How to Photograph the Moon

How to photograph the moon with a small, lightweight digital camera, an SLR camera or even a webcam. Follow this article and I will show you how easy photographing the moon actually is!

The first picture shown below was taken by NASA but have a look at the the others on this page - they were all done with inexpensive cameras.


Above: Full Moon - photograph by NASA

Also, you don't need a very powerful telescope to look at the moon, even a small one can give pin-sharp images. But to get good Moon photographs it is necessary for the telescope to have an internal mechanism to follow the Moon as it moves across the field of view. Whatever the exposure, if the Moon is moving across the field of view the result will be blurred.

Above: Crescent Moon by  P. Bramwell

You need to buy a driven telescope and position the camera lens close to the eyepiece to ensure good pictures. This is called afocal photography, where the object seen through the telescope is photographed by a camera which is held in place near to the eyepiece of the telescope.

You only need a fairly basic camera for afocal photography. Choose a low magnification eyepiece for your telescope so that the image is as bright as possible, and focus the moon through it before positioning the camera close to the eyepiece.

You will need to be creative to find a temporary way of fixing the camera in position using blue tack and tape. Of course this is only going to work if your camera is quite small and light weight but even with small point and shoot cameras you can still get good quality images. Set the focus on your camera to infinity before fixing it in place.

Above: Moon Photograph - Nikon D40, 1/400 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200  - Photo by Flemming Christiansen

How to Photograph the Moon: Problems with Vignetting

You may find your photographs suffer from vignetting, where there is a dark area around the central part of the image caused by taking the photo through the eyepiece of the telescope. This happens when the lens of the camera is bigger than the eyepiece on the telescope so check before you buy, if possible. If you use an SLR then the problem of vignetting is avoided. This is because the internal system of the camera ensures that what you see in the viewfinder is exactly the same as the camera records on the film or sensor.

A basic SLR will do the job well but your main problem then may be vibration when you press the shutter release button so make sure you use a cable release or the timed delay function. I prefer the latter method as this gives the camera a few seconds to stabilize after having been handled. Some basic SLRs may cause internal vibration from the shutter/mirror mechanism but you can still minimize vibration and shake by using the timed delay function.

Above: Crescent Moon by Opoterser

How to Photograph the Moon - Choosing the Right ISO

The ISO film speed (ISO settings if you are using digitial) for this kind of photograph should be 100 or 200. If it is too slow (less than 100) then you will need longer exposure times and hence the risk of blur is greater. If it is faster (greater than 200) you will have too much grain (or digital noise) which is particularly important if you plan to print out enlargements of your images. The bigger the enlargement, the more noticeable is the grain (noise).

How to Photograph the Moon: Telephoto Lenses

If you have an SLR with a telephoto lens it may be easier for you to just photograph the Moon without using a telescope at all. It's easier to set up and you can carry it to wherever you want to make the shots more easily. In this case you may like to use a higher ISO rating to give a shorter exposure time as you will be more likely to capture greater detail this way. You could also think about buying a teleconverter for your set up. A 2x teleconverter will turn a 500mm lens into a 1000mm lens although the image may be slightly darker as the light has to pass through the lenses of the teleconverter. Also be aware that the optical quality will not be quite as high for the same reason.

Above: Moon Photograph - Olympus E-510, 1/1000 sec, f/5.6, 150 mm -  Photo by William Warby

How to Photograph the Moon: Prime Focus Lenses

Another possible method is to attach a telescope (without the eyepiece) directly to the body of a camera (minus the lens) so that the telescope functions the way a telephoto lens would. This is called Prime Focus Photography. Focussing the Moon is then done with the telescopes focussing looking through the camera's viewfinder.

How to Photograph the Moon: Exposure Times

I would advise you to use bracketing in your Moon photography at all times, taking a variety of exposures, and to keep a record of the ISO settings, film type and the lunar phase so that you can repeat the successful experiments and avoid the not-so-successful ones.

The three variables to take in to account when calculating how to photograph the Moon are the focal length, ISO and lunar phase. Yes, the Moon's brightness is a non-variable but a half Moon is actually only one-ninth as bright as a full Moon - not what you expect! Also when the Moon is low in the sky there can be haze which will make the Moon seem dimmer. Cloud and atmospheric pollution have the same efffect.

As a single example to give you something to base your first trials on, the camera used for the crescent moon photograph by P. Bramwell (second from the top of the page) was a 4.0 megapixel Olympus C40Z/D40Z with an exposure time of 1/40 sec, f stop of f/3.4, ISO 100, and a lens focal length of 7.5 mm. Two of the other Moon photographs have details of the camera settings included in the caption. This information should help to get you out there under the starry sky feeling full of confidence!

However it is not really possible to give precise numbers and f-stops here, nothing that is set in stone. Just get out there and experiment a lot, keep a good record, and keep practising. Whether you want to make full Moon photographs or crescent Moon photographs doesn't matter, they are both beautiful.

You can check the current phase of the moon from the widget at the top of this page - and then get shooting!

Alternatively, follow this link to read my quick-start guide for beginning astrophotography or this link if you want to find out about astrophotography telescopes or this link if you would like to check out my book recommendations on how to photograph the moon.

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