Ever tried shooting the moon and been left with a tiny white dot sitting amongst a sea of black? You’re not alone. Here's our top tips on how to get the results you want from photographing this challenging subject
The Moon is Earth’s companion and an iconic sight in the night sky. Not surprisingly, our satellite is often used by photographers as a subject in its own right, but also as a way of adding to – and even illuminating – landscapes here on Earth.
However, it’s a small and challenging target that demands the manual operation of a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Although some shots of the Moon can work well with a wide-angle lens, any kind of close-up study requires at least a 200mm lens, and preferably a 400mm or even 600mm telephoto lens.
Whatever the lens, a tripod is also essential. But as well as having the right equipment, a working knowledge of how the Moon works will get you thinking about exactly where you need to be, and when, to capture it at its best.
Here are some of our top tips to get you started…
1 Understanding the phases of the Moon
To understand when to shoot the Moon first means learning about what this rock is actually doing. It orbits our planet every 29.5 days during which it displays different phases as the Sun’s illumination of it changes from our point of view:
- Day 1: New Moon: when it passes between the Earth and Sun (so invisible to us).
- Days 8: First Quarter Moon: when it’s half-lit and ‘waxing’ (growing).
- Days 15: Full Moon: when the Earth is between the Sun and the Moon (so it’s 100% illuminated by the Sun from our point of view).
- Days 22: Last Quarter Moon: when it’s half-lit and ‘waning’ (shrinking).
The Moon rises on average 45 minutes later each day. In the week before a Full Moon you can look for it in a daytime sky in the east during the afternoon, and the week after a Full Moon, a daytime Moon can be seen in the west in the morning.
When the Moon is full it’s extraordinarily bright and difficult to photograph except for at moonrise and moonset, when it’s close to the horizon. During these times it’s a lot less bright and shows a pale orangey-yellow colour. The physics is the same as for a sunset; Earth’s atmosphere is densest near the surface, so if you view the Sun or Moon through it their blue light (short wavelengths of light so easily absorbed) is scattered, which results in a reddish hue (longer wavelengths so less early absorbed).
2 Shooting a Full Moon
The Moon looks its best when it’s full, right? It’s certainly impactful, but if you’ve ever tried to look at a Full Moon when it’s high in the night sky you’ll know that’s it’s way too bright to look at, let alone easily photograph. The answer is to find out the exact time of moonrise where you are on the night of the next Full Moon and catch it as it appears behind and between buildings, trees and/or clouds on the eastern horizon.
Manually focus by turning the dial on your lens to infinity (look for the ∞ symbol) or autofocus on the Moon using your camera’s LCD screen and Live View. Then switch to manual focus to lock your focus. Set your aperture to between f/5.6 and f/11, ISO 100 or ISO 200, and experiment with shutter speeds.
Although moonrise is the most convenient time to capture a Full Moon, it looks almost identical as it sinks towards the western horizon around sunrise the previous or following morning. Either way, you get to see and photograph a Full Moon in a twilight sky, which means you can capture it in the context of a landscape. Plus, both moonrise and moonset near a Full Moon appear during the ‘golden hour’ when the sky’s colours are rich and contrasty.
3 Finding moonshine
Instead of simply capturing the Moon in the night sky, try to place it in the context of its environment. One way of doing that is to catch its light reflecting in a body of water, which also adds depth to your night-scape photo.
To do this you need to have a lake or the ocean between you and the Moon. Your settings will completely depend on how dark it is, and how strong the moonlight is, but be careful not to over-expose the Moon. If that’s a problem, try bracketing and then later combine the frames in Photoshop or similar photo processing software.
Get in position beside a body of water just before the Moon is due to rise in the east (or set in the west) on the date of the Full Moon. That way, if the water is still at the right time, you may be able to catch a perfect reflection of the orangey full Moon. You only have a few minutes to capture it when it’s very close to the horizon. The Moon rises and sinks faster than you think.
4 Capturing ‘Earthshine’
Although most photographers try to capture the Full Moon, our satellite is arguably even more beautiful – albeit for a shorter time – on the nights either side of New Moon when it’s a slim crescent shape. Not only that, but during these short times of its orbit, it’s possible to photograph the dark limb of the Moon. That’s because it’s subtly lit by ‘Earthshine’ – sunlight reflected from our planet onto the Moon. When shooting ‘Earthshine’ in close-up you’ll need to experiment with a longer exposure. Bracketing is a good idea. Wide-angle lenses tend to capture it really well, and also add the context of a landscape.
For a few days before New Moon a beautiful crescent Moon is visible in the east in the pre-dawn morning sky, and
for a few nights after the New Moon a crescent Moon is visible in the post-sunset western sky.
5 Waiting for a ‘Blood Moon’ eclipse
A total lunar eclipse (also called a ‘Blood Moon’) occurs when Earth gets precisely between the Sun and the Moon. That can only happen during a Full Moon. During the middle of the event, which usually lasts for a few hours, the Moon enters Earth’s shadow in space and turns a pinkish-copper-reddish colour. That’s called totality. To capture it, set the aperture to around f4, the ISO to 200, and experiment with shutter speeds from 1/2 second to 30 seconds. You’ll also see stars around the Moon in your images.
A ‘Blood Moon’ is arguably the very best time to take a photograph of the Moon, but only those on the night side of Earth sees any specific total lunar eclipse. The next one on May 26, 2021 is observable from eastern Asia, Australia, North America and South America. There’s a partial lunar eclipse – during which most, but not all of the Moon will turn reddish – on 18 November, 2021 for those in Western Europe, North America, South America, Eastern Asia and Australia.