Capturing the Moon with a camera is one of the most satisfying—and challenging—projects available to an outdoor photographer. Here are four suggestions for making the most of a moonlit night with your camera.
1. Include People or Objects in the Shot
Bill Ingalls is NASA’s senior photographer. Bill has traveled all over the world for more than 25 years photographing missions for NASA. Bill’s #1 tip for capturing that great lunar photo: “Don’t make the mistake of photographing the Moon by itself with no reference to anything,” he said. “I’ve certainly done it myself, but everyone will get that shot. Instead, think of how to make the image creative—that means tying it into some land-based object. It can be a local landmark or anything to give your photo a sense of place.”
Ingalls, who is based at NASA headquarters in Washington DC, goes to great lengths to scout out the perfect vantage point to juxtapose the Moon with various Washington monuments. “It means doing a lot of homework. I use Google Maps and other apps—even a compass—to plan where to get just the right angle at the right time.” He often scouts locations a day or more in advance, getting permission to access rooftops or traveling to remote areas to avoid light pollution.
Even better, make a Moon photo safari into a family activity, especially if there is a supermoon, eclipse, or other special celestial event.
“I think this would be a lot of fun to do with kids, if nothing else, to just have them witness it and talk about what’s taking place.” He recommends personalizing the experience by using people in the shot. “There are lots of great photos of people appearing to be holding the Moon in their hand and that kind of thing. You can get really creative with it,” he said.
Even without a famous landmark nearby, trees, mountains, streetlights and even just clouds in the sky can all add visual interest to an image.
2. To Capture the Moon Itself, Adjust Your Camera Settings for Daylight
Since most Moon shots are taken at night, it might seem intuitive to adjust your camera for low-light conditions. But if you want to photograph the Moon itself and its features clearly, remember this: moonlight is just reflected sunlight. In fact, it's often pretty bright reflected sunlight, depending on the Moon's phase. Set the white balance for daylight, and try a fast shutter speed with a smaller apeture.
Of course, if you're shooting both the Moon in the sky and the landscape below, exposure gets much more tricky. Planning and experimentation will be your friends.
3. Planning Is Key
There's nothing wrong with grabbing a spontaneous shot if you see a beautiful Moon. But if you want to increase your odds of making a truly memorable photo, there are some ways to make your own luck.
Scout out a good shooting location during daylight hours. Practice using your camera's controls in advance. Give yourself plenty of time to set up. Use a tripod whenever possible. Use a zoom if you have one, and use a shutter release to minimize any shaking.
Most importantly, know when the Moon rises and sets on a given day, and its current phase. Using NASA resources, you can see the Moon's exact phase down to the hour, generate a calendar of sky events including full Moons, and even make your own handy Moon phase calendar. There are also a number of commercial apps available for your computer or smart phone that can help you predict exactly when, where and how the Moon will make an appearance.
The Moon isn't only visible at night. Try a daylight shot.
Experiment with shooting the Moon during different phases. A full Moon is beautiful and extremely bright, but also quite flat. During other phases, the lengthening shadows cast by mountains and craters on the lunar surface make for interesting, complex moonscapes.
In the end, plenty of practice will lead to beautiful photos of Earth's nearest neighbor.