The moon is the most prominent object in our night sky. I used to spend hours staring at it and the surrounding southern sky back in New Zealand. A lot of you (wherever you were) most probably do the same. But capturing learning how to photograph the moon can be a very difficult task. I want to make it as easy as possible for you.
The aim of this article:
To help you to understand how you can take images of the moon.
To push you to think outside filling the frame with the moon (boring).
What you will need
- Camera with manual settings My One
- Telephoto (Zoom) lens ideally 200mm or longer My One
- Tripod My One you can also use a bag of rice from the kitchen.
- Shutter release My One
Note: The shutter release is optional. It can be avoided by using the camera on a 2s timer (canon). Push the shutter (gently) step back to let the camera take the photo without camera any additional shake. I find myself doing this a lot.
Before getting started
Photos of the moon on a black sky are boring. We have all seen them, we know what the moon looks like. You can take one if you like but save it for after the moon has risen and you aren’t in a rush. Why a rush?
If you have ever sat and watched the moonrise you will know that it moves quickly across the sky. What we want to do when taking photos of the moon is to get it with reference to another object in the scene. The moon always looks much larger when closer to the horizon. So getting it during rise/set is the best time to shoot it.
Click this link and type in your location. It is crucial to know the lunar phase and the time that the moon will rise and set in your location. This will allow you to plan your shoot and you can decide whether you want to get to bed early and wake up early, or push on through all night!
So let’s start by talking gear. The lens you use is pretty crucial here. If you want a lot of detail in the shot and a large moon then you are going to have to use a zoom lens. I recommend using a 200mm lens or longer in order to get a good level of detail in the moon. Ideally, you want a longer lens (like 400mm+) but these are of limited overall photographic use. they are also very heavy and expensive. So it is hard to recommend buying one.
The majority of the shots you see here were shot in this article were using the Canon 70-200 IS f2.8 ii lens. It is a fantastic lens, one of the most essential (to own) if you are a canon shooter. Some of the earlier shots were using the Canon 50-250 IS II f/4-5.6 EF-S on a Canon 600D Current Rebel. For anyone just starting out with a cropped sensor body I recommend picking up this lens. But never spend too much money on cropped sensor optics as one day you will upgrade to full frame. Buy for the future!
In terms of location if you have one in mind then head there and skip to the next section. Keep in mind that you want a nice unobscured view of the horizon. The lower to the horizon the larger the moon will appear. Look for points of interest such as trees, buildings that will be accentuated by the presence of the moon. So the moon is not the subject, just the best supporting actor!
To identify the exact location of the moon rise or set you can use an app called The Photographers Ephemeris. This app allows you to see the location of the sun/moon at any time in relation to a point on the map. While a little confusing at first it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it. Try typing in your location and see what you can see. Try to idendiry which direction you need to look.
Capturing the image
You will notice that in most of your moon images will either have an exposed foreground and a white blob for a moon, or a sharp moon and a black foreground. This is due to the vast difference in brightness between the face of the moon and the pitch black foreground. There are 2 ways we can solve this.
Get your camera on the tripod and pointing in the direction of the moonrise (and your foreground interest). Make sure everything is stable. Ensure that you are capturing RAW images and not just JPG images. This way we can fully edit the pictures in post. Set the camera to Manual mode and dial in the following settings to get started:
- ISO 200
- 1/200 s
Remember: Use a remote shutter release or the 2 second delay mode (Canon) so that you can avoid any shaking on the camera when depressing the shutter.
Use the magnification mode on the back of the camera to check the focus and sharpness of the moon in your image. You will notice that the image is very dark with the exception of the moon. This will be our first image. If it is too dark then you can reduce the shutter speed slightly to let more light in. But it should be ok.
Option One: It can sometimes be possible to recover the detail from the areas of shadow in the image using the shadows slider in Lightroom or Adobe Raw. Slowly lower the shutter speed down until you get a little detail in the foreground and a moon that is not overexposed. Then you can open it in Lightroom and recover the details in the shadows until you are happy with the image. Increase the exposure and increase the shadows slider to improve the shadows, then reduce the highlights to bring out the detail in the moon.
However, this will lead to a lot of noise in the previously shaded areas. Good for a small photo to post online, but no good if you are after a high quality shot. Again remember to shoot all of your moon photographs in RAW mode.
Option Two: Take two pictures that we will blend together in Photoshop. Don’t get nervous, it really isn’t that much work. You can do it in a few seconds. Take your first photo of the moon using the settings above. Take another photo with the shutter speed slowed down in order to capture the detail in the foreground. Depending on how dark it is you may need to also raise the ISO. This time the moon will just be a white blurry blob in the sky.
Next, highlight both images in Lightroom and select open as layers in Photoshop. Make sure the moon (black) photo is the top layer, and the photo that has the foreground exposed is the bottom layer. Right-click on the layer and choose Blending options. Move the left slider for “This Layer” to the right until the black disappears. That tells Photoshop to show the bottom layer anywhere there is black in the top layer. And you can immediately see the moon and the trees in the layer underneath.
Now we have our perfect moon but there is a lot of bleed around the moon from the layer below. Ever notice how the moon looks slightly bigger than normal in a lot of photos? This is why, push Command-T (Ctrl-T on windows) to transform and make the moon slightly bigger. Then centre it over the bleed from the lower moon. Viola, you now have the perfect shot!
This image isn’t the best example as the images weren’t taken in the same place. But if you do these composite images immediately one after another this technique is much easier.
The moon is a fantastic subject (or best supporting actor) to help you get into photography after dark. Post a link to your moon photography that you have done using the techniques described above. Let people know what you think of their moon photography that they have submitted. Let’s get better together!
I know that I need to do more of it. As the nights get longer I will do a lot of practice over the coming months. So keep an eye out! Take care guys and happy shooting!
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Ben Kepka – The Cultured Kiwi
New Zealand travel photographer based in London, UK. He was taking photos from a very young age in the backcountry of New Zealand before moving abroad. Since doing so he has taken workshops and tried to help get as many people into this art as possible. Featured in NZ Herald, Stuff.co.nz and many photography publications it’s safe to say he loves his photography!