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How to take a picture of the moon

Zak Billmeier grew up in southern Vermont and coastal Maine. After graduating from Mary Washington College with a Geography degree he still isn't sure quite what to do with, he eventually settled in the mountains of Central Virginia. He spends his free time chasing his daughter around, taking pictures, gardening and cooking. He joined Crutchfield's car A/V writing team in 2007 and is now a lead producer on our video team.

More from Zak Billmeier

The moon
1/250, ISO 200, f/8, 600mm. 5D Mark II, using "Live View" mode
on a tripod, with the 10-second self-timer.

Ever since the dawn of time, man has gazed at the moon. And ever since the dawn of photography, he has tried to take a picture of it. It's actually quite easy to do, especially with a digital camera you can tell exactly what to do. Here's how to get a great moon shot:

1. Choose your lowest ISO setting. This depends on your camera; it will probably be ISO 50-200. The reason is that you'll have less noise (grain) in your shot.

2. "Stop down," or close up your aperture. Your lens is sharper at around f/8 than it is "wide open," or at its maximum aperture. I like f/8 because in my particular camera (Canon 40D) that's about the sharpest aperture before diffraction sets in. But by all means, experiment with even smaller apertures (larger f/ numbers = smaller apertures).

3. Choose a fast shutter speed. This is the step that seems weird at first - I mean, it's pitch black outside. Wouldn't a long exposure make more sense? Your camera will think so. But the truth is that the moon is really, really bright, and long exposures make it look like a white ball. Depending on your aperture setting, you'll need a fast shutter speed. Start at 1/200 and work from there. Your camera's light meter will probably be screaming at you - ignore it.

4. Zoom in as much as possible. I took the shot above at 600mm,  and the moon filled about 1/10 of my frame. If you can catch it while it's low in the sky and closer to Earth, all the better. If you use a teleconverter, remember: you'll lose 1 stop of light at 1.4x, and 2 stops at 2x, so plan accordingly.

5. Use a tripod. This is really more for focusing purposes. The moon is very far away, and the slightest change in distance will throw your focus off. If your lens has an infinity focus marker, don't trust it - they're generally inaccurate. Which leads me to my next point...

6. Focus manually. Your camera will be reeling from the fact you want to use a fast shutter at night. It probably won't want to autofocus for you. If your camera has a live view feature, here's a chance to use it - you can really hone your manual focus by zooming in on your screen, then gently twisting the focus ring.

7. Use your camera's self-timer or a shutter release cable. Whenever you touch it, your camera shakes. Using the timer lets you take your hands off and let it settle down.

Those are the basics on how to get a detailed shot like the one above - but there's a lot to be said for trying to capture the moon as part of a greater scene. The key with any moon shot is going to be choosing a faster shutter speed than your camera thinks, or you get a white blob instead of all the craters, depressions, and textures that make the moon so interesting.

Moon on horizon
1/500, ISO 3200, f/8, 135mm
Hopefully you'll find a more interesting foreground than this.
The key here is to use a faster shutter speed than you may think.

If your point-and-shoot camera has manual controls, these suggestions will apply, but you'll need to be able to zoom in nice and tight. And as always, experiment! Rules are made to be broken. Take these suggestions as a jumping off point and see where they take you.

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