Lunar Photography – Camera settings and tips
As the brightest and largest celestial body of the night, the moon is often chosen as the gateway to astrophotography. We will show you how to take a clear picture of the wandering moon from the very beginning, which is about 380,000 km away.
The right equipment to photograph the moon
Taking a good picture of the moon is possible even with simple photo equipment. A half-frame camera even has one advantage over a full-frame camera: the crop factor. This feature narrows the field of view and thus, the moon occupies more of the image area. Even with the smaller digital cameras and system cameras you can take good photographs, if the zoom is powerful enough.
A tripod is particularly important for taking detailed pictures over such a huge distance. The equipment is most stable just above the ground. Therefore, work as closely to the ground as possible, even if it is not very comfortable. To further reduce camera shaking, we recommend using a remote shutter release or setting the self-timer with a delay of 2 seconds.
While a wide-angle lens is used for star photography to capture as many stars as possible, a telephoto lens is more suitable for moon photography. For the moon to appear as large as possible on the image, you must be able to zoom in at the widest possible angle. The focal length should be at least 200 mm.
The right settings for lunar images
The moon is a small bright spot in the big black night sky, so automatic functions will only work poorly. Apart from the focus, everything is adjusted manually.
First, check that the image stabiliser is turned off. Its work is done by the tripod. Also make sure the flash is off. If you are working with an SLR, you should also turn on the mirror lock-up. This will cause the camera to release with a slight delay and prevent camera shaking.
Now find the moon with the viewfinder or Live View and place it in the middle of your section. Exposure metering can be done manually or using spot metering. You can transfer the spot metering values to manual mode to easily vary the image section later. For focal lengths greater than 200 mm, the shutter speeds must be kept very low, because even the slightest shocks can blur the image.
As the moon moves, long exposure and shutter speeds are not an option. The exposure time should remain within a range of 1/20-1/60. The ISO-values should be kept as low as possible. Start with a value of 100 and find your sweet spot. The balance between exposure and ISO is critical. Since the moon moves quite fast, motion blurring can occur. Then shorten the exposure time and increase the ISO value.
If possible, fade out two levels. If your lens has the open aperture f/2.8, close the aperture to f/4 or f/5.6. With these settings, the lenses usually achieve their best image quality and the moon’s surface is reproduced in detail.
Capturing the phases of the moon
When it comes to lunar photography, many people first think of the full moon. But similar to portrait photography, the most exciting images are not created frontally in full exposure, but when the light comes from the side. Just the same, you can see the relief and its craters on the moon much better when it is illuminated from the side. Use a lunar calendar when planning your photos. The night should also be very clear. The higher the moon is, the less the layers of air affect the image quality.
Tip: The most beautiful structures can be seen when the moon is about 6 days old, i.e. 6 days after the full moon.
The right place for lunar photography
Decisive for lunar photography is a strong contrast between the bright moon and the black night sky. Therefore, try to take your pictures in a place with as little ambient light as possible. Drive out of the city and look for a free, elevated surface. On the Internet you can find light pollution maps for all of Europe that can help you find a suitable place nearby.
The post-processing of the lunar images
Even if the files are large and take a long time to process, it is worth taking such detailed pictures in RAW format. With software such as Photoshop or Lightroom you can work out the moon craters and shadows with the settings sharpness, white balance, tonal value, and shadows well. If you have caught a low moon, it can even be coloured yellow or red. You can emphasise these colours on your computer afterwards, in order to get particularly interesting pictures of the moon.
You can also take several pictures one after the other and then “stack” them with the help of software, i.e. layer several pictures. The similar photos are superimposed, and details and contrasts are sharply worked out.
If you want to stage the moon close to the horizon with trees, roofs or towers, it is advisable to take at least two pictures: once with the scenery in focus and then another with the moon surface in focus. If you put these pictures together on the computer, you will create exciting picture compositions.
As is so often the case in photography, trial and error is key. The different phases of the moon, the locations, and variations of the equipment create very different images of the celestial body.