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Moon Photography


Moonrise over Hernandez, NM (1941)

I'm driving along and looked up and saw this rather incredible sight of the moon about two-and-a-half to three days from full, rising up over this little village with white crosses.

And I nearly ditched the car and kept yelling at all my friends to get me this and get me that ... I made the exposure with the "G" filter on an 8x10 film and I knew I had something good and I wanted to make a duplicate.

I turned the film holder around and as I pulled the slide, the light went off the crosses.

It was a very discouraging moment.

I had just this one picture of what I knew was quite a considerable thing.

The light then was late in the fall—the quality was extremely beautiful.

And brilliant wind clouds over the mountains ... And the crosses were very brilliant.

It was just one of those incredible fortunate accidents that do happen sometimes.

And I often wonder just how many pictures have been lost because the accident happened to go the wrong way.

Ansel Adams


There are three moon photography situations:

1) The moon fills the frame.

2) The moon is in the frame, but isn't prominent.

3) You're only using the light from the moon to photograph.

You're not photographing the moon itself.

The first three menu items below describe how to photograph in the above three situations.

The Moon in the Frame,

Filling the Frame


Large Moon in the Frame

Focal Length

Use a focal length from 200mm to 500mm.

If you want to fill the frame with the moon, you must use the largest (longest) focal length that you can.

Which Phase is Best?

While a full moon is dramatic, the surface appears somewhat featureless, as there are no shadows.

During the other phases, the moon is illuminated from the side, creating texture revealing shadows.

Altitude of the Moon & Exposure

Besides phase, exposure depends on the altitude of the moon above the horizon, due to the amount of light absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere.

The moon is dimmer at the horizon than when it is high in the sky.

Apparent Motion

The moon will show apparent movement (the Earth's rotation) at shutter speeds, roughly, slower than 1/15th of a second.

The slowest shutter speed that won't blur the moon is dependent on the focal length.

At 200mm, the movement will not be as evident, compared to the movement at 500mm.

Suggested Exposure Settings

ISO 400 & f/8
Full Gibbous 1st Quarter Fat Crescent Narrow Crescent
1000th 500th 250th 125th 60th

Do the following

1) As mentioned, use the largest (longest) focal length that you can.

2) Use a tripod.

3) Use manual exposure mode (M).

4) Use the exposure settings above and bracket by changing the aperture, as needed.

You can also jot down some exposures from the Moon Exposure Calculator.

5) If you can lock up the mirror in your camera, do so, to reduce vibration.

6) Trip the shutter with a remote release or use the self-timer feature.

The Moon in the Frame,

But Not Prominent


Small Moon in the Frame

Focal Length

Use the focal that is best for the landscape.

Which Phase is Best?

You want the exposure setting for the moon to be similar to the exposure setting for the landscape.

Because a full moon is quite bright, early twilight may be optimum.

Later twilight may be better when photographing the other phases of the moon.


As described, photograph at twilight.

At other times, in rural areas, there's usually too large of a difference in illumination between the moon and the landscape.

If you set your exposure for the moon, the landscape is too dark.

If you expose for the landscape, then the moon is overexposed.

Use the Complete Sun and Moon Data for One Day calculators at the U.S. Naval Observatory to determine when a rising full moon coincided with twilight.

In a city, experiment at other times besides twilight.

How To

1) Use the largest (longest) focal length that you can, such 200mm.

2) Use a tripod.

3) Use manual exposure mode (M).

4) Set your exposure using the landscape without the moon in the frame.

5) Trip the shutter with a remote release or use the self-timer feature.

Moon as Only the Light Source

(Not in the Frame Itself)


Not Blue

When you use the moon as the light source, you may expect the photographs to be bluish.

You're photographs won't be blue.

We're used to the film technique of using a blue filter to simulate moonlight.

But, moonlight is just sunlight that's reflected off the moon.

Darker Shadows

Depending on the exposure, your photographs may look like they were taken during the day with direct sunlight.

However, shadows will be darker than those during the day, because there's no light coming from the sky to brighten them.


Use a fast lens (wide lens opening) if you've got one, such as a 50mm f/1.8.

When Photographing

Using a full moon.

The light decreases by about half one day before or after.

The amount of light from the moon decreases dramatically as the moon phase changes.

A full moon reflects 15% of the sunlight, and only 8% one day before or after.


Avoid having large expanses of the sky.

A large black area may dominate a photograph, and you're less likely to get a light streak from an airplane.

Consider using silhouetted shapes in the foreground.

How To

1) Use a wide (large) lens opening, such as f/4.

2) Select the highest ISO setting, such as ISO 1600.

2) Use a tripod.

3) Use manual focus.

Aim a flashlight at the scene to aid focusing.

4) If your camera has a noise reduction feature, select the feature.

For example, with a Nikon, the Long Exposure setting will automatically take a second exposure without opening the mechanical shutter.

This second exposure, called a dark exposure, "photographs" the noise created by the sensor.

The noise is then subtracted from the initial exposure.

3) Use aperture-priority exposure mode (A or Av), and


Depending on your ISO setting, f/stop, weather, altitude of the moon above the horizon, exposures will be from 30 seconds to 15 minutes.

4) Trip the shutter with a remote release or use the self-timer feature.

5) Have extra batteries on hand, as the long exposure times will consume battery power rapidly.

Here's an example.


f/8 for 60 seconds, at ISO 1600


If you use a lab to make prints, the printer may produce poor prints.

The printer may "see" the dark area around the moon, and set the exposure for this area.

If so, the moon will be overexposed and the sky will be gray.


Have the lab reprint your photographs.

Double Exposures & Photoshop

Many photographs of the moon above a landscape were double exposures:

1) Done in the camera

2) Done later in the darkroom or with a slide copier

Today, use Photoshop.

Some photographers consider the above tools as being impure.

Ansel Adams is often considered a pure photographer by the ill-informed.

However, he used colored filters to change tonal range, developed his negatives to change contrast, and famously, used each negative as the "score" for the "performance," a dramatic print.

Ansel Adams, at least once, used a double exposure for a photograph of a moonrise over a canyon at Point Sublime.

Beaumont Newhall, in Focus: Memoirs of a Life in Photography (p. 186), wrote the following.

First, with his view camera firmly fastened on a tripod, he photographed the landscape by the last feeble rays of daylight.

Then he marked an "X" on the ground glass of the camera where the image of the moon was to be recorded when it rose.

...a glow on the horizon showed where the moon would rise, but not for half an hour did it finally appear sufficiently clear and brilliant for Ansel's purpose. in a state of great excitement he mad a second exposure on the same sheet of film, using this time a long-focus 26-inch lens to make the image of the moon relatively large. Ansel was worried over this departure from his usual "direct approach." Was it legitimate to use two different focal length lenses on the same photograph? Was it legitimate to make double exposures?

Beaumont Newhall

Please note, this writer deeply admires Adams, and doesn't care whether his work was pure or impure.

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