Time to fess up. How many photos of a tiny blurry white blob do you have? How to photograph the moon is a topic I am asked about over and over again and I see many more photographers dealing with a deluge of the same question. So how do you photograph the moon? Basically, forget what you think you know.
You think the moon is a nighttime photo opportunity. Thinking of the moon like this automatically sends you looking for ways to let more light into your camera. This is a huge mistake! To stop getting blurry white blobs you need less light, not more.
The Moon is Like a Lightbulb
Think of the moon as a lightbulb in a darkened room. Your camera thinks it needs a lot of light to photograph the bulb because most of the surrounding room is dark when in reality the camera only needs a little light to capture the detail of the bulb. This is the same as the moon. The moon is very bright compared to the surrounding sky. So when your camera’s light meter takes a reading it is trying to even the exposure across a small bright object and a large expanse of black sky. The result is a very over exposed moon. For the vast majority of moon photographs, you’ll need to underexpose by anywhere from 1/2 stop to a full stop based on your camera’s exposure meter.
For most moon shots (without foregrounds to contend with) you can shoot with a shutter speed of 1/350 or so, making a tripod optional if you have a steady hand.
Get as Close as You Can
When the moon first appears over the horizon, atmospheric conditions cause the moon to look substantially larger in the sky than it will appear higher in the sky. Use this to your advantage to capture a larger image of the moon. For most shots of the moon by itself, you’ll need a minimum of 300mm to create a photo that can be cropped with decent results. For cameras with only “x” markings instead of mm markings, this will probably be around 10x as most compact cameras use a base lens around 28mm or 35mm.
You can also photograph the moon through a telescope to increase the size of the moon in your frame. You can either purchase a telescope that allows a camera to be attached directly, or use a smaller lens and shoot through the eyepiece. It is a bit of balancing act to get the camera lined up through the eyepiece but with a bit of practice it is an very inexpensive way to increase your magnification capabilities.
Consider the Rest of the World
All of your moon shots don’t have to be the moon all by its lonesome. Include foreground items to all a lot of interest to your photos. But remember that you’ll need to expose for the moon, not the foreground. Using a graduated neutral density filter is a great way to reduce the light from the moon and sky while still capturing more light from a dim foreground.