With its shifting phase and the wobbles of libration bringing myriad new features into view each night, the Moon is a wonderful target for photographers of all abilities. As the largest object in the night sky seen from Earth, it’s an obvious place to start when you’re learning to take photos of the night sky.
But for all its size, proximity and brightness, it takes great attention to detail to capture top-quality images of the Moon.
We’ll also look at how to create a Moon mosaic, how to photograph craters on the Moon and how to photograph a crescent Moon.
If you’re stuck for ideas, we’ll also look at 6 classic sights on the Moon that everyone should have a go at photographing.
And if you’re already a seasoned lunar astrophotographer, have a go at capturing images of the Moon for science.
Equipment for photographing the Moon
Anyone with a telescope and either a smartphone or a compact camera can take a decent image of the Moon. Just hold your camera up to the telescope’s eyepiece and start snapping away.
This technique is known as ‘afocal photography’ and if you already have a camera and telescope, you don’t need anything else to get started.
A DSLR provides you with several options. They can be used to take afocal shots, just like smartphone and point-and-shoot cameras. Or they can be turned directly to the night sky to capture nightscapes. For more on this, read our DSLR guide.
Bear in mind that the Moon will appear small in such an image taken with an APS-C camera’s standard 18-55mm lens. To increase the size of the Moon’s disc in your images and reveal more detail on its surface, you’ll need a longer focal length lens.
A lens with a focal length of 300mm or more will show the lunar maria as well as some of the more prominent craters and mountains. For more on this, read our guide to photographing craters on the Moon below.
That DSLRs have detachable lenses means that they can be connected directly to a telescope, essentially turning the telescope into the camera lens.
You’ll need a T-adaptor and a T-ring. The T-ring is brand-specific. It mounts on your DSLR and screws into the T-adapter, which then attaches to your telescope.
Although the newest models of DSLRs can shoot video, they’re not ideal for high-resolution lunar imaging, and this is where high frame rate planetary cameras come in.
These cameras are capable of taking short videos and shoot many frames per second. You can use any telescope you like, although large aperture Schmidt-Cassegrains and Maksutov-Cassegrains are popular choices with top lunar photographers.
This is because their longer focal lengths are well suited to close-up imaging of the Moon, and compared to a high-quality refractor telescope you get a much larger aperture for your money.
Whatever type of telescope you use, make sure it’s well collimated, by ensuring that its optics are carefully aligned to produce the sharpest image possible. Your telescope’s instruction manual will show you how to do this.
As in any area of astronomy, your telescope’s mount needs to be rock solid and stable. The ability to track the Moon – either with a motor drive or with full Go-To capability – is a must if you’re using a high frame rate camera. If you’re on the lookout for a new mount, read our guide to the best telescope mounts available.
A mount’s drives should be set to track at the lunar rate, not at the rate the stars move across the sky. If you’re using a Go-To mount, take time to set it up properly, otherwise you may find yourself having to make continuous, tiresome tracking adjustments when imaging.
If you’re using a high frame rate camera you’ll need a computer to run it. This computer will also need capture software installed if your camera doesn’t have any of its own.
Essential lunar astrophotography accessories
If you’re using a monochromatic planetary camera you might find it helpful to fit a red filter when capturing lunar images. Using one can help produce a crisper final picture. For more info read our guide to telescope filters.
A Barlow lens is must for detailed close-ups of the lunar surface and its craters, whatever camera you use. It increases the focal length and the magnification of your system, typically by two or three times.
Holding a smartphone squarely over an eyepiece while you take a photo is a delicate art. You can make things easier with a dedicated bracket to do the job for you. Follow our guide to build your own smartphone holder.
Photograph the Moon: step-by-step
- Decide what your target on the Moon is and work out the best time to capture it.
- Use astronomy apps or software to decide what date and time to photograph
- Pick a date when your Moon target is near the line between the illuminated and dark portions: the terminator.
- Shoot when the target is lit from an angle to reveal surface textures and rugged lunar crust, craterlets and other subtle features like rilles.
- Check the seeing conditions: atmospheric turbulence that can blur and distort your view of the Moon
- Leave your telescope outside to cool down before you start. This will reduce wobbling in your image caused by heat rising
- Never take images from indoors: heat escaping will cause the view to shimmer wildly
- Connect your computer equipment and start imaging
- If you need to make minor corrections on your Go-To or driven mount, be sure you know which button to press
- Check by rotating the camera in the eyepiece holder so when you press the left or up button the image moves left or up
- If using a camera with a monochrome chip and seeing conditions aren’t perfect, use a red filter on the camera to improve the view
- Make sure your capture software is set up and recording to a hard drive with sufficient free space.
- Record each night’s captures to a fresh folder so they can be easily located later.
- Use the live window in your capture software to help focus
- Focus the camera: make sure it’s locked in the eyepiece holder
- Pointing the telescope at the Moon’s terminator and adjust the focus knob. The high contrast between light and dark will show when the image is sharpest.
- Move the telescope to your target, knowing it’s in focus.
- Take a short video of just over a minute. At 15fps (frames per second) this should give over 900 frames
Why video is best for imaging the Moon
To end up with a high-resolution close-up of the lunar surface it is better to record a video than take stills. Why is this?
The answer doesn’t lie out in space but closer to home, in Earth’s atmosphere. When looking at the Moon at high magnification on an average night, you’ll notice the view undulating, with moments of steady, sharp views and then brief blurred instants.
Since they generally only take single still images, the shots from a DSLR or point-and-shoot camera risk being blurred by this atmospheric turbulence at the moment when the shutter fires.
A short video taken with a webcam or planetary camera, recorded in the AVI format, has many frames each second. It enables the sharpest moments of clarity to be selected.
You can then stack these frames together using specialised software and process them further to bring out tremendous detail on the Moon’s surface.
So for wide-field shots of the Moon, DSLRs are fine. But when it comes to high-resolution close-ups of its mountains and craters, it’s the dedicated planetary cameras that come up trumps.
Best free apps and software for photographing the Moon
This great free app can be used on your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad and is also available on Android. It shows what the Moon looks like for a given date and time, complete with shadow details.
Where to get it Your app store
This free planetarium software is handy for working out where the Moon will be. It’s great for when you’re planning a long night of imaging to create a lunar mosaic. For more help, read our guide on how to install and use Stellarium.
Where to get it stellarium.org
Virtual Moon Atlas
An authoritative piece of freeware for planning your observations in detail using an interactive atlas and feature-rich information panel.
Where to get it ap-i.net/avl/en/start
5 targets to photograph on the Moon
For more sights to observe and photograph on the lunar surface, read our guide to the Moon’s best features.
Being one of the most stunning craters on the Moon, Copernicus is a wonderful imaging target. See if you can capture its magnificent terraced walls.
This chain of peaks is one of the great lunar mountain ranges and a good target for afocal photography. It stretches 600km across the Moon’s surface.
Also known as the ‘Straight Wall’, Rupes Recta is an enormous fault on the lunar surface. The trick is to catch it under the right illumination to see it clearly.
This valley cuts straight through the lunar Alps. The challenge here is to see if you can capture the elusive rille that runs all the way along its length.
Crater Tycho is surrounded by ejecta rays – brighter material that was flung out by the impact that formed the crater. It has a huge peak at its centre.
Photograph the Moon with a smartphone
Here we’ll show you how to use a smartphone to take images of the Moon with afocal imaging, the technical term for simply aiming your smartphone’s camera down your telescope’s eyepiece.
There are two ways to do this: one is to simply hold your phone’s camera over the eyepiece, the other is to use a smartphone adaptor, which attaches to your telescope’s eyepiece to provide greater stability.
You wouldn’t think it would be difficult to point a smartphone camera down the eyepiece of a telescope, but there are techniques that need to be mastered.
For more info, read our guide to smartphone astrophotography or the best gadgets to turn your smart phone into an astrophotography camera. Our find out the science behind a supermoon.
You’ll need to hold the phone squarely over the eyepiece and keep it steady without touching the telescope.
Once you’ve got this bit right, the tricky part is pressing the shutter button without moving the phone. Be prepared for some mediocre shots at first but persevere – they will get better.
Whether you hold your phone or use an adaptor, you’ll have to set your telescope up with an eyepiece, ideally one with a low to medium magnification to start with. 25mm is normally a good choice.
If you’re using a short focal length telescope with a low-power eyepiece, you should be able to get a shot of the Moon with the telescope on a fixed tripod.
A driven and polar-aligned equatorial mount makes things easier, keeping the Moon centred and allowing you to use higher magnifications without your images suffering from motion blur.
Point the telescope at the Moon and focus the view through the eyepiece. With the Moon centred in view, hold your smartphone so it’s pointing squarely down the eyepiece. Try not to touch the eyepiece as this may move the telescope, nudging the Moon out of view.
Once you’ve got the Moon on the phone’s screen, check that the camera lens is looking squarely down the eyepiece.
If you get it right, the light from the eyepiece will be at its brightest and evenly spread as it enters the phone’s camera lens. If it’s slightly tilted, you’ll get a gradual degradation of brightness across the image.
When you’re all lined up, take the shot. Be gentle, though, as it’s easy to move the phone as you press the shutter button.
Some smartphone earphones can be used to operate the shutter via their in-line volume controls, while others offer voice control to prevent movement at this crucial moment.
For extra stability, a smartphone adaptor can take the strain out of holding your smartphone so are well worth your consideration.
Modern smartphone cameras are starting to offer more ways of altering exposure, often by photo apps. But the Moon should be bright enough to trigger your phone’s autoexposure functions so that the shot comes out correctly.
Photograph the Moon with a smartphone: step-by-step
Anticipate the Moon’s movement and point your telescope just ahead of it in the sky (you’ll take the shot when the Moon becomes centred). Focus the scope as accurately as you can, making sure the features on view are sharp.
2 Line up and shoot
Hold the phone squarely to the eyepiece until you get a bright blob on the screen. Carefully alter the distance between camera and eyepiece until the view focuses and isn’t overexposed. With the image on the screen, take the shot.
3 Use a smartphone adaptor
A smartphone adaptor takes the strain out of holding your phone and keeping it lined up. Once attached it can be adjusted until the smartphone lens is lined up with the eyepiece. Once aligned, you can take the shot.
How to photograph the crescent Moon and Earthshine
We’re going to show you how to capture a full-disc shot of the crescent Moon, along with its accompanying earthshine, using a DSLR camera.
The image we’re aiming for, like the ones below, depicts the Moon with a slim edge illuminated by light directly from the Sun and the rest of its face dimly lit by light reflecting off Earth.
As is often the case with astrophotography targets, it involves more than simply pointing your camera up at the sky on the appropriate night and pressing the shutter release.
But before we explain how to catch a shot like this, it’s worth explaining how this elegant scene comes about.
At the point of new Moon, the lunar disc lines up with the Sun, while appearing slightly above or below it in the sky.
In this position, the Sun’s light is only able to reach the far side of the Moon directly, so the lunar face (the side seen by us on Earth) is bathed in darkness.
It’s not possible to see the Moon at this point in its monthly cycle as it is lost to the Sun’s glare. In the days following new Moon, the Moon appears to gradually separate from the Sun.
As the Moon slowly moves eastwards and its separation from the Sun increases, more of the Sun’s light is able to creep around its edges and we get to see more of its face illuminated with each passing night
This process is what gives us the Moon’s familiar phases, starting with the new Moon, followed by the crescent Moon, then the first quarter and the gibbous phases, before reaching the full Moon phase, when it’s opposite the Sun in the sky.
The sequence then plays out in reverse, before reaching the next new Moon, 29.5 days later.
During this cycle we can often see the dimly illuminated portions of the Moon thanks to earthshine but the contrast between the portions is perhaps most dramatic during the crescent phase.
Imaging the earthshine is pretty straightforward: you use a longer exposure than for the crescent. This overexposes the crescent but will bring out detail on the earthshine-lit portion.
If you were to capture an image exposed for the crescent and another for the earthshine, you’d think that they would line up and produce a view similar to that which you’d see with the naked eye.
But achieving this can be difficult. The human eye has an amazing dynamic range.
When you look at a thin crescent Moon with the glow of earthshine, it’s easy to take for granted just how much work your eyes are doing to see both the crescent and the earthshine so naturally.
A camera will struggle to see this contrast in one image: you’ll need to combine two exposures.
This technique, known as high-dynamic-range imaging, is a key astrophotographic skill that can help with tricky targets such as this. The steps below will help you capture the necessary shots and blend them.
Photograph a crescent Moon, step-by-step
1 Attach your camera
Attach your DSLR to a telescope or lens with a focal length of at least 300mm – this will give you a large enough image to see the Moon’s disc with some detail on it. A telescope or lens with a focal length of around 1,000mm is ideal.
2 Set the ISO
Focus the camera as accurately as possible and set an ISO of 200-400 for the crescent shot. The exposure you’ll need will depend on your equipment. Take a test shot of 0.5 seconds and review the result.
3 Adjust exposure
Adjust the exposure so that the crescent comes out bright but without any white in it: check by looking at the image’s histogram on your DSLR. Take several shots increasing the exposure as you go until the image looks really overexposed.
4 Layer up
Pick the best crescent shot and open it in Photoshop or GIMP. Then pick a sharp overexposed shot of the earthshine without too much glare from the crescent. Load it as a new layer and align the two – reduce the opacity of the upper layer to do this.
5 Magic masker
Make the upper layer opaque, then use the magic wand tool to select the crescent (adjust the tolerance if it’s not selecting it all). Create a layer mask. In Photoshop, copy the selection, hold down the alt key and click the layer mask button.
6 Blur and blend
Use the eyedropper to sample the sky colour and use it to fill a layer between the shots. Set the new layer’s blend mode to Lighten and merge with the correctly exposed layer. Apply a Gaussian blur to the top layer’s mask and apply until the images join.
Create a Moon mosaic photograph
Before you can create a mosaic, you need detailed pictures. A mono, high frame rate camera is the best tool for the job, as it allows you to record a short video of each ‘pane’ (segment of the lunar surface) as an AVI file, the individual frames of which can be stacked into a still image.
If your camera doesn’t have an infrared-blocking filter built in, consider attaching an infrared-pass filter. Doing so can reduce the effects of poor seeing. Alternatively, try a red filter.
Moving across the lunar surface in overlapping panels is something that sounds easy, but there are pitfalls to avoid.
The higher the magnification you use, for instance, the easier it is to get lost and miss a bit out; this is a common frustration when starting out.
It pays to be realistic in terms of image scale. If you’re experimenting with mosaics for the first time, capture a small number of panes to start with so you can get a feel for what’s what.
Image scale can be adjusted using optical amplifiers such as Barlow lenses, but aim to keep your telescope’s overall focal ratio somewhere between f/15 and f/45. Only go higher if the seeing gets really good.
A driven, equatorially mounted scope is ideal. Check your camera’s alignment by slewing in right ascension and rotating the camera so that features move parallel to the bottom edge of the frame. Finally, focus your setup.
There are various ways to move across the Moon, but imaging in horizontal strips with lots of overlap is best. A good overlap is typically 20-25%.
When lining up your first pane, make a note of features close to the corners of the frame and use these as guides when positioning for the next one.
It’s good practice to image the strips in the same direction, moving back to the same starting side of the Moon between strips. Use features in the first strip of panes to make sure your vertical adjustment has plenty of overlap.
A rough sketch of the features in each frame can help. If you lose track, wind back to the last place you know you definitely imaged. It’s better to risk duplication than a gap!
Point your telescope at the brightest part of the Moon and adjust your camera’s gain and exposure so peak saturation is around 90%.
You should now be able to leave this alone. You can adjust the exposure levels for each frame if you want, but this is more time consuming and requires greater effort when it comes to stitching your panes together.
The advantage is less noise in dark regions and extra navigational detail when crossing seemingly featureless areas, such as the lunar seas. For more on this, read our guide on how to remove noise from your astrophotos of the Moon.
What you’ll need to do during a long mosaicing run is refocus often. This is essential to prevent defocusing caused by temperature variations.
A 12V camping hairdryer is also invaluable for removing moisture from dewed-up optics during long runs. For more on this, read our guide on how to stop dew forming on your telescope.
Two final tips: mosaic captures typically take up lots of computer hard drive space, so make sure you have plenty free. Plan ahead to make sure the Moon doesn’t disappear behind by a tree or rooftop part of the way through your imaging session.
Below we’ll show you how to process your panes and create your Moon mosaic. For more info on this, read our dedicated guide to creating a Moon mosaic.
Stack your moon images
The next step is to process each AVI file to produce one still image, ready for assembly into the final mosaic. For a large mosaic made with many panes this can be a daunting and tedious task, but there are ways to speed things up.
The first step is to analyse, register and stack the frames captured in each AVI file. There are various good free programs that can do this for you, including RegiStax, AutoStakkert and AviStack.
We’ll be using AviStack for the bulk of the processing and RegiStax to perform wavelet sharpening on the results. For more on this, read our guide to wavelets in RegiStax or how to stack DSLR images of the Moon.
The analysis step determines the quality of each still frame and then ranks them in order of how good they are. A user-set quality threshold then determines how many of the frames are used.
The frames that are above the threshold are ‘registered’ (aligned) to one another. These are then ‘stacked’ (averaged) to produce a final image.
The higher the quality threshold, the fewer frames will ultimately go into the stack. This will result in the sharpest output, but with fewer frames to average, noise is more noticeable.
Set the quality threshold lower and there will be more frames to average, resulting in a smoother, less noisy result. But using lower-quality frames reduces overall image sharpness.
It’s a good idea to perform a number of test runs using AviStack if you’re not familiar with the program.
There are a lot of settings that can be configured. These are shown in a separate window and can be viewed by expanding the tree list.
Double clicking on a parameter section, for example ‘Frame selection’, will bring up a control window allowing you to adjust the settings. You can toggle between automatic and manual processing by clicking on the gear icon below the section header.
Setting the toggle to ‘Automatic processing’ lets AviStack make decisions for you, which can be useful if you’re not sure what you’re doing.
AviStack has a great batch-processing mode that can work on large numbers of AVI files unattended. The end result is a single distilled image for each AVI capture.
Various output formats are available, but we recommend PNG as this is a lossless format that many editing programs and file viewers can easily display.
Other lossless files can be used, but how easy they are to view and manipulate varies. Avoid formats such as JPEG that use ‘lossy’ compression – these discard data to make files smaller.