How to Photograph the Moon


The moon has captivated man’s attention since the dawn of time. The brightest object in the night sky, it inspires wonder and imagination. It is no surprise that most photographers are drawn to capture the moon’s spectacle at some time in their life. While there is merit and a challenge in photographing the moon close up, filling the frame with all its detail, I prefer to make use of the moon as a feature of the landscape. Including elements of the landscape with the moon or including the moon as an element of the landscape provides scale and helps to evoke an emotional as well as physical connection with the image.

A red tail hawk silhouetted in front of a ful moon. Taken at Coyote Hills Wildlife preserve, Fremont, CA (Paul Dileanis)

The “Lunar 11 rule”

Let us start with the basics. The moon is very bright in relation to the rest of the night landscape. How many times have you tried to photograph the moon only to find that the result is a bright white blob in the sky. If our only concern is to capture the detail in the surface of the moon there is a simple rule to follow to achieve the correct exposure. The rule, called the “lunar 11” or sometimes “looney 11” rule, is a formula to obtain the correct exposure and capture the detail in the moon’s surface.  Start with your camera in the “manual” mode and make the following settings:

  • Aperture (f/stop) – f/11
  • ISO – 100
  • Shutter speed 1/100th second

Under ideal conditions these setting will get you very close to the correct exposure.  Adjustments may need to be made to compensate for atmospheric conditions, phase of the moon and light pollution. If the moon appears too bright increase the shutter speed or conversely if the moon appears too dark use a longer shutter speed or open the aperture.  If you use a longer shutter speed, be aware that the moon and earth are moving. For a telephoto lens never use a shutter speed slower than 1/30sec. or the moon will be blurred by the movement.

The full moon sets over the ocean as the sun rises on Pigeon Point Lighthouse. The lighthouse sits just south of Halfmoon Bay along California Highway 1. It is now a State Park and includes a Hostel for overnight visitors. (Paul Dileanis)

The Lunar Landscape

Photographing the moon as an element of the landscape creates some challenges for the photographer. In most night scenarios a correct exposure for the moon renders the rest of the landscape too dark.  Silhouetting your subject against the moon is one creative way to conquer this problem. Another way to deal with the disparity of light is to photograph the moon just before or after sunrise or sunset when the landscape is brightening and the sky is still dark enough for the moon to show clearly. In order to capture the moon at these times it is necessary to know the phase of the moon, moonrise or moonset times and where the moon will be visible from your chosen location. Many photographers I know use the Photographer’s Ephemeris and google maps to help determine where and when to photograph the moon.

When determining the exposure for your lunar landscape keep in mind the “lunar 11 rule” to keep detail in the moon.  Also remember a long exposure will cause the moon to blur since the moon and earth are not standing still. As the sky and landscape brighten you may have to continually update your exposure settings. In some cases you might have to decide whether the detail in the moon’s surface is worth sacrificing for the overall mood of the image. Using a graduated neutral density filter may help bring the dynamic range of the scene more into line with the range of tones the sensor can capture and maintain some detail in the moon. I recommend saving images as RAW rather than jpeg in order to retain more shadow and highlight detail.  Other times you may get lucky and have clouds veil the moon to create awe inspiring landscapes. Bracketing your exposures will also help ensure your success at capturing the moon in landscapes.

  (Paul Dileanis)          Full moon before sunrise at Pigeon Point Lighthouse with clouds and moonlight reflecting on water. (Paul Dileanis)

Equipment you will need to photograph the moon;

  • DSLR camera or camera with manual controls.  While most any camera will work, point and shoots with their small image sensors and lack of controls rarely capture good moon photographs. Cameras with larger sensors and interchangeable lenses will give you higher quality images and the controls you need to successfully photograph the moon.
  • Tripod – A good sturdy tripod is essential for photographing the moon and to avoid camera shake.
  • Telephoto Lens – Although a long telephoto lens, 300mm or longer, will help you fill the frame shorter focal length lenses can be used to include more of the landscape.
  • Shutter release cable – Avoid camera shake by using a remote release cable.  Wireless remotes will also work. If you do not have a remote release use the camera self timer to trigger the shutter.  For blending multiple images such as during a lunar eclipse it is helpful to have a programmable release or intervalometer.

Related Posts: Lunar Eclipse December 10, 2011

Visit my Moon Landscape Gallery to see more sample photos


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