How to Take a Photo of the Moon – Astrophotography

The moon is potentially one of the easiest astronomical objects to photograph. It is very bright so it does not require long exposure times or specialist equipment, and most people in most places on earth can see the moon every month. However, photographing the moon well does require some knowledge and planning and some basic equipment. 

Just holding up your phone or a camera to the moon will rarely produce a detailed photo you can really be proud of. What I hope to do in this article is outline some of the techniques you can use to up your game and create a great photo of the moon, not just a photo which happens to have the moon in it!

I will describe some of the equipment you can use, the best times and locations, how big you can expect the moon to look in your photos and some do’s and don’ts. I will also give you a rundown of the steps required to take photos of the moon with the camera on your phone.

So read on to find out more. Let’s start with what kit you need.

Equipment Needed

The equipment needed to take a picture of the moon can be minimal; a camera phone on some form of support can do the job and I will discuss this later. For the best results though you will need to use a dedicated camera.

A typical ‘superzoom’, or bridge camera. This model offers up to 24x optical zoom
A typical ‘superzoom’, or bridge camera. This model offers up to 24x optical zoom

If you have a superzoom / bridge style camera, or a DSLR /mirrorless camera your potential for taking really good quality moon photos will increase. 

If this is what you have, then make sure you have a good quality, photographic tripod

As the magnification of your camera or lens increases, the greater the need is for steady support. If you are shooting at 1000mm for example, not even the best image stabilization will give you sharp moon images.

Telephoto Lens

The most important piece of equipment to use when photographing the moon with a dedicated camera, is some form of telephoto lens. There is no need to go crazy in terms of cost or size but by all means feel free to do so if you have the equipment! 

The photo below is of my Fujifilm XF100-400 with 1.4x tele-convertor which gives a maximum of 560 mm focal length. I used this to take the moon photo further down the page (the image was cropped).

For a fraction of the cost of this lens however, a superzoom bridge camera can get you 60x optical zoom or more. Just remember that the higher the zoom (equals longer focal length), the shakier the image will be. 60x zoom amplifies your hand tremors by 60x! So at these focal lengths you absolutely need a tripod. 

If funds are tight, scour the used camera equipment market. Superzoom camera models that are only 2 or 3 years out of production can sell for $100 or less so don’t assume moon close-ups have to cost the… um, earth.

The most important piece of equipment to use when photographing the moon with a dedicated camera, is some form of telephoto lens. There is no need to go crazy in terms of cost or size but by all means feel free to do so if you have the equipment! 

The photo below is of my Fujifilm XF100-400 with 1.4x tele-convertor which gives a maximum of 560 mm focal length. I used this to take the moon photo further down the page (the image was cropped).

For a fraction of the cost of this lens however, a superzoom bridge camera can get you 60x optical zoom or more. Just remember that the higher the zoom (equals longer focal length), the shakier the image will be. 60x zoom amplifies your hand tremors by 60x! So at these focal lengths you absolutely need a tripod. 

If funds are tight, scour the used camera equipment market. Superzoom camera models that are only 2 or 3 years out of production can sell for $100 or less so don’t assume moon close-ups have to cost the… um, earth.

Fujifilm XF100-400

Some people like to use lunar filters but I would suggest that this is not at all essential. Such filters can reduce glare and overall brightness and they may also increase contrast, but they are generally of more use when observing the moon. In my opinion, when photographing the moon, anything a filter can do can be replicated in editing programs on your computer or smartphone.

Tripods

Velbon UT-3AR travel tripod

Modern tripods can be sturdy whilst still being small and lightweight.They all use a standard ¼ inch screw-thread, so happily all cameras on the market will fit any consumer-grade tripod. 

I use this Velbon UT-3AR travel tripod which is only 29.5cm high when folded, extending to 135cm and can take 3kg of weight! 

So if you routinely take a day-bag or rucksack with you when you are out and about, there are a wide range of travel tripods that can easily fit in your bag and be ready to deploy in seconds.

How much magnification is required for the moon to fill the frame?

This is a complicated question with no definitive answer I’m afraid ! This is because every camera system has a different combination of sensor size and lens type. If you are using a telescope, other adapters and equipment may also be in the optical train. Each of these will alter the focal-length slightly as well.I have found that using my telescope setup, a focal length of around 1100-1200mm gives me a view that fills the screen. How many ‘times’ magnification this equates to depends what focal length 1x magnification is with your setup. However in all likelihood you are talking about a minimum of 150x magnification for the moon to fill your field of view without any cropping.

How much magnification is required for the moon to fill the frame?
Cropping a photo of the moon. Once cropped you lose the outer edges. It’s like cutting the outside borders off of a physical photo and enlarging the centre portion!

Don’t forget that modern high pixel-count cameras can withstand a fair bit of cropping, so even if the moon looks small in your image, try cropping it to ‘bring it closer’. 

You’ll know when you have gone too far because the image will start to pixelate and sharpness will drop off. Cropping is when you cut off the outside of the photo to make the center portion which typically contains your target, larger.

Timing and Location

Although it may seem intuitive to photograph the full moon’s disc, in most cases this results in a somewhat flat, 2-dimensional image and is probably the worst way to photograph the moon. How so? 

Well if you were standing on the surface of the moon at a time of full-moon on earth, the sun would appear directly overhead with no shadows being cast around you. Shadows create interesting shapes and different shades of light.

It’s the same reason that photographers here on earth tend to avoid taking photos at midday. Try going outside at midday in the summer and look around you at objects and street furniture, buildings, etc. What do you not see much of? Shadows! 

Timing and Location
A full moon can look good near the horizon but in general you’ll get more interesting and detailed shots from a crescent moon.

Back on Earth, during a full moon we also see this lack of shadows across the various craters, mountain ranges and features of the moon. We just see an evenly illuminated disc with some darker features for sure, but nothing that stands out and looks three dimensional or very interesting.

So basically what I’m saying is, for maximum impact your photos should show the moon at just about any other time other than at full moon! Even a 90% waning/waxing moon will tend to look more interesting.

However one such exception to this rule would be when the moon is very low down on the horizon, perhaps with a reddish or orange hue caused by refraction of light through the earth’s atmosphere. 

In this case a full-moon can look quite dramatic, especially if you can get some interesting terrestrial foregrounds such as a silky smooth sea, rugged mountains and so on.

In general however and at times when the moon is higher up in the sky, photographing a crescent moon will result in a far more interesting photo. 

Pay particular attention to the terminator – no not Arnie, the terminator of the moon is the edge where the lit part ends and the shaded part begins. This is where the moon’s mountain peaks will cast long shadows that will make for dramatic images.

Terminator of the Moon

Location

Almost any location can create an interesting moon photo. Probably the only setting I would avoid is aiming your camera through a window – either open or closed!  

Windows distort and blur the image – window glass is not built to optical grades and double-glazing is especially bad as you will get a ghosting effect around the edges of the moon.So what about through an open window? Well unless your home is unheated/uncooled and is exactly the same temperature as outdoors, heat escaping or entering through the window will cause shimmering air currents which will again distort the image.

Unless unavoidable then, always try to get outside to photograph the moon. If you have to stay indoors, then an open window is better but allow time for the room temperature to match the outside temperature as much as possible.

Speaking of temperature, it may seem obvious, but do check the weather forecasts before setting out on a moon capturing adventure! I use several different weather apps to try to get a consensus of the most likely weather conditions over the next few hours.

Avoid windy weather. Although much depends on the size, weight and focal length of your setup; wind gusts above 20km/h may result in a loss of sharpness as it wobbles your equipment during exposure! 

Partially cloudy weather can be fine as long as the moon itself is clear of clouds. Remember that high cloud can cause a haze which may not be evident with the naked eye but may show up on photographs as a softness in the final results.

Another great time to photograph the moon is during the moons different phases. Try experimenting with the moon in each of it’s phases to see which produces the best shot.

Finally, remember that the moon is often also visible during the day, and can look quite dramatic set against a blue sky, so there is no need to restrict lunar photography to nighttime only.

Moon against a blue sky

Planning your composition

We’ve all turned a corner and unexpectedly been ambushed by an amazing view of the moon. You’re probably driving and totally unable to capture the shot, or even if you’re on foot, chances are you don’t have a camera or tripod with you and your phone is at 5% battery, refusing to open its camera.

This is where a bit of planning can reduce the chances of such wonders being missed. Stargazing apps such as Stellarium or Skymap can show you where the moon (or any other celestial object) will be in the sky at any given time and location. With Stellarium you can even import your local horizon view.

So next time you are going somewhere interesting, open up a stargazing app and see if you can plan that shot in advance.

Setting up and getting ready

As previously mentioned, the moon is very bright and this means that you can often use similar exposure times to daylight photography. So as with daylight photography you can sometimes get away with taking moon photos hand-held. 

In most cases however it is best to take photos of the moon without actually touching the camera at all. This minimizes camera shake when the shutter fires. A couple of ways you can do this is to use the camera’s built-in timer mode to press the shutter then walk away and wait for the camera to take your carefully composed moon shot, or you can use some sort of remote trigger.

Camera settings

The following settings are a good starting point. Feel free to experiment though.

Shutter Speed This will vary a lot but will be in fractions of a second, rather than the several seconds that you may have used for other kinds of astrophotography, for example photographing the milky-way. Most cameras show a live view which changes as you change settings.

So adjust the shutter speed until the brightest parts of the moon are not washed out. A histogram display will be beneficial here if provided in your camera display. I won’t go into too much detail here about interpreting histograms- folk can get quite obsessed about histograms! 

But at a basic level, from left to right below, you can see an underexposed photo of my Scottish cloudy sky, an acceptable exposure and an overexposure. So with the moon you want to get the histogram peaks towards the middle, then you know that you are not clipping (losing) detail from over or under-exposure.

How to Take a Photo of the Moon - Astrophotography 1

Aperture. Not critical for photographing the moon, though its setting will affect exposure time. Just set it to its widest setting, for example 2.8

Focus. Probably the most important setting! Always use manual focus. Adjust with your camera’s focus ring / button /slider, until sharp. This is often easier said than done, so use any aids your camera provides, for example focus peaking and digital zoom and split prism. Read up on those in your manual. 

I usually use peaking, where the in-focus areas go yellow or red, or digital zoom, which shows you an artificially zoomed-in view so you can be more precise with your focus. If it’s sharp when zoomed-in, it’ll be very sharp in normal view.

Set white balance to daylight.

Set ISO to its lowest setting- usually around 100.

Switch off all other auto-features in your camera such as dynamic range, noise reduction, auto-ISO and so on. They do not help with astrophotography and usually makes things worse!

How to photograph the moon with your phone’s camera

The cameras included with modern phones have come a very long way from the very basic models of yesteryear. They now often include some form of optical zoom and image stabilization, and can have low-light, or even dedicated astrophotography modes.

image of manual camera settings on a phone.

Most phones also have a manual settings mode and it is here that you will find most success taking moon photos. 

If you do not use manual mode to alter default settings you may well end up with the moon presenting as a featureless white circle.

This is because in default or auto mode, most camera phones and indeed even more sophisticated cameras will try to take an average exposure of everything in the scene. 

This will include lots of sky and the surrounding landscape. These are typically not as bright as the moon, so you end up with a very overexposed Moon.

So here are my suggested steps to use your phone camera to photograph the moon. Firstly you need to stabilize your phone so that you can get a perfectly framed and sharp photo. There are a range of phone adapters and mini tripods available to make this job easier than propping your phone up against a wall (very much a last resort!). We have reviewed a couple of options you might want to consider here

Next, for phone camera settings try the following steps;

  1. Frame the shot as you want the final photograph to look.
  2. If the moon is the only subject in your shot, slide the exposure control up and down until you can see detail on the moon and there are no washed out areas. You will find that exposure times will be similar to daytime photography, for example 1/60 second.
  3. If you want foreground scenery in the shot as well it gets a bit more tricky, but the priority is to expose the moon correctly; you may then find that the foreground is underexposed and quite dark. To fix this, try HDR mode if your phone has it. If not you may have to fix this in photo processing software afterwards.
  4. Keep ISO as low as possible- the lower it is, the sharper and less grainy your image will be. Try around 1-200.
  5. Set white balance to daylight. Don’t worry, white balance can always be changed afterwards in your phone’s photo processing software if it looks a little odd.
  6. Focus- you can try the camera’s auto-focus but chances are it’ll get confused and move in and out of focus. Switch to manual focus and move the slider to infinity (∞). In most cases this should give you a sharp image. If possible use digital zoom on your phone to zoom in and check the focus. But do not take the final photo with digital zoom. It’ll look blocky and artificial. It’s always better to crop afterwards on your computer or phone.
  7. Set the camera’s delay timer – 10 seconds should be enough. 
  8. Press the shutter and don’t touch the camera until the photo is taken.

Advanced photography – Filming the moon and getting lucky !

If you’ve ever come across amazingly hyper-detailed and sharp images of the moon and wondered why you can’t get close to this quality, it’s possible that the photographer cheated slightly and photographed the moon with imaging software. This topic deserves an article to itself so I’ll only briefly touch here on this more advanced way to photograph the moon.

Software like Sharpcap uses a technique called ‘lucky imaging’ to video the moon at a high frame rate. ‘Lucky’, because it relies on luck to capture brief micro-seconds of exceptionally clear atmospherics on video. 

You can also use a conventional camera or phone in video mode and process the video afterwards in software such as PIPP and Autostakkert to take advantage of lucky imaging. The  processes rely on capturing many hundreds, even thousands of frames of the moon and ‘stacking’ them all together. The stacking process automatically discards the duff, blurry or badly exposed frames and only adds the best ones together to produce an image that is super-sharp and detailed.

Conclusion

So there we have it, my guide to successfully photographing the moon. Try these tips out and see how you get on. You may find better or different methods, but much of the above has worked well for me over the years. It’s also good to know that anyone can take good photos of the moon with little more than a phone and a small support of some kind. 

The moon does however have lots of detail to reveal if you can point a bigger lens at it to get closer, so I don’t think I will ever tire of photographing the moon, no matter what equipment I am using. I hope that you find the same to be true !

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