooting situation because you have a very bright subject immersed in a completely black environment. In these extreme situations, automatic exposure is doomed to fail miserably. This is how you will need to set the parameters of your camera.
The first big mistake all novice photographers make is not setting the correct exposure mode. Digital cameras don’t always read exposure the same way, but they have multiple metering modes. The names of the various settings change depending on the camera brand. Roughly, however, they are these:
- Matrix or evaluative
- Center weighted average
To learn more about how exposure modes work, read this article correct exposure every time: exposure metering modes. If you photograph the moon using the first two exposure modes, the moon itself will appear as a very white ball. This happens because the light meter will try to average the light present in the whole image. It will try to compensate for the black of deep space (obviously without success), so anything brighter will appear overexposed.
That’s why you have to use spot mode. This will limit the reading to a small central part of the frame, without taking into account everything else. Pointing to the Moon, the reading of the exposure will be very precise.
The Moon is a stationary subject, so you won’t have the problem of blurred photos. The problem, however, maybe the blur. Especially if you use telephoto lenses with a very long focal length.
If you shoot hand-held, to avoid blur you will need to set a shutter speed at least equal to the inverse of the focal length. If you are using a 300mm, the safety shutter speed should be 1/300. If you use a tripod, you can set an even lower time (for example 1/100).
If your shot is limited to the Moon, the aperture becomes secondary. Being a subject a million kilometres away, the concept of depth of field becomes relative. If, on the other hand, you intend to include the moon in a landscape photo, you will need to set a fairly small aperture (at least f/8). This way you can have the whole scene in focus.
The Moon is a very bright subject, so you won’t need to raise the ISO much. Playing with the timing and aperture, try to keep yourself as low as possible. As I told you before, however, there are situations where you need to close the aperture or use faster shutter speeds. If, for example, you want to take a photo of the Moon in a sea landscape, with a light wind that moves the trees and people walking, the times will have to be faster than 1/100. As a result, you will be forced to raise the ISO. However, try not to go beyond 800, otherwise digital noise may become visible.
The ideal weather conditions for photographing the Moon
All the indications I have given you so far refer to ideal shooting situations. Unfortunately, there are weather conditions that can complicate your shooting session, making it practically impossible.
For example, you should avoid very humid nights. Humidity is no friend of the moon because it makes the sky milky and the images blurred. The myriad of airborne droplets accumulates with distance, greatly reducing sharpness. Paradoxically, a damp sky is worse than an even if the sky is not clear you can still attempt a photographic output. Some photos of the moon peeping behind the clouds are very spectacular. If it rains and the forecast doesn’t bode well, of course, avoid going out, as you may not see the moon for hours.
Another enemy of photos of the moon is the wind. Not because she is affected, but rather because you may have difficulty with the blur. Even if you use a tripod a very strong wind could be annoying and complicate the shooting phase. However, many specialized apps indicate the ideal conditions for photographing the moon. Others also allow you to calculate moon phases, rising and setting times, and eclipses such as My Moon Phase, Phases of the Moon, Moon Phase Calendar and so on.
The exact time of sunrise and sunset can be extremely useful if you decide to photograph landscapes with the Moon. A moon grazing the ground is the best situation to get spectacular shots.
The best photographic composition for photos of the moon
A serious photographer, however, cannot take simple pictures of the moon. The artistic component is essential to create exceptional shots and make a difference compared to the usual photos of the moon.
You can apply composition rules to make your shots more attractive. The rule of thirds is always good and will make your shots more dynamic. The moon is a subject that, in its own right, attracts a lot of attention. To make the photo more balanced it may be appropriate to place a second subject in opposition. Even a moon can give life to very fascinating photos. In this case, you can try to focus on minimalism, to emphasize the subject to the maximum. Being a very bright subject, you can take advantage of the Moon as a background of a silhouette. The result can be very impressive.
Photographing the Moon can give you a lot of satisfaction, especially if you add your creativity to it. If you are a Sony A series DSLR user, you can read this thread :
They are suggesting using Tamron 2X teleconverter and Tamron 200-500mm lens as a cheap setup to photograph the moon. There is a 1300mm cheap lens from Vivitar, Samyang like brands.
The above photo is taken by Eric Pare with a Canon 5D Mark IV DSLR using a Canon 400mm f/5.6 mounted to a 2x extender (Mark II), which in turn was mounted to a 1.4x extender. So the setup had a focal length of 1120mm. Here is the description and it is the image credit :