The Full Moon! Images of Earth’s large natural satellite have been in art since prehistory. There are even names for different Full Moon events throughout the year.
Harvest Moon, Wolf Moon, Hunter’s Moon, and so on. Successfully imaging the Moon with modern equipment requires using the correct Moon photography settings.
While many people love looking at photographic images of the Moon, some photographers may find themselves a little intimidated at trying to capture such a photo for their own portfolio.
The best Moon photography settings will get you into the range of exposures you need to be in order to successfully capture a stunning photograph of this beautiful celestial body.
Moon Photography Settings + Tips & Real World Examples In 2023
Below are my goto camera settings whenever I am capturing moon photography.
Of course, these settings are only used as a guide and can change a lot depending on the lighting and desired look.
For more moon camera settings, you can see the examples below which are also accompanied by an image for each.
Shutter speed: 1/500th
Focal length: 500mm
Exposure mode: manual
Focus mode: manual
Image format: APS-C
White balance: Auto (RAW) or Daylight
- Shutter speed: 1/25
- Aperture: f/2.8
- ISO: 500
- Focal length: 200mm
- Shutter speed: 1/80
- Aperture: f/3.5
- ISO: 1250
- Focal length: 85mm
- Shutter speed: 1/320
- Aperture: f/5.0
- ISO: 1000
- Focal length: 120mm
- Shutter speed: 1/200
- Aperture: f/5.0
- ISO: 800
- Focal length: 450mm
- Shutter speed: 4s
- Aperture: f/11.0
- ISO: 400
- Focal length: 80mm
Why I choose the above settings for moon photography
Shutter speed: 1/500th – It seems counterintuitive to use a fast shutter speed for exposing a subject that generally dominates the night sky.
What I’m basing this general faster range of shutter speeds on is what is called the Sunny 16 Rule. It’s a basic guide going back to the days when film cameras dominated the market.
The Sunny 16 Rule states that on a sunny day set the aperture to f/16 and shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO for a subject in direct sunlight.
So, 1/125th at f/16 with ISO 125 is a basic starting point for a photo on a sunny day. Equivalent settings of 1/250th at f/11 or 1/60th at f/22 would also work. Same exposure value (EV) as the first combination.
Why would we use the Sunny 16 Rule for Moon pics? Well, what is the Full Moon but a subject illuminated by direct sunlight?
Of course, this is just a starting point for exposure calculation. Certain other variables come into consideration and bracketing exposures is always a good practice.
The different phases of the Moon can factor in a bit, too, since we see the sunlight reflected somewhat differently, but we still use Sunny 16 as the base exposure guestimate.
A lot of people will think that a long exposure is what’s needed, and this would be true for most other astronomical subjects.
The Moon, though, is lit by direct sunlight and also has a high albedo, or is fairly reflective. Thus, long exposures will tend to overexpose Moon images to the point of making it a white blob devoid of detail.
This little exposure calculation trick also works for the planets as a good starting point.
The apparent magnitude of the planets is much lower than the Full Moon, but still quite a bit higher than most deep-sky subjects.
The Sun has an apparent magnitude of -26.7, the Full Moon -12.6, Venus -4.4, Mars -3.0, Jupiter -1.0, Saturn +1.0. The brightest star in the night sky is Sirius at an apparent magnitude of -1.0. The stars of the Big Dipper are around +2.0.
If you want to get into astrophotography, you will be endlessly fascinated by what you can see and record. For now, let’s get back to the Moon. To learn more, you can see my post on the best cameras for night photography.
Aperture: f/11.0 – Even though I listed Sunny 16 as the base exposure, there is a problem with bright subjects against a dark background shot with small f-stops.
The optical phenomena of diffraction. Diffraction, like lens flare, chromatic aberration, or distortion can degrade an image.
The other lens issues get better as you stop down the aperture, so somewhere in the middle is a sweet spot of the lens aperture. Around f/5.6, f/8.0, and f/11.0 is where the sweet spot often is in a longer lens.
ISO: 400 – Whether shooting digital or film, ISO 400 is a good choice. Since the Moon is brightly lit, ultra-high ISO is not necessary. Lower ISO results in higher quality images due to there being less noise (digital) or grain (film).
Noise and grain are especially noticeable in blank expanses, black, white, or a color. They seem to be really evident in black expanses.
Focal length: 500mm – You need a long lens for really large, frame-filling Moon pictures. Unless the Moon is only a minor element of your composition. The Moon is rather small compared to the sky in your field of view.
It’s only about ½ of a degree or 30 arc minutes wide. This is roughly equivalent to the apparent size of a US Quarter held out from our body at arm’s length.
There may be some minor variation in apparent lunar size, but it’s not much. Depending on where the Moon is in its orbit, there might be a couple of percentage points difference.
Some people will swear up and down that the Moon is quite a bit larger when near the horizon (the Sun, too), but this is merely a trick that our minds play on us. Using that same US Quarter, we can prove this to ourselves.
When the Moon is near the horizon, compare the size to the Quarter in our outstretched arm. Then, in a couple of hours, when the Moon is high in the sky, check again.
Same size! Our brain is fooled by also seeing earthbound objects on the horizon, making some believe the disc is actually larger, an illusion.
The same thing applies to the Sun, but please don’t do this experiment with the Sun, you could damage your eyesight.
Furthermore, a longer lens will allow you to fill up more of the frame of the image, meaning you won’t have to enlarge it so much that the image quality suffers. A long telephoto zoom lens will also work.
Exposure mode: manual – Manual because we will be doing a lot of changing and bracketing, shooting many exposures to get a few workable images.
Auto exposure modes could also be fooled by the large expanse of sky or foreground compared to the small Moon.
If you want to capture the Moon and a landscape or cityscape, then HDR might be a good idea. The best Moon photography settings are going to vary quite a lot.
Focus mode: manual – The auto focus is going to have issues with most night scenes and astronomy objects, so taking control manually is usually the best practice.
Image format: APS-C – Actually, any of the popular formats of DSLRs and mirrorless digital cameras are excellent options. Full Frame, APS-C, and MFT formats have wonderful cameras and optics.
White balance: Auto (RAW) or Daylight – The Moon is a Daylight color balance subject, so Daylight can be used.
If shooting in RAW, which I highly recommend for lunar imaging, you could leave the camera white balance on auto and assign a color profile in post-processing.
Tips on how to capture stunning moon photography images
Tip #1: Use a tripod
Tripod use is one of the most important factors in getting good photos of the Moon. Especially when using longer lenses that have a high magnification factor, tripods are virtually indispensable.
With smaller format cameras that are smaller and have lighter lenses, a photographer might be tempted to hand hold their Moon shots.
But when you also factor in the crop factor of APS-C and MFT formats, camera steadiness is extremely important.
If you try your hand at HDR photography, even with shorter lenses, a tripod is a necessity in order for all the exposures to register together for the processing program.
Tip #2: Focus with Live View
You’re not going to get benefit from the depth of field techniques, since the Moon or any space object is at infinity focus. So, why not simply set your telephoto lens at infinity and fire away?
Take a close look at the focus ring scale on your telephoto lens. You can see that infinity focus is not one fixed point, but rather a range.
Temperature fluctuations will change where true infinity actually is. Not all the elements expand the same, either. Fluorite glass expands and contracts differently than regular optical glass.
These reasons make accurate focusing somewhat difficult at times. Using your camera’s rear viewscreen on Live View will give a nicely magnified view of the picture frame, making accurate focus easier.
Another reason why using a tripod is an important tip, it makes doing that higher magnification focusing less cumbersome.
Tip #3: Cooler air is better
The atmosphere is not a static medium, it is fluid. In other words, things move around a lot in our ocean of air. Turbulence and haze increase with higher temperatures.
There are several ways to reduce atmospheric issues. Cooler air is a common thread throughout the ways.
Shooting over natural scenery tends to have less turbulence than in cities with their concrete, asphalt, and steel heat sinks. If the natural scenery is a desert during the Summer, all bets are off!
The atmosphere is often cleaner, calmer, and cooler right after a storm, so taking pics right after a storm passes can yield great results.
If the timing of the Moon’s orbit lets you shoot closer to dawn than to sunset, then the air and the ground below have had more time for the heat to dissipate.
Late Autumn and Winter nights are also great times to engage in astrophotography of all types. Moon imaging benefits as well.
An ephemeris is a valuable tool for any night photography, especially for astronomical subjects. You can find one online or even through a smartphone app. It shows the positions and times of celestial orbits.
Tip #4: Shoot in RAW
Yes, I say this a lot. But for good reason. RAW image files hold quite a bit more information than JPEG image files. This extra information can be brought out with an image processing program.
Even a basic and simple program allows for adjusting high lights, shadows, and mid-tones to achieve a good-looking final result.
One of the other advantages of shooting in RAW is that the color profile can be assigned or adjusted according to your artistic vision.
Tip #5: Prime lenses are preferred over zooms
The main reason for this tip is that primes tend to have fewer elements than zooms. This means that contrast and flare are generally more under control with a long prime as opposed to a telephoto zoom lens.
Stopping the lens aperture down to the sweet spot tends to equalize things, but generally speaking, primes tend to be sharper and better corrected against optical aberrations.
Tip #6: Do your post-processing in a darker room
Sounds funny, but it works. Less ambient light in your work room helps you to concentrate on the image. It also mimics the conditions that you were under while taking the photographs.
Tip #7: Don’t wait til the Night
The Moon is bright enough to be visible in broad daylight. Interestingly, it doesn’t change the exposure variable that much.
Besides bright daylight, morning or evening twilight are prime opportunities for interesting Moon images. These daylight hours are great for juxtaposing the Moon along with foreground scenery.
HDR imaging is a fantastic tool for this type of lunar photography.
The best Moon photography settings will help you get great pictures of Earth’s large natural satellite.
Don’t fall into the traps of being intimidated by astrophotography or thinking you need extremely long exposure times. With a little advanced preparation, you can come away with truly stunning lunar imagery.