You don't need a telescope, camera mounts and motor-drive to take great photos of the moon. Sometimes a digital camera and some telephoto capability is all it takes.
Astrophotography can be highly technical, require specific cameras, mounts, a motor-drive on the tripod and specific adjustments relative to exposure, timing and determining the exact location of the celestial object. For many of us, the effort and expense is worth it. But for just as many of us, the complex knowledge and equipment can be intimidating. Not so when you want to take pictures of the moon.
One of the benefits of photographing the moon is that it's very easy to find. The full moon dominates the sky, often at the expense of other celestial targets like dim stars and deep space objects.
So what else is easy? That's simple. There's no heavy yet delicate telescope required. If you approach this properly, you can capture surprising size and detail with a digital SLR camera (DSLR) either with a zoon lens or optional telephoto, a tripod and some basic digital photo-editing software.
Let's start with the camera. The value of a digital SLR camera is the ability to immediately evaluate your results. By the way, SLR stands for "Single Lens Reflex." That means that what you see in the viewfinder or on the digital back panel of the camera is exactly what the camera is seeing. It's a fairly common feature on most digital cameras, but you should be aware of it just in case.
You'll also want a camera that lets you adjust shutter speed, f-stop and exposure time. You'll probably have to get the instruction book out, and you might want to practice in daylight when a daytime moon is in the sky, but once you understand the adjustments it should be easy. Fortunately, most settings on digital cameras are displayed on a backlit, digital display that's easy to see... assuming you know where the buttons are to change the settings.
Once you've mastered the adjustments and mechanics of your camera for nighttime use, make sure you have a sturdy tripod. You're going to need some telephoto ability to pull this off. A zoom lens on your camera can work, or a separate telephoto that you can purchase.
Lenses are measured in millimetres. This measurement defines the focal length which determines how distant or close objects appear. A 50 millimetre lens is often called a "normal" lens because it shows you things through the view-finder that are the same size you see with your eyes. A lens with a smaller number such as a 35mm lens is often referred to as a wide angle lens. Here are some common lens types and their focal lengths.
Lens Focal Length Terminology_______
· Less than 21mm Extreme Wide Angle
· 21 - 35mm Wide Angle
· 35 - 70mm Normal
· 70 - 135 mm Medium Telephoto
· 135 - 300+mm Telephoto
For Lunar photography you have two choices. Either shoot with the longest focal length you have and use photo-software to crop, enlarge and enhance the photo or use a dedicated telephoto lens to fill the frame as much as possible with the moon.
If you have or are considering the purchase of a telephoto lens for shots that would include the moon, a 300-400mm telephoto lens would do nicely. They are available in higher focal lengths up to 800mm and more, but a lens with that kind of power would be very expensive and somewhat limited for any other use on land unless you plan to spend a lot of time photographing Polar Bears in the Arctic. However, you could get by with a 100mm telephoto which is fairly standard on zoom lenses available on many digital cameras. Some zoom up to 200mm.
The key with any photo of the moon is overall exposure relative to aperture and shutter speed. Avoid using the automatic exposure setting on your camera. It will average the field of view and you will either have a photo that is over or underexposed.
Bracketing involves opening up or stopping down the aperture of your camera. If your spot meter indicates an exposure of f16, take another photo at f22 and a third stopped down to f12. Because you're working with a digital camera you'll be able to get a sense for the result immediately. You could also try stopping down or opening up the aperture beyond the standard 3 brackets. After all, digital cameras don't require you to pay for film processing and you can always delete the shots that you don't like.
The time of exposure isn't a factor with a bright object like the moon compared to dim, deep-space objects, comets and planets. In fact, for those situations you're probably best served by a telescope with a motor drive and the camera accessories mentioned at the beginning. Long time-exposures require a motor-drive so your image doesn't become blurred due to the rotation of the earth. With the moon and a digital SLR camera you'll have your photo in a snap.
However, you could take advantage of the earth's rotation and simple click off exposures at timed intervals. This will give you a progressive series of shots tracking the moon's movement across the sky in an on-going series.
If you're serious about lunar photography with this kind of setup, don't forget to keep a log of date, time of day (or night), focal length of the lens and any exposure settings. This will give you the ability to re-create great shots from the past, and track your learning over time. It's what you would do if you were using a scope with camera mounts and a motor-drive, and it's a good practice even for a simple setup.
Finally, you might want to use some digital photo-editing software. This can be as simple as using the software included on many computers for photo editing, or you can invest in programs like Adobe Photoshop. One of the first things you'll want to do is crop your photo. If you've shot the moon low on the horizon and captured the ocean, trees or other environmental foreground elements you can work on your overall composition. If you caught the moon high in the sky you might want to use cropping simply to enlarge the image. You can also use filters in the software to adjust contrast, colour saturation and chroma. It's easy to experiment until you see the desired result. You can also blend bracketed photos to create more texture and detail.
Resolution and File Size
One other thing to keep in mind is resolution and file size. You want as much resolution as you can get and you'll want to save the photo at a high file-size setting. There's a good chance you'll be cropping, colour-correcting or enlarging your photo, and good resolution will stand up better to any digital enhancements you make.
Most people choose the full moon as their object for lunar photography but waxing and waning moons can also create dramatic photos in addition to the occasional blood moon during an eclipse. Regardless, the fact that you can do this relatively simply and easily means you can quickly assemble a portfolio of great moon photos that you'll enjoy for years.
Related Posts: Astrophotography
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