It has never been easier to photograph the moon, thanks to the advent of digital camera technology. This familiar sight in our skies – our closest neighbor in space – is a great place to start if you’re a beginner looking to step into the larger universe of astrophotography.
If you have a smartphone, chances are you’ve tried photographing the moon before, with surprisingly decent results. However, if you want to start capturing many of the craters, mountains, and valleys that litter the lunar surface, you’ll need something more substantial. This is where a digital SLR (or mirrorless) camera comes into its own. With a few good lenses and a tripod, you can easily start capturing awesome moon photos.
Cameras and lenses: things to consider
When it comes to choosing cameras and lenses, there are a few important things to consider. First, an expensive high-end camera is not necessary to achieve great results. It would be better to spend less on the camera body and more on the purchase of high quality lenses, as image sharpness and good color correction are crucial for top quality results.
There are a few different areas of moon photography that require different approaches. These specific areas are:
- Wide field landscape photography with the moon in the scene
- Wide-field conjunction images where the moon is close to one or more of the brightest planets (Venus, Mars, Jupiter, etc.)
- High resolution lunar photography
- Lunar eclipse photography
Wide-field photographic work will require lenses of around 10-50mm focal length. A high-quality wide-field zoom lens is a great choice for this type of photography, as it gives you flexibility in framing the scene. Typically, most kit lenses offer this kind of focal range, so you’re probably already good to go. Avoid low-quality, cheap lenses if possible. This will help you avoid problems like chromatic aberration, where fine details may appear smeared and shiny objects (like the moon) are smeared with stray colors.
A good quality telephoto lens is needed for high resolution photography – a focal length around 200-400mm is ideal. Again, as with wide field work, always try to use a good quality objective. Telephoto lenses can reveal a considerable amount of detail on the lunar disk, including craters on the surface. Telephoto and super telephoto lenses are expensive, however, so there are a few tips you can try to get the most out of standard and 200mm zooms.
You can probably get a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter that will increase your maximum zoom (usually at the expense of aperture width). This is a good solution for filming the moon, as you won’t necessarily need the lower f-numbers. A less efficient way to do this (though probably cheaper) is to take advantage of the cropping factor of APS-C lenses on full-frame cameras, but we’ll cover this more complex process in a future guide.
Wide field photography
When it comes to taking wide-field lunar photos, which usually include a terrestrial foreground, there are several things to consider. The camera should be mounted on a sturdy tripod to allow you to carefully frame the scene you want. The composition of the scene is crucial for good results, and it may be worth traveling to the countryside if you live in a built-up city.
Typically, you’ll shoot at a low enough ISO of 100 to 400 to keep noise to a minimum. A remote shutter release is useful, but not essential, as you can also use the camera’s self-timer to prevent camera shake when shooting. Focus carefully – autofocus routines usually work well, but if not, try manual focusing using your “Live View” feature. Exposure times vary with lighting conditions, and because you’re shooting a large field, you won’t get as much detail on the moon as long as you’re shooting between f / 6.5 and f / 9 you will get a well balanced shot. You need to pay more attention to the exposure when shooting close-ups, as we will see below.
Usually, the best times to take these wider field lunar photos are at sunset or sunrise when the moon has a crescent phase in the twilight sky, or when the moon is placed near one of the more planets. bright. Photos of the moonrise and moonset produce particularly striking images, with the dark red lunar disk featured in a foreground scene.
Wide lenses are also useful if you’re looking to capture images of the night sky, which is another great place to start for budding astrophotographers. For more tips on how to approach this, check out our beginner’s guide to astrophotography.
Close-up photos have many different considerations. For shooting at long focal lengths, a good, stable tripod is useful, but you also need to focus the image carefully. We prefer to use the “Live View” feature for close-ups and zoom in to really get a clear view of what the camera is seeing.
The phase of the moon itself will play a key role in the appearance of features seen in close-up photos. When the moon is almost full, the disk can appear quite flat due to the directional solar lighting. A better time to try taking close-up photos is when the moon is far from full – around mid-phase. It’s at these times that lighting across the lunar surface really brings out the rugged lunar topography of the surface, which is dotted with craters and shadow-filled valleys.
For camera settings, the ISO is again generally low (100-400) and exposure times are short. Of course, this will vary depending on the moon phase and the focal ratio you are shooting on. When taking such images, it is always a good idea to reduce the f-ratio a bit, as many lenses produce their sharpest images when not wide open (using f / 4 to f / 9 instead. f / 2.8 for example). Try to remember that the moon is a moving object (it is moving at 2,288 mph) and the earth rotates too, so longer exposures will not produce the best results. For close-ups, we find that the best results occur between 1/125 and 1/500 second, and if you can achieve this with an aperture between f / 6.5 and f / 13, you’ll get a crisp, clear shot. .
An exception to the above is lunar eclipses. These occur periodically when the moon becomes partially or completely emerged in the Earth’s shadow. During such periods, the moon often takes on a striking copper color, giving rise to the oft-used description of “blood moon”. During a total lunar eclipse, the moon becomes weaker than normal, so longer exposure times are needed, as well as higher ISO settings.
The moon is a fantastic target for trying your hand at photography. With the plethora of cameras and lenses on offer today, it is possible to give it a try even on a fairly modest budget. From gorgeous evening sunset portraits to close-up views of the barren, rugged surface, the moon always has something to see, for photographers old and new.