Most everyone who’s picked up a camera has wanted, at one time or another, to photograph the moon. Unfortunately, they’re quite frequently disappointed with their efforts. Making amazing photos of the moon isn’t really all that difficult once you’ve figured out a few basic tips.
Follow these guidelines for how to photograph the moon for stunning pictures every night.
1. Get the correct exposure — use manual mode
The number one reason people get bad photos of the moon their first few times out is that they get the exposure wrong and the moon ends up being a great bright, white, featureless ball in the sky. This is because they are relying on their camera to achieve the correct exposure. Big mistake.
Even if the moon looks big and bright, your camera’s metering system is easily fooled by all of the dark sky surrounding it. If you’re using an automatic or semi-automatic mode (like aperture priority, shutter priority or the fully automatic setting), the camera’s internal light meter is going to measure the average light in the scene. With so much dark sky, it will see the scene as dark and will increase the exposure to what it thinks is correct. This will almost guarantee the moon is overexposed.
When photographing the moon, you’re actually photographing bright sunlight. Of course, we’re talking reflected sunlight — but it’s sunlight just the same. As counterintuitive as it may seem at first, you’re going to find the correct exposure settings for the moon look an awful lot like the settings you would use for a shot taken during the day.
When photographing the moon, I set my camera to manual mode and select the spot metering mode. I then choose my aperture, usually around f/8 if I’m photographing just the moon. Since autofocus may not work all that well, I’ll activate live view, zooming in as far as I can, then manually focus on the moon.
2. Use a long lens
If you wish to photograph the moon retaining as much detail as possible with a minimum of cropping to fill the frame, you need lenses with a long focal length. Start in the 400mm range and go up from there. If you have a camera with extremely high resolution, something like Nikon’s 36 megapixel D810 or Canon’s recently released 50 megapixel 5DS, you’ll have more room for cropping your photos while still retaining a high level of detail. For the rest of us, a long lens is the way to go. You don’t need to buy these expensive lenses either. Most of the super telephoto lenses made by the big manufacturers are available to rent from companies like Lens Pro To Go.
3. Include landscape elements
The moon is impressive when photographed with frame-filling detail, no question about it. The images of the moon that continue to impress me the most, however, are those that include the moon as part of the greater landscape.
For lunar events like a so-called supermoon, including the larger scene provides a greater sense of scale in the overall landscape and helps to convey the largeness of the moon as it makes its closest approach to the Earth. I rarely photograph the moon any other way. To me, one great big shot of the moon, no matter how great the detail, is just like any other. Including the landscape allows you to create truly unique photographs.
The best part about making these more environmental portraits of the moon? They can be done with shorter, more budget-friendly focal lengths. The photo above of one of a supermoon rising off of the New Hampshire seacoast was made with my Canon 70-200mm f/4 lens set to 200mm — not some hugely expensive super telephoto lens that cost as much as a good used car.