If you have attempted to photograph the moon with automatic modes on your camera, you might have concluded it is a hopeless endeavor. When your camera looks at the vast, black, night sky, it overexposes the moon as a bright blob in the night sky. However, by setting your camera to manual exposure mode and following this simple guide, photographing the moon is easy.
When to photograph the moon:
To start, choose a night with a full moon. If you photograph the moon when it is close to the horizon, the moon will appear larger. For sharper, more detailed photographs, take photographs when the moon is higher in the sky. The less light pollution where you take the photographs, the crisper the moon will appear. A clear sky yields the sharpest photographs of the moon. Clouds create a different aesthetic.
1. A camera with manual exposure mode — M on the exposure dial.
2. A telephoto lens or a telephoto zoom lens. The longer the focal length the larger the moon will appear in your photograph. A 200mm to 300mm focal length is great, especially on a crop sensor camera where your focal length is multiplied.
Set your camera to single point focus and choose the center focus point. On most digital cameras, this is a cross-type focus point which is more accurate. Because the moon is such a bright object in the night sky, putting your center focus point on the moon should ensure sharp focus.
Image Stabilization or Vibration Reduction:
Turn on Image Stabilization (Canon) or Vibration Reduction (Nikon). Other camera manufacturers have different names for this feature. Sony calls its SteadyShot. This will eliminate motion blur in your photographs.
Set your exposure mode dial to M, or manual.
Exposure Value is a number where all combinations of shutter speed and aperture that yield the same exposure have the same Exposure Value. At ISO 100, the full moon has an Exposure Value (EV) of 15. This is the same EV as a scene lit by direct sunlight. The “Sunny 16 Rule” applies, which says that in direct sun, at f/16, your shutter speed is the reciprocal of your ISO. So, for ISO 100, your shutter speed is 1/125 second at f/16. Since you should be capturing the moon with a telephoto lens, to minimize camera shake set the ISO based on the focal length of your lens. Setting your ISO based on the focal length of your lens yields a high enough shutter speed to eliminate the need for a tripod. The relatively great depth of field of f/16 will yield sharp images at infinity.
- 200mm lens — ISO 200, 1/250 second at f/16
- 300mm lens — ISO 400, 1/500 second at f/16
- 400mm lens — ISO 400, 1/500 second at f/16
Check your exposures using the histogram on your camera. When viewing the images on your camera’s display they will appear too bright at night. Viewing the histogram will give you an accurate idea of your exposures. If the histogram spikes at the right of the graph, increase your shutter speed. If the histogram spikes at the left of the graph, open your aperture to f/11 or f/8 as needed.
Now that you have photographed a full moon, try photographing the moon in different phases. The gibbous moon has an EV of 14, the quarter moon has an EV of 13, and the crescent moon has an EV of 12. For a 300mm lens, use these exposure settings:
- Gibbous moon — 300mm lens, ISO 400, 1/500 second at f/11
- Quarter moon — 300mm lens, ISO 400, 1/250 second at f/11
- Crescent moon — 300mm lens, ISO 400, 1/250 second at f/8
Finally, take plenty of photographs, and have fun.