How to Process Your Moon Photos and Make Them Look Stunning

You were out half the night getting great photos of the moon.  They look fantastic on the screen on the back of your camera.  Now you sit down at your computer and they’re dull, dull, dull.  You just need to know how to process your moon photos and make them look stunning.

You did read my article, “How to Photograph the Moon and Make It Look Stunning,” didn’t you?  Yes?   Then you have all the basic data in your files.  You just need to know how to tweak those RAW files and bring out the best in your images.

Processing moon shots is a lot like processing any other photo, but there are some important, and some counterintuitive differences.  Because the moon is so bright and a long, long ways away and because you’re shooting through a lot of atmospheric haze, you’ll need a fair amount of sharpening and clarity, and an unusual use of contrast.  And, because there are actually some faint colors in the moon, you can boost saturation more than you might think.

First, we’ll process a full moon on a dark sky using Lightroom.  Other programs will have similar features.  Then we’ll look at blending two exposures, one shot for a landscape and one for the moon, using Photoshop.

Adjustments in Basics Panel
Adjustments in Basics Panel

Let’s begin with a full moon photo in Lightroom.  The SOOC color balance of your moon may be off.  Zoom in on one of the lunar seas—the broad, darker splotches—which should be a medium gray (unless you’re shooting near sunset and get a golden glow from the sun).  Take your eyedropper tool and click on one of the lunar seas.  Pop!  Your moon is the familiar shades of gray.  In the example, the moon went from 5600K to 3500K and a much more pleasing and realistic gray.

This image was shot with my old Pentax camera and Lightroom doesn’t have Camera Profile options for Pentax in the Camera Calibration panel.  If you’re shooting Nikon or Canon, you can play around with the profiles and see if one works better than the Adobe default profile.

In the Basics panel, we’ll want to increase or decrease the exposure to get the moon at a pleasing brightness.  In this instance, my moon was underexposed so I increased exposure by +2.5.  It should look pretty bright.  Not to worry, this is only the first big adjustment.

For most photos, you would increase contrast.  However, with a full moon shot you want to DECREASE contrast.  Take your Contrast slider and move it around.  If you increase contrast, the moon can go very white.  Decreasing contrast, on the other hand, really brings out the dark seas.  Here, I decreased Contrast by 100%

Next, I’ll bring down the highlights and also bring down the shadows.  Here, it was relatively small adjustments.  I’ll also set my white point by pressing the ALT or OPTION key and moving the Whites slider to the right until the first white dot appears, then backing off just a wee bit.

The Black point is less important, as the sky is basically black already.  However, I’ll drop my Blacks to further emphasize the lunar seas.  If you’re just doing a shot of the moon in a dark sky, you can take your Blacks down up to 100% but I don’t think it’s necessary to go that far here.

Continuing to work our way down the Basics panel, I’ll add Clarity, Vibrance and Saturation by modest amounts.  You may think that boosting Saturation by 20 is a lot, but there actually is color to the moon and this brings it out in a subtle way.

Next, I’ll add a very mild S curve to slightly increase contrast.  The Medium Contrast preset choice works well for me.

Adjustments in the Tone Curve Panel
Adjustments in the Tone Curve Panel

In the Details Panel, I’ll bring the Details slider down to zero and I’ll apply some sharpening.  (If this is going into Photoshop, I’ll generally use the sharpening features there instead of in Lightroom as they are much more powerful and finely tuned.)  And I’ll mask out the sharpening from the sky and from the lunar seas (press ALT/OPTION while moving the Masking slider.)

Adjustments in Detail Panel
Adjustments in Detail Panel

And there you have it.  Your moon shot has gone from the typical bland image SOOC to a striking image with lots of depth, detail and contrast.

Because the moon is so bright and is moving across the sky, you will often find yourself unable to capture both a sharp moon and a well exposed landscape.  The solution there, as outlined in the “How to Photograph the Moon and Make It Look Stunning” article, is to take two exposures, one optimized for the moon and one for the landscape.

Once you’ve processed each exposure to your satisfaction in Lightroom, take the landscape shot at remove the blown out moon.  Make sure that the sky is dark—at least that it’s darker than the darkest spot on your moon shot.  Try using the Spot Removal tool and make sure you include enough of the sky to get rid of the glow around the moon.  If you find that doesn’t work well for you, wait until you get it into Photoshop and try using the Content Aware Fill.

Open each image in Photoshop, with the one exposed for the landscape at the bottom.  Then select the layer exposed for the moon.  Using the crop tool, select a square around the moon and crop.  Then select that image (CTRL + A or Command + A on a Mac) and copy it.

Placing the moon into the landscape image.
Placing the moon into the landscape image.

Go to the landscape layer and paste the moon selection in.  Then move it to where you’d like it to appear.  If necessary, resize the moon using the Transform tool (Edit > Transform > Scale).

When you’re set, change the Blending Mode to Lighten.  That allows lighter pixels on the bottom layer to replace darker pixels on the moon layer, thus removing the black sky from the moon selection.  That’s also why it’s important that your landscape sky be darker than any part of the moon selection.  If one of the darker spots on the lunar surface is darker than the sky in the landscape layer, then that sky will show through the moon.

In the set of images below, the sky is lighter than some parts of the moon, so let’s try something else.

Using the Layer Style dialog box.
Using the Layer Style dialog box.

After placing the moon as described above, double click on the moon layer in the Layers Panel (or Palette).  That opens the Layer Style dialog box.  In the box, grab the left slider in the This Layer section and move it to the right until the black disappears.

At that point zoom in on the moon, and you’ll probably notice the blend isn’t perfect.  ALT or OPTION click on the slider and it will split in two.  Drag the right half towards the right until the blend looks good.  Then click OK.

The final image.
The final image.

And you’re done!  One small step for you, one giant step for your photography. For some additional editing options.

2 thoughts on “How to Process Your Moon Photos and Make Them Look Stunning”

  1. Wow quite detailed and informative. However unfortunately I’m not artistic at all. I’ve tried various times and cannot seem to get the hang of it. I really think this is one thing which you either have or you don’t. In which case, better leave it in the hands of experts like yourself.

    1. Some people may be born with and artistic eye and have it easier than others but there’s no reason why, with training and practice, anyone can’t get a lot better. Take a workshop. Join a local photography club. Follow the Improve Photography podcast and Facebook Group (and come to the Improve Photography Conference next March in Charleston–see the link at the top of the page). Join IP Plus for some great tutorials. And get out there shooting!

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