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Thursday, May 6, 2021

8 Tips for Perfect Moon Photography Settings


Many people have attempted to capture a picture of the bright ball of light that governs the night sky, but getting your moon photography settings just right can be quite tricky. It’s easy to get frustrated when taking photos of the moon, especially when so many moon shots online look crisp and clear.

Fortunately, capturing great moon shots isn’t too difficult once you wrap your head around a few basic elements. With a little patience and practice, you’ll be taking excellent photos of the moon in no time at all!

Moon photography settings: the basics

The first thing to know about shooting the moon is that it’s deceptively bright. You might not think of this giant ball of rock as particularly luminous when compared to the sun, but it puts out way more light than you might think. This makes it tricky to calculate exposure and get your other moon photography settings just right.

The other important item to keep in mind is that the moon is not a slow celestial body. In Greek mythology, Selene, the goddess of the moon, speeds across the night sky in a glowing chariot. Our ancient ancestors knew what they were talking about! If you take a picture of the moon, you have to keep its constant movement in mind; otherwise, you’ll never get a great shot.

The final part of the equation to remember is that the moon, while relatively close in a galactic sense, is pretty far away when you look at it from the perspective of a photographer. If you want a good picture of the moon, you need at least a 200mm lens – and even then, it’s best to use a crop-sensor camera for a bit more reach. So a focal length of 300mm or greater is recommended, and photographing the moon is one time when megapixels really do matter. Unless you have a very long zoom lens, you’ll be cropping your images quite a bit.

If you want a simple answer to the question of what moon photography settings to use, here’s my advice:

  • Shoot with a fast shutter speed of at least 1/180s.
  • Use a small aperture like f/8.
  • Keep your ISO low – so that when you crop, your picture will remain clean and not noisy.
  • Use a telephoto lens.
  • Always shoot in RAW; that way, you have plenty of room to edit the colors, sharpness, and other elements of your photo afterward.
Moon Photography Settings Clouds and Foreground Trees
Nikon D500 | Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II | 200mm | f/4.8 | 1/200s | ISO 640

While the above advice is a good starting point, you will need to experiment and figure out which settings are right for you. It’s a good idea to dive a little deeper into aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to find out what effect they have on your moon photos so you can get the shots you’re aiming for.

Now let’s take a closer look at the best moon photography settings:

1. Use Manual mode

This might be intimidating if you’re used to letting your camera make exposure decisions for you, but moon photography is a great way to learn Manual mode.

Your camera knows what to do in most well-lit situations, but shooting the moon isn’t one of them. You have to take control, and Manual mode lets you choose the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – all of which are critical to getting good pictures of the moon. You must be very specific about your exposure settings, and Manual mode lets you dial in the precise values you need.

Crescent Moon with Trees in Foreground
Dim morning light meant I had a bit more freedom to adjust my exposure settings, which was very easy to do in Manual mode.

Nikon D500 | Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II | 200mm | f/4 | 1/180s | ISO 200

2. Shoot in RAW

You have enough to worry about when taking pictures of the moon: exposure settings, weather concerns, cloud cover, foreground obstructions…and that’s just the beginning.

Setting the right white balance and making sure your highlights and shadows are perfectly captured is almost impossible to do in the moment. Thankfully, RAW can save the day.

Crescent moon Unprocessed RAW
This is the unprocessed RAW file straight out of my camera.

Nikon D500 | Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II | 200mm | f/4 | 1/180s | ISO 200

Shooting in RAW gives you ultimate flexibility when editing your moon photos in a program such as Lightroom. You can adjust the exposure, tweak the sharpening, bring out details you might have missed, and of course, adjust the white balance to your heart’s content.

The JPEG format is fine for many photographic situations, but not moon photography. For best results, use RAW.

Crescent moon processed RAW
The exact same image as above, but after the RAW file was processed in Lightroom. Adjustments include white balance, boosted exposure, and tweaks to the highlights/shadows.

3. Use a fast shutter speed

Shutter speed is a good place to start when thinking about moon photography settings because of how fast the moon moves across the sky. Similar to sports photography, you’ll need a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion.

1/180s is a good starting point, but if you can go higher without increasing your ISO, I recommend doing so. 1/250s is good and so is 1/300s (go beyond that, and you start to get diminishing returns).

full moon
My 1/10s shutter speed was much too slow, and the picture is blurry as a result. 1/10s lets in a lot of light, but the moon moves too much to get a crisp, sharp picture at that shutter speed. Compare this to the image at the end of the article, and you will notice a huge difference!

Nikon D200 | Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 | 300mm | f/11 | 1/10s | ISO 200

4. Keep your ISO low

Cameras have come a long way, and what used to be considered a crazy high ISO – like 3200 or 6400 – is now easily achieved without a huge loss in image quality. Things are a bit different when taking photos of the moon, though. Lower ISOs are always preferable, and that holds doubly true for photos of our nearest celestial neighbor.

ISO 100 or 200 is best, but that might not be realistic given the lens you’re using. Generally speaking, you should be fine with ISO 800 or lower, partly because you will get a cleaner image, but also because you will have more leeway when editing your RAW files afterward.

5. Use a small aperture, but not too small

Most lenses have what’s known as a sweet spot, where the image isn’t too soft and chromatic aberration is well-controlled. This sweet spot isn’t usually at the widest or smallest aperture, but somewhere in the middle.

For that reason, I like to take pictures of the full moon at an aperture between f/4 and f/8. However, the optimal aperture will depend on your particular lens and the type of photos you’re taking.

Moon Photography Settings Crescent and Venus
A crescent moon is very dim! Normally, I recommend a smaller aperture, but for this shot, I needed all the light I could get. I used a large aperture of f/2.8 and an unusually slow shutter speed to capture this celestial dance between the moon and Venus.

Nikon D7100 | Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II | 180mm | f/2.8 | 1/90s | ISO 100

Honestly, of all the moon photography settings to worry about, I would put aperture at the bottom of my list. Before you consider the aperture, make sure you have a fast shutter speed and the lowest possible ISO. Finally, adjust your aperture until you get a picture you like.

Even if your photos are not tack-sharp because you had to shoot wide open, it’s a trade-off I recommend making. I would rather have a slightly blurry result than a higher ISO setting that will result in noise, especially in the deep blacks of the night sky.

6. Underexpose slightly

It might seem counterintuitive, but when taking pictures of the moon, you don’t want your images to be as bright as possible. I get my best results when underexposing by one stop or more, depending on the situation.

The easiest way to do this is to set your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO so your light meter indicates a properly exposed picture. Then drop the exposure by one or two stops. The result is a picture without any blown highlights and plenty of room for editing (as long as you make sure to shoot in RAW).

Full Moon with Power Lines in Foreground
My light meter told me this photo was properly exposed – but in the end, the moon was too bright. I should have dropped the exposure to darken the image.

Nikon D500 | Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II | 200mm | f/4 | 1/200s | ISO 360

I also recommend using spot or center-weighted metering when doing moon photography. The moon is extraordinarily bright compared to the dark sky around it, which causes all sorts of confusion for your camera’s light meter. Telling your camera to meter based on one small portion of the scene (i.e. the moon) will help you get a better initial exposure value, one that you can then fine-tune.

7. Get creative

Taking pictures of the moon is enthralling, especially if you have never done it before. But after a few shots of that big bright ball of light in the sky, start thinking of a new approach. Try putting trees, buildings, or other objects between you and the moon. Experiment with taking pictures during the waxing or waning crescent phase.

Moon Photography Settings Lunar Eclipse
Instead of taking one single picture of the moon during a lunar eclipse, I took 20 and combined them in Photoshop. The end result was much more visually interesting than a single shot would’ve been.

Also, try getting shots at dawn or dusk when you can catch the sky in a rich blue or purple. These are simple, fun ways of taking pictures of the moon that can produce some unexpected results.

8. Manually focus to infinity

Your camera’s autofocus might struggle when it comes to getting pictures of the moon, but you can take care of this by adjusting your lens’s focus point manually.

Make sure your lens is focused as far out as it will go (this is often indicated by an infinity symbol on the lens barrel).

Moon photography settings: conclusion

Moon Photography Settings Full Moon
Nikon D200 | Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 | 300mm | f/2.8 | 1/250s | ISO 200

There’s no magic or secret sauce when it comes to getting great shots of the moon. The only real trick is to get the right moon photography settings and to keep practicing until you’re happy with the results.

Try some of these tips as a starting point, and then branch out and see what you can come up with. You might be surprised at the pictures you’re able to take!

Moon photography settings FAQ

Can I take a picture of the moon with my phone?

It’s possible, but this is an area where a DSLR or mirrorless camera with full manual controls really has the edge. A mobile phone can’t zoom in very far, and even those that do have optical zoom lack the light-gathering ability required for good moon shots. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but you’ll likely get significantly better results with a dedicated camera.

Do I need an expensive zoom lens to get a picture of the moon?

A zoom lens helps, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. Even a basic 55-250mm kit lens, like the one that might have come with your camera when you bought it, is fine. Just make sure to follow some of the tips in this article, and you can get some good moon pictures.

What white balance setting should I use to get a picture of the moon?

That really depends, and there’s not always a good answer. Some people like to use the Daylight setting because the moon is reflecting the sunlight and has no actual light of its own. Just make sure you shoot in RAW so you can adjust your white balance after you take the picture.

How do I keep both the moon and the foreground in focus?

First, make sure you are using a small aperture like f/8 or f/11, which will give a much wider depth of field. In addition, you need to put a lot of space between you and your foreground objects. If you’re shooting through tree branches in your own backyard, they will always end up far too blurry. Position yourself so the trees, buildings, or other foreground objects are farther away; this will help make sure they are more in focus.

How do I get the moon to look so big? My moon pictures never look like the professional shots I see online.

Many people have asked me this, and it all comes down to your lens. A longer focal length will make the moon appear larger. If you don’t have a long lens, you can rent one for the few days that a bright full moon is visible. Many professional moon pictures are also cropped, and if you use a very high megapixel camera, you have a great deal of freedom to crop without a huge drop in quality.





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