How to Photograph the Moon and Make It Look Stunning

In Landscape/Nature by Frank Gallagher8 Comments

Moonrise over Positano.

Moonrise over Positano. Shot at 80mm, 1/320, f11, ISO 100.

A full moon is coming and you’re all excited about going out to photograph it.  What do you need to know to make sure you come back with images you’ll be proud of?

Crescent moon at Death Valley.

Crescent moon at Death Valley.

A few things you need to know:

  • The moon is brighter than you think it is.
  • The moon is faster than you think it is.
  • The moon is smaller than you think it is.

A few things you’ll need to plan:

  • When you will be shooting
  • Where you will be shooting
  • What you will be shooting

A few things you’ll need to decide:

  • Are you shooting the full moon or something less, for example the crescent moon?
  • Are you filling the frame with the moon?
  • Including the moon in a landscape?
  • Shooting a landscape by moonlight?
  • Capturing the moon and stars?

The moon is brighter than you think it is.

The full moon reflects only a small percentage of the sunlight that hits it.  Still, that’s plenty to light up the night.  On a clear night with the silvery light of a full moon, you have no trouble seeing where you’re going.  It’s not daylight, but moonlight is mighty bright!  Even a crescent moon is brighter than you’d think.  However, as the moon occupies only a small part of the dark, night sky, light meters are often fooled into overexposing moon shots resulting in photos where the moon is a featureless white blob, as in the photo, below, on the Snake River.  You’ll need a combination of faster shutter speed and/or a narrow aperture to clearly capture the moon’s surface details.  See the Settings section, below, for more details.

This can create problems when your composition also includes elements in the landscape.  The settings needed for capturing your foreground may be dramatically different than what’s required for detail in the moon.  In this case, you might have to blend two exposures, one for the moon and one for the foreground.  I would avoid HDR, because the moon will have moved a bit between shots.  Shooting at twilight may give you enough overall light to capture the entire dynamic range in one image.

Full moon over the Snake River, WY. The light meter made it too bright and the moon is a blob.

The moon is faster than you think it is.

The moon orbits the earth at a speed of 2,288 miles (3,683 km) per hour.  The earth rotates at 1,000 miles (1,600 km) per hour.  That’s a lot of movement!  Looking up at the sky, the moon would appear to move 15 degrees each hour.  If you witnessed the recent (August 2017) solar eclipse, you’ll have seen just how fast the moon moved!  So, if you want to capture sharp, crisp detail in the moon, you’ll need a fast shutter speed—at least 1/125 and the faster, the better.  You’ll also want to shoot from a tripod.

The moon is smaller than you think it is.

Composite shot where the moon was too bright for the landscape.

Composite shot where the moon was too bright for the landscape. The moon was added from a darker exposure.

The moon is roughly 240,000 miles away.  While it may look large to your eyes, especially near the horizon, (a phenomenon known as “moon illusion”) it won’t to your camera’s sensor.  Your choice of lens is critical here.  A wide-angle lens will make the moon appear tiny.  A 50mm will make it seem small. If you want visible detail in the moon, you’ll need at least a 200mm lens (on a full-frame camera).  Longer is better, especially if you want to fill the frame with the moon. My longest lens right now is a 70-200mm and I'm straining to get good moon shots so, my next purchase might just be a longer lens, like the 150-600mm Sigma or Tamron.

Shooting with long glass is another reason to use a tripod, mirror lock-up/remote trigger and a fast shutter speed.

But, long lens can present problems if you want to include foreground elements in your composition.  Even a 300mm lens won’t include much foreground, nor will it be simultaneously sharp at 10 feet and infinity.  The easiest solution is to back up and include a more distant foreground element in your composition—the top of a hill or the silhouette of a distant tree.  The way telephoto lenses compress distances will emphasize the foreground and appear to shrink the apparent distance between it and the moon.

If you’re filling the frame with the moon, you don’t need any depth of field so you can use f8 or even f5.6 (which are often among the sharpest apertures of a lens) and even faster shutter speeds to minimize camera movement and maximize sharpness.

Camera Settings

Sharpness is key.  Use your lens’ best aperture (often f5.6, f8 or f11).

If your camera has a spot metering mode, try zooming in and metering the moon, then applying minus 2 exposure compensation (-2 EV).

Some photographers swear by the “looney 11 rule” (similar to the sunny 16 rule, but for lunar light).  This would give you a shutter speed at f11 that is roughly equal to ISO, for example 1/125 at ISO 100 and f 11.  I’ve not had good results with that.  I've needed something more like an ISO between 200 – 400 with f5.6 – f8 and 1/125 – 1/200 for a full moon.  Your mileage will vary and you’ll need adjust a bit for crescent moons.  Start somewhere in the middle, like ISO 200, f11 and 1/125 and fine tune accordingly.  Make sure the “blinkies” (highlight warnings on the camera’s LCD screen) are turned on to avoid overexposing highlights.

Manually focus using Live View, if possible.  You can try focusing at the infinity mark on your lens barrel but some cameras allow focusing beyond infinity, resulting in fuzziness in your moonshot.  One tip is to focus on a very distant object while it’s still light out.  Note the position of the focus dial on your lens.  Then manually set your lens at that position when you’re ready for your moon shot.

Even with fast shutter speeds, you’ll want to minimize any camera movement.  Especially with long lenses, any camera movement is magnified.  I’d highly recommend using a tripod and turning off image stabilization.  And I’d use a remote trigger and mirror lockup, but using the self-timer feature would work, too.  And there’s no need for filters of any kind, even an UV-haze filter.  Take ‘em off!

When, where and what you will be shooting

Moonrise over the Potomac River Gorge at Great Falls.

Moonrise over the Potomac River Gorge at Great Falls.

I’d start my planning with either PhotoPills or Photographers Ephemeris, both of which let me plan a location and time and envision my shot.  Check the articles on favorite iOS apps, PhotoPills and PlanIt! For Photographers and Jeff Harmon’s Photo Taco episodes on PhotoPills here and here.

Some photographers prefer shooting the day before the real full moon date.  They say it makes a small, but noticeable, difference in balancing the light between your landscape and the moon.  Frankly, I haven’t seen a measurable difference and would plan my shoot for whichever evening has the clearest or most dramatic skies—the full moon or the day before or after.

A great time to shoot is just as the moon is rising or setting—often during the twilight following sunset or preceding dawn.  This allows you to include the landscape elements or buildings that add context to your image.  I like shooting when the sun is between 0.5 degrees above and 5 degrees below the horizon (you can find that information on one of the apps mentioned above).  During that time, there is enough residual light in the landscape that you can often get the entire dynamic range in a single shot.  In addition, the golden light of the rising or setting sun casts a warm orange tone on the moon.

If you’re shooting just the moon, or it doesn’t rise until the skies are dark, wait for the moon to go higher in the sky.  There will be less light refracted in the atmosphere and you’ll get a clearer, cleaner shot.

Don’t limit yourself to only the full moon.  A crescent moon makes great photos, too.  However, only shoot a crescent moon when it’s rising or setting, when it’s near the horizon and the sky isn’t too dark.  Shooting it later at night, and higher in the sky, you will likely get part of the dark portion of the moon, and that can be distracting.

And, don’t limit your shooting to the evening.  A moonset in the morning can be every bit as dramatic!

Plan, plan, plan

Planning a moonshot with Photographer's Ephemeris. From Overlook 1, the moon will appear to rise over the gorge at about 8:30 PM.

I like to plan my moon photography so that there is something interesting in the landscape in my shot.  In the image from Great Falls, I used Photographers Ephemeris and PhotoPills and found out that the moon would rise over the Potomac River gorge, as seen from Overlook 1 and 2 on the Virginia side of Great Falls National Park (see above).  When I got to the park, vegetation was blocking part of the view from Overlook 2, so I set up at Overlook 1.  The moon was clearly visible for only 5 minutes or so before going behind clouds.  If I hadn’t had my shot planned and was, instead, rushing around trying to find a good location to set up, I might have missed it.

PhotoPills plan for a “monumental” moonrise.

Also using the apps, I know that around 7:15 PM on the night of the next full moon on October 5, 2017, I can shoot the DC Trifecta, as it’s called on rGPS (Really Good Photo Spots).  From in front of the Netherlands Carillon, near the Iwo Jima Memorial, the moon will rise over the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and US Capitol Building.  That’s about a half-hour after sunset and, since the monuments are illuminated at night, will make for a cool shot!  (See the PhotoPills Planner to the right.)

Decisions, decisions, decisions

The last, but by no means least, set of decisions you face is how are you capturing the moon?

While the full moon is dramatic, so is a crescent moon.  Which you shoot depends on where you are and when and what mood you’re going after.  Try shooting a variety of moon phases.

Is the moon going to fill the frame of your image?  If so, you’ll need a long lens and will be shooting later in the night as the moon goes higher in the sky.  And it doesn’t much matter where you’re standing as you’re not including any foreground or background elements.

Is the moon going to be part of a landscape that anchors the scene and provides context?  Here you’ll still need a longish lens, like 300 mm or more, and enough distance from your landscape elements so both they and the moon can be in good focus.

And maybe the moon doesn’t need to be in the shot at all.  A landscape under the light of the full moon can be very cool.  In the image below the full moon was behind me as I photographed the mountain and the night sky at Zion National Park.  The moonlight illuminated the mountain and, since I wasn’t shooting towards the moon, its light didn’t drown out the stars.

Moon shots aren’t just for clear nights.  Just because the forecast is calling for scattered clouds is no reason to stay inside!  You can get dynamic and mysterious shots of the moon near or partially behind clouds.

Which leads to a final point: a full moon will overpower the stars in your shot, unless you’re shooting in the opposite direction.  A crescent moon will overpower some, but not all, of the stars.  You’ll see prominent ones, like the big dipper in the Death Valley shot, but you won’t get thousands of stars that are visible to a good sensor on a dark night, like the Zion shot.

It won’t be long before the next full (or crescent) moon so check your calendar, get your gear ready and go out and get some awesome moon shots!

And, once you come back with your awesome moon shots, check here to learn how to process your moon photos and make them look stunning.


About the Author

Frank Gallagher

Frank Gallagher is a part-time photographer who lives in the Washington, DC area. By day a non-profit foundation executive, he enjoys landscape photography, travel and spending time with his wife exploring new places and rediscovering old ones.

Comments

  1. Frank, I had many frustrating shooting trips when I started moon shots about four years ago, I must have read every blog out there, watched every YouTube tutorials but it eventually became my quest to figure out our moon and understand atmospheric disturbances in an urban environment, I live near the airport. Now I’m teaching one of my photo groups. You confirmed all I have learned through all of those difficult trials.
    Thanks again…to the Moon bro!

  2. I would go with the Tamron 150-600 Lens for shooting the Moon ….
    I have a Tamron 200-500mm which I couple with a Bower MC-7 2X Teleconverter….. This combo gives me up to 1,600mm of Focal Length ti work with.
    I use mooncalc.org and phases of the Moon Apps to help me plan out my Shots

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