Shoot for the moon…

My how to guide on capturing the moon

I have always held a fascination with the moon…in fact mankind has been captivated by the moon for probably as long as we have existed.  Our closest celestial companion, waxing and waning to a precise rhythm to mark the passing of time.  A love affair that ebbs and flows like the very tides that arise from the captivating  dance around the sun.  Perhaps it is the very fact that we are ourselves 70% water inexplicably draws us to it increasing as the moon itself magically grows larger in sky.  Perhaps millennia of evolution have led us to await the full moon for the best night time hunting and look around during the new moon with fear in our diurnal eyes. 

Many words have been written, fables invented, poems scripted, prophecies foretold, comparisons made and pictures taken both of it and a few even on it (and not in a studio in Hollywood) and from it.  It gives us a chance every month to look upon it and perhaps capture it ourselves.  However, unlike the popular phrase, shooting for the moon missing may not be as good a thing as they say it will be.  Mostly because if you miss you wont get the stars either.  As I explained in my post on getting the Milky Way a couple months back, if you are indeed aiming for the stars its actually best on nights when you can’t see the moon at all.  And the technique is actually a little bit different as well…

What you will need to get the moon:

There’s a couple points to bear in mind when attempting to capture the moon.  Firstly the moon is far, some 384000km away.  So the most important piece of equipment you will need is a good telephoto lens.  To get the moon to be a decent size in the photo that lens will have to be at least 300mm on the long end, 400mm if you can get it.  Other than that you wont need much else, except the camera body of course.  The second point is the moon is bright, brighter still when you are looking at it through a telephoto lens that will make it seem larger than the naked eye would see it to be.  The human eye can adjust quickly but a camera may not be as advanced – you will have to trust your eye to get the shot.

Getting the shot:

The so called strawberry moon on June 20, coinciding with the winter solstice here in South Africa

Taking a photo of the moon is simpler than you would initially think as it is just balancing out the light or exposure.  The moon is a very bright subject against a very dark background.  Therefore metering mode should be spot metering.  Other metering modes would look to try and find more ambient light and result in the moon being overexposed.  Depending on your camera body, you may even have to ignore the metering altogether and use your eye alone.  White balance should be as close to 3800-4000 as possible to avoid the moon looking too yellow.  White balance can however be corrected in post editing.  Shoot in manual mode as you will have more control on the exposure, the camera in it’s thirst for light will tend to overexpose the moon in other modes.  You will not need a tripod, contrary to most other situations where you find yourself shooting in the dark, because the moon is not moving very fast.  It helps to have steady hands, especially if you are hand holding a heavier telephoto lens.

For a shot similar to the one above, the moon is on a single plane and you will therefore require no depth of field.  The Aperture can therefore be kept wide open to whatever your lens will allow as the maximum aperture thereby allowing you to reduce the shutter speed to make it fast enough for a handheld shot.  As you will be shooting with a telephoto lens the general rule of thumb is to keep your shutter speed above 1/(focal length of lens) to keep the image sharp.  This general rule is related to the lens so if you are taking photos of animals or birds it is also an important guideline to keep in mind (if the subject is moving the shutter speed will be faster still).  I used my 300mm F4 lens for the shot above with the 1.4x extender.  I therefore had to keep the shutter speed on the shot above 1/400s.  By adjusting the ISO up to 800 I could get the shutter speed to as low as 1/1000s, which does not require the steadiest of hands.

I also checked the  exposure a couple times and adjusted to allow the details of the darker parts (called maria) and impact craters of the moon.  This generally would mean shooting with the exposure meter reading left of center and trusting your eye to get it correct.  If you have read post on getting the Milky Way you will notice that the ISO is lower and the shutter speed much higher than one would use to capture the stars, so like I initially said, missing the moon results in pretty much not much else.  Lens stabilisation can be kept on as it will not affect the picture adversely and if you lens does have stabilisation it will help get the image sharper at a slower shutter speed (reduction in the ISO required for the shot).


Shoot Wide – If there are other things of interest to include in the picture one could shoot wider.  This could be buildings to add forced perspective and make the moon look larger while it is low on the horizon or as I have done in the image below the clouds that were being lit by the rising sun.  I also allowed the moon to be slightly overexposed in this shot and bleed out some light from its edges and glow in the pink clouds.

Pink moon at dawn


Shoot in silhouette – Using the moon as the back light you can capture the silhouette of a nearby object that is in the line of the moon.  To keep the silhouette sharp I would suggest switching the lens from autofocus to manual focus and get the focus on the near object using your eye to judge as the brighter moon behind your image may cause the lens to hunt for focus if left in autofocus mode.

Autumn leaves before they fell…


P.S.  If you have it available, a tripod or a monopod does not harm your shot, as long as you keep the shutter speed fast.  If you are using a heavier lens (my 300mm F4 L is less than 1kg I think), a tripod will definitely come in handy to reduce the strain on your arms.

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