Go grab some snacks and your preferred beverage because this one will be somewhat lengthy.
In the digital era of photography, interest in astrophotography has really gone <ahem> sky high. The relative ease of capturing and processing hundreds of photos to create compelling star trail images and dynamic shots of the Milky Way has helped propel interest in the genre. Nightscapes are very popular and are beautiful to look at. Darkness only exists in our minds. There is plenty of light at night and lots of great photos to be made.
In this article, I’m going to concentrate specifically on the Moon.
The Moon is a special beast in the world of astrophotography. It’s typically not photographed in the same wide-field style as for the Milky Way, or if you want to create star trails. Why not? A few reasons. With the wide angle lenses that are used for typical wide-field astrophotography, the Moon would end up as just a small dot in the frame. Also, the exposure settings for the Moon are quite different than for other types of astrophotography. A 30 second shutter speed for stars, or star trails would vastly overexpose the Moon. And, if the Moon is more than, about, a third full, it’s too bright in the sky and detracts from visibility of stars, so we tend to do star trails and Milky Way photography when the Moon is between the last and first quarter, or when it’s rise time lets us shoot at night without the Moon being in the way.
Quite often the Moon is a subject unto itself. There may be other elements in the shot; a few stars, some light clouds. These typically play a secondary, or supporting role to the star of the show – the Moon.
Through the rest of this article, I’ll walk through some shots on gear, preparation, shooting and editing.
What gear do you need to get good moon shots? It depends on what you may be willing to give up.
At a minimum, you need a steady tripod and a cable release (wired, or wireless). Because we typically photograph the moon with higher magnification; that is, longer focal length lenses, any camera movement will be magnified as well. Pressing the shutter release with your finger will induce visible camera shake. You don’t need to use mirror lockup on a DSLR because using Live View as suggested below means the mirror is already locked in the up position. And mirrorless cameras don’t have a mirror to lock up. You could, if your camera has it, use electronic shutter which will eliminate any vibrations from the shutter curtains moving. Here’s another thing: at higher magnifications, the movement of the moon will be more apparent and in 10 seconds it will change your composition significantly. So, use a remote release.
With the longer focal lengths used to take pictures of the moon, many standard ball heads won’t be able to support the weight of the camera and lens at the tilted angle you need to get the moon composed in the frame. You may be OK if the moon is lower, nearer the horizon. When it’s higher, some ball heads will slip. A gimbal head will solve this problem. Gimbals are also useful for wildlife and avian photography.
Other than a camera and lens, that’s about it for other gear.
In colder weather, if you’ll be out for an extended period, your lens may start to fog, or frost over. There are lens warmers you can buy which will help prevent this from happening. These require a power source, so you’ll need an accessory battery pack for that.
Camera and Lens
Speaking of camera and lens, what do you need? To nearly fill the frame with the moon on a full-frame digital sensor, you need about 2400mm of focal length. Yep, that’s a lot! For a cropped frame sensor, you need about 1600mm. Yep, that’s still a lot!
Should you give up if you don’t have that? Of course not! It just means you’ll have to crop to have the moon fill, or nearly fill, the frame.
I have a Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 and a 2X teleconverter. I also have a 1.4X teleconverter; however, stacking the two would degrade image quality too much. This combination gives me an effective 600mm of focal length. I just crop in editing to give me as much fill of the frame as I want for the particular picture.
To get good detail in the moon and so you don’t have to crop so much that there’s almost nothing left, a minimum focal length of 300mm would be advisable.
Research and a little advance prep are going to help you get the best of your moon photos. What phase of the moon do you want to capture? Waxing/waning crescent? Waxing/waning gibbous? The full moon? Do you want to try to incorporate other celestial events like the conjunction between the Moon and other planets in our solar system?
There are a host of really good smartphone apps that can help with your research and preparation. Photopills is a popular one and is available for both Apple and Android platforms. It gives you moon phases, rise/set times and you can use the ephemeris features to plan a shot from a particular location. You can change the date to sometime in the future and get moon information for that as well to do advance planning for a trip.
Sun Surveyor is another very good app. It, too is available for both Apple and Android platforms. It will give you phase, rise/set times and allow you to change the calendar for planning into the future. It lacks the location planning ephemeris tools of Photopills.
If you want to plan for other events, like planetary conjunctions, the app MO Pro (MO stands for Mobile Observatory) is very helpful. It is only available for Android devices.
A good weather app can come in handy, too. Yes, I know, I know, we all have doubt about the accuracy of weather forecasts. Still and all, not a bad thing to have on your phone. Pick one that you feel is most accurate, or use a few different ones and compare.
If you want an interesting foreground object in your photo like a mountain, or a particular building, this is where an ephemeris feature is necessary. This will tell you precisely what time the moon will be in the position you want it to be for the shot you are planning.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris doesn’t have the moon phase information of the other apps mentioned above. It does have rise/set times. It is a very good ephemeris tool for location planning.
If you are going to use a specific location for your moon photo, give yourself more than enough time to get there. Traffic may be worse than you expected in an urban area. Trails are more difficult to walk in darkness, too. You don’t want to get to your location and have to rush to set up, which can lead to mistakes.
When it comes to trails, hiking at night brings with it a whole different set of challenges than in the daytime. A good, bright torch light, preferably a headlamp, is vital. A headlamp will let you keep both hands free. Some photographers recommend a red light to preserve night vision. Personally, I don’t find this necessary. Just a red light will not properly illuminate your path either. With full batteries.
A walking stick is a good idea.
Hiking alone at night isn’t a great idea.
A jacket, rain gear, long pants and an extra insulating layer are important considerations. Some nutrition and water, in case you get stranded, or the hike out takes longer than expected. Keep in mind, too that many animals feed at night that aren’t active during the day. Be aware of what wildlife you can expect in the area you will be in. Especially if you’re in an area that’s less familiar.
Take your time hiking in the dark. Even with a good light, trail contours, roots, rocks and such won’t be as visible as during the day. Give yourself ample time to get to your desired location.
If it’s winter, you’ll have another whole layer of challenges. Ensuring you can stay warm enough is crucial. You may be standing around for a while waiting for the moon to be where you want it. Ensure you have sufficient layers to keep you warm, especially hands, feet and head.
In summer, or warmer weather, a good insect repellent will make the evening much more bearable.
The Set Up
Once you have reached your location, even if you’re just in your backyard, or a local park, camera set up, settings and shooting technique will help you get the best result.
In most cases you will want to use manual focus. I have found that autofocus will work on a full moon. Even if you use autofocus to achieve focus initially, once you have, switch it to manual and just use that setting for the rest of the session.
Working in Live View allows you to zoom in on the moon and be sure you have critical focus. If your camera has a focus peaking feature, turn it on and have it on a low setting. What you should find is that the outer edge of the bright area of the moon will show peaking.
Can I just use the Infinity mark on my lens? Sadly, no. Many modern lenses don’t have distance markings at all. Even if yours does, Infinity doesn’t necessarily mean infinity. Owing to slight expansion and contraction with temperature changes, the Infinity point can change very slightly. Best to just use manual focus, or autofocus first on a full moon, then turn switch it to manual.
If your lens has stablization, turn that off. If it has a tripod mode stabilization, you can leave that on. Don’t turn off in-body, or sensor, stablization if your camera has it. If your lens has tripod mode stabilization and your camera has in-body stabilization you can leave both turned on.
With your camera mounted on the tripod and whatever remote release you’re using set up, turn on Live View if you have to (it may be automatic on some mirrorless models, or you can choose LCD, or eye view) and frame up the moon. If you’re using a zoom lens, you can zoom to the widest setting, find the moon, then zoom back in.
Compose the photo as you want it. Keep in mind what was said earlier about movement of the moon in the frame at higher magnifications. You will actually be able to see the moon moving across the frame. Knowing that, you can leave yourself some extra room for the moon to move while you wait for the camera to settle.
Once you have your framing and focus, you’ll need to let the camera settle for several seconds.
Nope, didn’t forget about this.
There’s an old rule of thumb for moon photography. It’s similar to the Sunny 16 Rule for daytime photography and is called the Moony 11 Rule.
The Moony 11 Rule says that, for a full moon, set your aperture to f/11 and the shutter speed to the inverse of your ISO. So, if you’re at ISO 100, you’d set f/11 and a shutter speed of 1/100. Does it work?
The shot below of the nearly full Moon was taken at ISO 100, f/8, 1/25 sec. Using Moony 11 the shutter speed should have been 1/200 sec (1 stop opened up on the aperture means 1 stop less on the shutter speed to compensate). My shutter speed was 8X what Moony 11 would tell us, or 3 full stops more exposure. In Raw conversion, I adjusted the Exposure settings by +.3 and bumped up the Shadows to +40 . This is much more exposure than Moony 11 would suggest. As with any of these photographic rules you can use them as a starting point, but take them with a BIG grain of salt.
The picture above was taken with a Nikon Z6, spot metered on the Moon. I was out the night before using a Nikon D800. Same ISO, same aperture and the meter in that camera determined a shutter speed of 1/20 sec. Editing those, I reduced the Exposure setting by .7 stops, making for an equivalent shutter speed of about 1/35 sec. Still not close to what Moony 11 would have suggested.
The photo at the top of the article was shot at ISO 100, f/8, 1/125 sec. Exposure in editing was pushed up to +.2 giving and effective shutter speed of around 1/100. That was a 2/3 to 3/4 full Moon. Moony 11 would have suggested something like 1/180 sec. My exposure was, again, longer than Moony 11 would suggest.
Don’t just rely on these rules. Use your own good judgment and trust your own eyes and instincts.
I’d like to offer a note here about histograms. Too often you’ll see advice suggesting to use your histogram to judge exposure. That is just bad information.
The mantra goes that your histogram should be somewhat shaped like a bell curve. Or that it should be pushed to the right without overexposure if you’re using Expose to the Right (another Internet-popular idea that has limited benefit).
What all of that advice ignores is the context of the photo. Histograms are not a substitute for a properly metered exposure. All a histogram is is a graphical representation of where tones (shades of grey) are distributed in an image. That’s it. On its own, the histogram tells you nothing about exposure.
The histogram for a moon photo is in the screen shot below. This is the image straight out of the camera. You can see it’s quite flat, with a large spike on the left (blacks) side. Without taking the context of the image into account, just relying on the idea that a histogram should be bell curved and roughly centred, or fully pushed up against the right side, one might think that increasing exposure is necessary. It’s not. Look at the image. It’s clearly on the verge of overexposure in the highlights, yet there’s still a small gap on the right (brights) side of the histogram. A proper edit of this photo will pull the exposure down leaving an even larger gap on the right side. Arguably, there are no true whites in the Moon.
As in most things, context is key. Don’t just accept the idea that you should check your histogram for proper exposure. Once again, use your eyes, your judgment and your instincts.
The Moony 11 Rule, of course, assumes you’re using Manual exposure. You can. You don’t have to. You could use a semi-automatic setting as well. Aperture Priority, rather than Shutter Priority.
If you’re going to use Aperture Priority, switch your metering to the Spot setting. With most modern cameras, the meter will read from the active focus point automatically. On some cameras, you may have to change a menu option. If your camera doesn’t have a Spot meter, use Manual exposure.
The Moony 11 Rule is intended for a full moon. With a half moon, you would switch to f/8 and for a quarter moon, you can use f/5.6. Less than a quarter moon will require you to open the aperture further, or use a longer shutter speed if your aperture doesn’t go wider. You can vary the guideline for different aperture settings. Instead of 1/100 on a full moon at f/11, you would use 1/200 at f/8, for example.
What about White Balance? Auto, or Daylight will work nicely.
And do shoot in RAW. Moon photos typically need quite a bit of editing. You want the benefit of RAW when you’re going to be doing a lot of editing.
With all of that done, hit the button on your remote release and take your shot(s).
How many shots do you need? Well, one.
There are photographers who will take multiple shots and combine them in editing, averaging the exposures to reduce noise and increase detail. I’ve known of photographers who will take upwards of 200 photos and take what they feel are the 20 to 30 best to use for blending. Overkill? Yeah, pretty much.
If you’re taking 200 shots of the same subject, if your focus and exposure are right and if the sky is clear, there really won’t be any ones that are better than any others. They’re all gonna be basically the same.
For other types of astrophotography, like the Milky Way, I find blending multiple shots will improve detail and reduce noise. I have found no discernible benefit in terms of increased detail from blending multiple moon shots. Also, with the moon; whether it’s a full moon, or a lesser phase, I’m typically shooting at the lowest ISO anyway, so there’s not really any benefit to blending several images to reduce noise.
Back at home, or the office, we can begin the process of editing our moon photos.
In this part of the article, I’ll walk through a few aspects of the task:
- RAW conversion, including setting White Balance
- Blending shots to achieve Earthshine
- Bringing out the natural color in the moon
- Final clean up and sharpening, including fixing the limb
- Creating composites
I use Lightroom for most of my work with RAW files, then send them to Photoshop for further editing. The same process can be used in Adobe Camera Raw/Photoshop. Other Raw conversion utilities will be able to do the same tasks, as well.
Some of the techniques require using layers and if you don’t have an editing program that can worth with layers, you won’t be able to do some of these.
Let’s start with white balance. We’re all familiar with the large crater we see on the bottom of the moon. That crater is named Tycho. I have found that using the eyedropper on Tycho works as a white balance point and gives me a nicely neutral-looking moon.
When I want to leave the moon in the state we normally think of it, that is basically white and grey, I don’t tend to do a lot more in Raw conversion.
I’ll make adjustments to exposure and tone using the sliders and possibly the tone curve. I’ll typically add some Texture, Clarity and Dehaze, using a light hand with all three. Typically Texture won’t be pushed past 25, Clarity to a max of 10 and Dehaze at most 5. Next I’ll apply a standard amount of capture sharpening based on the camera and lens I’m using. Lastly, I’ll do lens corrections for Chromatic Aberration and distortions.
With that done, I’ll export the file to Photoshop for final editing and sharpening.
In Photoshop, unless I’m creating a composite (more on that below), sharpening may be the only thing I do. The creative sharpening tools in Lightroom, or Camera Raw still aren’t nearly as good as what’s available in Photoshop as far as I’m concerned.
Have you heard that term before?
Earthshine, or planet shine, is a phenomenon that occurs when light from the sun hitting one object bounces off that object onto another and reflects back onto the original object.
In the case of the moon, the sun hitting the lit side of the Moon bounces off, hits Earth and reflects back onto the moon illuminating the dark side. We can capture this effect with our cameras.
To capture the effect of Earthshine, we need to take our original images a little differently. The range of brightness between a proper exposure for the lit side and the dark side is too wide to capture in a single photo. We need to take multiple photos at different exposure settings and blend them in editing.
This is exactly what the exposure bracketing feature of our cameras was made for.
I find that once the moon gets beyond about half full, it’s too bright to properly expose for the dark side and be able to create a good blend later.
When it comes to blending, you can do it manually. My experience is that the transition line between the dark and lit sides of the moon is very difficult to get right with manual blending. For this reason, I use the Merge to HDR feature in Lightroom. Opening the files as layers in Photoshop, converting to a Smart Object then using the Median Stack Mode under Layer>Smart Objects>Stack Mode does not work well.
You can also use third-party HDR software like the popular Photomatix, or the Merge to HDR function in Photoshop. Lightroom works well for me because that’s where I do my Raw processing and the HDR merge process creates a DNG Raw file, which I can then work on just like any other Raw file before finishing in Photoshop.
I have found that a full nine shot sequence, 1 stop apart works best with my Nikon cameras to give me a full range of exposure for blending. Experiment with your cameras and see what works best for you.
Showing Color in the Moon
We tend to think of the Moon as a large grey sphere in the sky. The surface of the Moon is full of different minerals and sites of previous water formations. All of these actually have color and with a little gentle coaxing, we can bring this color out.
Nothing different needs to be done in the field taking pictures of the Moon. The magic happens in editing.
During Raw conversion, an extra step can be added bying bump up Vibrance and Saturation to start revealing the rich colors in the Moon. Don’t take it too far. You just want to start to see color. The rest will be done in Photoshop.
I recommend opening your Moon photo as a Smart Object in Photoshop when you are going to edit it for color. Doing so embeds a copy of the RAW file into the Smart Object. With this copy of the RAW file embedded, you can easily go back and refine your Raw processing to better complement the editing you do in Photoshop.
To re-open the copy of the RAW file in Camera Raw, double-click on the image thumbnail in the layers panel.
Can I just use the Camera Raw filter on a regular image? Yes, you can. The difference is that on a regular image you are working with a pixel-based image file that has the Raw processing baked in. Doing so is a destructive process. Smart Objects with a copy of the RAW file embedded allow for completely non-destructive editing if you want to tweak your Raw processing.
Can I use a different editing program that has layers? Yes, you can. You will lose the benefit of Smart Objects and the ability to easily tweak your Raw processing all in the same workflow. With other editing programs, if you want to change your Raw processing, you will have to re-process the Raw file, open it in the pixel editor again and redo all your prior work.
With the Smart Object open in Photoshop, add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. Move the Master Saturation slider up to about 10. Now duplicate this layer another 5 to 7 times. How many times you duplicate it will depend on how much color you want to reveal in the moon. In newer versions of Ps, you can also use Vibrance/Saturation adjustment layers in the same way.
In the screen shot below, you see that I have grouped all the Hue/Saturation layers together. You also see that I have used the Brush tool to mask out some of the effect on the polar areas of the Moon. The color effect was too strong for my taste at full strength, so I reduced it using a mask.
Why not just use a single layer with a Saturation adjustment of +50 to +70? The result of small, incremental changes on multiple layers is different from a single, large adjustment. Why? That’s a mystery. It has something to do with the way Photoshop algorithms work to apply the edits and that’s something Adobe won’t talk about.
After the successive H/S layers are applied, you can go about finishing the image as you may want with Curves, or Levels, or other edits and sharpening. You see in the screen shot below that the sharpening and noise filters are below the main image layer. These are Smart Filters. Another benefit of using Smart Objects is that filters like Sharpening are always adjustable in the future.
Fixing the Limb and Sharpening
What is the Limb? Simply, the Limb is the outer edge of the bright side of the Moon. That’s it.
Why do we need to fix it? The transition between the edge of the brightly lit moon and the black sky is an area of very high contrast. During the process of editing the Moon, the various steps we apply effectively enhance this contrast. The result can be a very stark edge that is overly bright and that may have some false color. It is a visually unpleasant effect.
Fortunately, fixing it is pretty simple.
Go back to your original RAW file and reset your edits except White Balance, capture sharpening and lens corrections. In other words, reset any Vibrance/Saturation adjustments as well as any Texture, Clarity and Dehaze. What you want is a slightly softer version of the photo. In fact, I typically reduce the Saturation all the way to zero in the Basic panel.
Re-open this softer version in Photoshop. With the Magic Wand tool, click in the sky surrounding the Moon. What you want to see is the marching ants surrounding the Moon. Use the Shift/Alt (Shift/Opt) keys to add, or subtract from the selection to get it so that the Moon is selected without any sky.
Once the Moon is selected, go to Select>Modify>Expand. How much you expand the selection will depend on the focal length of the lens you used and how large the moon is in the frame. The larger it is, the more you will want to expand the selection. In my case, with the lens I use, a setting of 7, or 8 works well. If your Moon is larger in the frame, a setting of 10 may be appropriate. In the case of a smaller object, you can try 5, or 6.
Next, go to Select>Modify>Feather. A setting of 2, or 3 works well.
What you now have is the outer edge of the Moon selected. Yes, the sky is selected too. That’s OK. Copy this selection using keyboard shortcuts, or via Edit>Copy.
Return to your edited photo of the Moon and paste your selection as a new layer. The alignment should be perfect, unless you have cropped the original image in Photoshop, because you’re using the same original file, so the placement of the Moon in the frame will be the same.
Zoom in to full resolution, or even 200%, turn the visibility of the Moon edge layer off and on to see the difference.
Shooting with a teleconverter does soften a photo. Sometimes quite substantially. The nice thing is that you can generally recover a proper level of detail and sharpness using the sharpening tools in Photoshop. Unsharp Mask, Smart Sharpen, High Pass, even Shake Reduction may be useful in some situations where the camera may not have quite been settled. Use your preferred tool at the settings that look best for your picture.
When you are ready to sharpen, make sure the main image of the Moon is selected. This will ensure that only the main image of the Moon is sharpened and will leave the limb slightly softer.
There will be times when it may be difficult to get the image you want with a single exposure. Or, at least get the image you want at the quality level you want.
One example is an image that has a conjunction between the Moon and another celestial body. In the spring of 2020 the Moon and Venus were in conjunction for a period of time. As were the Moon Venus and Mercury.
Conjunction is just a fancy way of saying the two bodies are synced in their orbits and are visible together in the sky.
Sometimes we can capture these events in a single shot at a focal length that provides enough magnification to discern what is in the picture. At other times, we may need to use a lens that is too wide angle and the magnification will be too low to make the photo useful. This is where compositing comes in.
My personal preference for conjunction images is to capture each component of the event individually then composite them into a final photo.
To do this, I’ll shoot, for example, the Moon and Venus separately at 600mm. Then I’ll take a separate star field background photo at, say, 200mm. I’ll edit the three components as I like, then composite the Moon and Venus into the star field background.
But they’re at different focal lengths, you say? And the scale of each will be different? True! When I paste each component into the star field background, I’ll scale it to the size necessary. In our example here, I would scale down the Moon and Venus to 33% and move them into the proper position within the frame. Scale the layer using Edit>Transform>Scale and input the desired percentage in the Transform controls at the top of the screen.
To select the Moon from one photo, use the Magic Wand tool and click in the sky around the moon. As before, use the Shift/CTRL (CMD) keys as may be necessary to add to, or subtract from the selection. This will give you a very hard, defined edge around the Moon which can look unnatural when pasted into another photo. Make it look more natural by applying a slight (2, or 3 pixel) feathering to the selected Moon in order to soften the edge slightly.
Do the same with any other object you want to add to the photo. In the example below, with the Moon and Venus and Mercury, I used the Ellipse tool to select Venus and Mercury then copied and pasted the selections into my star field.
Once you have your components all together, you can make adjustments using Curves, Levels, or other tools to effectively adjust brightness and color to make the blend seamless. Use the Alt (Opt) and click on the line between an image layer and an adjustment layer to pin the adjustment to just that one image layer.
Select each layer of the composite and sharpen it as you wish, if you did not sharpen before copying and pasting into your background.
You can have fun with composites, too. In the shot below, I did a star trail shot at 240mm, then composited a scaled moon into the star trails. It’s completely fake, but it’s fun!
Save it as an archive file in TIFF, or PSD. Or save it for use on the web as a JPEG.
And there you have it. You have successfully shot the Moon.