Tonight, the longest lunar eclipse of this century will be on display. But how do you actually take pictures of the moon?
Photographing the moon is not as difficult as you might think! Follow these steps and you will learn all about the best camera settings to photograph the moon, and you will be amazed at how beautiful your photos will be!
1. Requirements: camera (preferably an DSLR or mirrorless camera), lens, tripod and some creativity.
2. Photography often starts with the right preparation. Reading these tips already is your first step! But, think about where you want photograph the moon. The moon itself is beautiful, but if you can find a nice background it makes your photo even more interesting! Think about the edge of a forest edge, a windmill, a building or skyline of a city, or for example the silhouettes of mountains.
3. Use an app such as PhotoPills, or The Photographer’s Ephemeris to be able to determine exactly what time the moon will rise, and where. The app also shows you what time the eclipse starts. With interactive maps you can easily, from any location, determine which way to look to see the moon!
4. If you have found a beautiful location to take photos of the moon, consider whether you want to have a close-up of the moon, or to display the moon as part of a larger composition. For a close-up you do need a good zoom lens. Preferably at least 300mm or 400mm. If you do not have this lens, you will not get the moon close enough to show the details, and you can better choose to show more of the surroundings.
Always use a tripod for shooting the moon. A tripod prevents vibrations and movements, causing the photo to become blurry. Do you not have a tripod? Then try to place the camera on something stable. A pile of clothes (or a rice bag) gives a good and stable basis and makes it possible to place your camera in different angles.
Set your camera to AV or A mode. In this mode you can set the aperture of your lens (displayed on your camera as a f-number). Choose the smallest f-number. With most lenses this is between f2.8 and f4.5. In this way you open your lens as wide as possible, allowing as much light to come in as possible. This normally gives a very short depth of field, but because the moon is so far away, you really don’t have to worry about this.
In this mode, your camera will automatically choose the correct shutter speed.
Set your ISO value to 100 (so don’t choose automatic iso!). The higher the iso, the more noise you get. Because the moon is a very bright object, 100 iso will be enough to find the desired shutter speed. If your shutter speed is a bit short (under 100 seconds) you can choose to raise your iso slightly. Do not go above 200 iso, because you lose the details by the noise that arises!
However, when photographing the blood moon (the moon during the full eclipse), the light intensity will drop and you will have to increase your ISO quite a bit, maybe even to 1600 or 3200!
The secret: exposure compensation!
The camera will see the moon as a very bright point in a dark sky. Since most of your photo will be filled with black sky, your camera will try to lighten the black sky, resulting in a heavily overexposed moon with no details visible at all! It is therefore necessary to tell your camera that you want to show the moon a little darker, and the sky can stay as black as possible. You can do this with your exposure compensation. You can find this by looking for this icon on your camera:
This is really the best trick to create superb pictures of the moon! Take a test photo without using this option and you will see that the moon is a bright, white spot on your photo. Now set your exposure compensation to -1 and try again. You will see that the details of the moon are a bit more prominent. You may even have to set your compensation to -3 (or even further) to get the correct exposure.
This is how your exposure compensation will look, when you under expose
A correctly exposed moon with -3 compensation, and an overexposed moon with 0 compensation
How much you have to compensate really depends on the circumstances. Are you photographing a full moon, or is it a sickle? Is there a lot of ambient light? Is it in the middle of the night or just after sunset? Or, like tonight, is it a lunar eclipse? In that case the moon is a lot less bright, and you will have to compensate less.
Point your camera at the moon and focus. If you have LiveView on your camera, you can choose to focus manually, for extra sharpness. Turn LV on and zoom in 10x on the moon on your screen. Then focus manually.
Set your focus? Then change your focus mode from AF (Auto Focus) to MF (Manual Focus) and do not touch the focus ring anymore. In this way you keep the sharpness you want for all your photos, without having to continually focus.
Timer or remote control
Turn the timer function on and set it to 2 seconds. Or, if you have a remote control, you can of course use it! The less you touch your camera, the less chance of a shaky picture.
I have an issue! : (
I can hear you say: “That’s all nice and well Krijn, your tips about exposure compensation, but my camera does not let me compensate lower than -2. In other words, my moon is still far too bright! ”
It is indeed possible that your camera can not compensate far enough. But don’t worry, you can easily fix this. Put your camera in M mode. Set your aperture still on the smallest f-number, your iso on the same value as described above, but shorten your shutter speed. First try a 100th of a second. Too bright? Make it a 200th. Still too bright? A 250th may work. So play around with your shutter speed until you have found the right exposure!!
And that’s all! So find yourself a nice location, find the right settings and enjoy the beautiful spectacle! Will you send me your photos? I would love to see them!!
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Summary for out in the field:
- Determine composition
- Place the camera firmly on a tripod or soft surface
- Camera in AV mode
- Iso 100 (or higher during the full eclipse)
- Manually focus with LiveView
- Exposure compensation at -2 or lower
- Timer on 2 seconds or remote control
Are you interested in more night photography? Take a look at my tutorial on photographing Star trails here!
During my photo tours, I also focus on night photography as well. We photograph stars, the milkyway, the moon and stars!