Shooting the Moon with a Camera

The moon is the brightest thing in our night sky. It draws the eye like nothing else. Although we often think of the moon as earth’s satellite, the earth and the moon are more properly considered as a double planet, both orbiting around a common gravitational point, the barycentre, located under the surface of the earth.

The moon photographed with a Nikon D7000 and 500mm telephoto lens (35mm equivalent = 750mm). ISO 400, shutter Speed 1/1000 sec., f/11.

The moon photographed with a Nikon D7000 and 500mm telephoto lens (35mm equivalent = 750mm). ISO 400, shutter Speed 1/1000 sec., f/11.

Taking photos of the moon is great fun, and helps connect you with space in a unique way. People (specifically, 12 American men) have walked on the moon, and it remains the subject of intense scientific investigation.

The first thing to think about in taking any photograph is the brightness of the subject. The moon has a relatively low reflectivity – it would make a really bad mirror. While it looks very bright to our dark-adapted eyes at night, the average reflectivity of the moon’s surface (called albedo) is about the same as slightly weathered asphalt. Only about 11-13% of the light that hits the moon gets reflected back. That’s still enough to allow for some great photos with steps familiar to anyone who takes photos here on earth.

The moon’s surface varies greatly in brightness, both in terms of locations on the moon and at different times of the year, so a little experimentation is always helpful. To try taking a photo of the moon, set up a camera and telephoto lens on a tripod, and try setting the camera’s ISO sensitivity to around 400. Set the camera lens to around f/11 and shutter speed for around 1/1,000th of a second. Take a few photos and see if you can see details in any areas in shadow. Particularly pretty – and helpful – is to concentrate on photos when there the terminator is visible. This is the line separating lunar night and day, and along the terminator (which will be back) there will usually be craters and mountains lit on one side and throwing shadows on the other. These are really helpful for gauging exposure and also for getting the lens to focus on the moon properly.

To do all of this you really need to be able to take manual control of your camera’s exposure controls and also of focus.

Another tip  – if your camera can do it – is to look at the moon with “live view” (on the display at the back of the camera, not through the eyepiece) and enlarge part of the image to get the focus as sharp as possible.

Finally, once you have a good photo you will likely want to fix it up a bit with a program like Photoshop. Most photos benefit from adjustments to contrast, brightness, and sharpness, and moon-shots are no different.