Snap the Moon

To take a good photo of the Moon you really need to use a telephoto lens setting. Many compact cameras will give quite a good close-up shot when on their maximum setting, but you need to know how to control the camera settings to get a good shot.

It’s surprising how small the Moon really is as seen in the sky. Most phone cameras have a wide-angle lens, and the Moon image that they give is very tiny, though you might be able to enlarge it to show some details. A few cameras have additional telephoto lenses, or optical zoom, but even these don’t give enough magnification for a good lunar image. So it’s best to use an actual camera to photograph the Moon.

Moon in sky with smartphone
The Moon shows only basic detail with a straight smartphone shot. Photo  by Cath Adams using an iPhone 7

But even then it isn’t straightforward. If you just point the camera at the Moon and take a snap, even on a long telephoto setting, it’ll probably be both overexposed and smeared out. The problem is that the camera’s autoexposure system sees a mostly dark scene with just the bright Moon filling a small part of the view, and it tries to compensate for the darkness by giving much more exposure than is needed for the Moon alone. So it uses a shutter speed of maybe a second or so.

Two exposures of Moon
Moon with autoexposure of 1/8 sec at f/5.6 (left) and manually adjusted exposure of 1/30 sec at f/11, ISO 100 in both cases. Cloud was drifting across in the right-hand shot. 200 mm lens on DSLR. Photo: Robin Scagell

In most cases you can still get a decent shot, so follow this step-by-step guide to get good results.

Step 1: Use a tripod or hold the camera steady

Even a very cheap tripod will help greatly, and most cameras have the thread on the base that you can screw a tripod into. But if you don’t have one, hold the camera firmly against something fixed and use the shutter release trick described below to take the shot.

Step 2: Adjust the ISO

It may be night time, but the Moon is a sunlit landscape. So you’re going to need similar camera settings to those you’d use during the day. This means using an ISO suited to everyday shots, such as ISO 100, which will also give you the smoothest result and the finest detail. Most cameras can be adjusted for sensitivity, from ISO 100 for everyday shots up to ISO 1600 or higher for low light.

If you don’t have the instruction manual to hand, look for a Program or Manual setting, then look for a Menu button that should allow you to choose the ISO.

Step 3: Adjust the exposure settings

If you do have a manual setting, you can choose the shutter speed and the f-number of the lens. Start at a shutter speed of 1/125 second and an f-number of f/8, and work from there. If the Moon comes out too bright, go to higher figures for both of these settings.

Alternatively, you might find that the Program setting just allows you to reduce the exposure in what are called ‘stops’, each one being a factor of two. The scale usually runs from +3 to -3 or greater, and you need to use the greatest negative figure you can get to cut down the exposure.

Step 4: Focus on infinity

Compact cameras often rely on autofocus, and might have trouble working out what to focus on when looking at the Moon. The autofocus seesaws from one extreme to the other. So look for a Scene setting with an icon of mountains – that generally forces the camera to focus on infinity. If you’re using a camera with a lens that you can focus manually, such as a DSLR, one trick is to use the live view setting to focus on the Moon, then switch off the lens’s autofocus so that it doesn’t try to refocus when you take the shot.

Step 5: Take the shot

You might think this is easy enough, but the problem is that there’s always the risk that pressing the shutter button will jog the camera, even when using a tripod, and when you’re at maximum zoom this can be noticeable in the picture. So the trick is to use the two-second delay that most cameras have, or alternatively the ten-second delay. Then you can concentrate on holding the camera firm when it takes the shot.

You might have to experiment with the settings to get a good shot in which all the Moon’s surface features are visible, but if you really can’t control the exposure properly there’s one last trick: take the shot during twilight when the Moon is in a bright sky. Then the autoexposure system is more likely to work properly, and you can still get a great shot, maybe with some foreground detail as well.

Moon with compact camera
Rising full Moon photographed with a Canon Ixus 170 compact camera at maximum zoom setting (cropped to show detail). Photo: Sally Scagell

Got a good shot taken during the 100 Hours? Post it on our Facebook page @popastro. Alternatively, tweet us @popastro or use the #popastro hashtag, or mention us @popastrouk on Instagram.

Photographing through a telescope

This is something that can be tricky to achieve, but the results can be excellent if you take care, and it can even work with a smartphone. The simplest method is to point the camera lens directly into the telescope eyepiece, and hope for the best. This is known as afocal photography. With digital cameras you can see when you have everything in line. You might need to play with the exposure settings, as described above.

You can get adapters that will clamp the camera or smartphone to the telescope, which will make life a lot easier. Do a search on ‘digiscoping’ for the right gear.

Moon through binoculars
Moon photographed through binoculars at twilight by digiscoping. Photo: Robin Scagell


Close-up of Moon
The crater Copernicus and Mare Nubium taken with an iPhone through a 4½-inch reflecting telescope. Photo by Cath Adams using an iPhone 7 with adapter to hold it onto the eyepiece, with 10-second delay to avoid blur

Photographing through binoculars is more tricky, but it’s often possible to mount binoculars on a tripod. Sometimes there is a tripod thread on the end of the central pivot that you use to adjust the width between the two halves, or of not you can buy a tripod adapter that clamps onto this pivot.

Binocular clamps
L-R: Binocular clamp designed to fix to screw thread on binocular pivot; clamp type for binoculars with no thread; 20 x 50 binoculars using this clamp. Photo: Robin Scagell

The best way to photograph through a telescope is to use a camera with a removable lens, and also remove the telescope eyepiece. Then the telescope acts as a telephoto lens. Adapters are available for most lens types for the more advanced telescopes, but if you can a budget telescope there might not be enough focusing travel available to bring the image to a focus point, so take advice from an expert supplier beforehand. You can find out more on photographing through a telescope here.

Camera adapter
A T-ring adapter to connect a DSLR to a telescope. Photo: Robin Scagell