How can I photograph the moon so that I see detail of the craters and mountains?

I have a Canon EOS 550D (T2i) and tried "No Flash", "P" as well as creative auto mode, but to no avail. Every time I get a completely white moon.

Moon Shot


3 Answers 3


I had exactly the same problem when I first tried to photograph the moon: all I ever got was an overexposed white circle.

The answer is that the moon is much brighter than you realise. Also, unless you have a very telescopic lens, it's going to be pretty small in your photo. If you use one of the camera's automatic modes, the camera will try to get the "right" exposure for a scene made up of lots of black sky and a tiny bit of moon. The "lots of black sky" wins out, the camera brightens the exposure, and you lose the detail in the moon.

The best way to capture the moon is therefore to use Manual mode. This isn't as difficult as it sounds:

  1. Switch the mode dial to M.
  2. Set the ISO setting to something quite low: between 100 and 400 should do it.
  3. Set your aperture setting to somewhere round f/5.6.
  4. Set your shutter speed to around 1/100s.

Now try a shot and see how it looks. If it's too bright, try a faster shutter speed until you start to see the detail of the craters. If you've somehow under-exposed it, just do the opposite: try a slower shutter speed, a larger aperture or a higher ISO setting.

The main thing is ignore what the camera is telling you! It'll be flashing away like crazy saying your shot is going to be too dark, but just ignore it. We know the sky will be "too dark", but it's the moon we're after. Fold away your targeting computer, Luke. Use the Force.

Good luck!

  • \$\begingroup\$ p.s. Those starting settings have come off the top of my head: I'm sure experienced moon photographers will have a more accurate starting point, but it'll still depend on the conditions on the night and phase of the moon. The main thing is: keep experimenting, use Manual mode, and if it's too bright reduce your exposure. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 12, 2011 at 19:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ Along the lines of that Mark is saying, the moon is being illuminated directly by the sun. You will need to use settings more similar to what you might use when taking a picture on a sunny day rather than what you would normally think of as appropriate for nighttime. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sean
    Commented Dec 12, 2011 at 19:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ One important item to add to this ... if you photograph the moon when it is full you are effectively looking at it head on in almost the same plane of sight as it is being lit by the sun, therefore there are NO shadows or contrast. If you want to capture the craters and mountains then you need contrast and hence it is best to photograph the moon when it is NOT full, but 1/2 to 3/4 illuminated, so you are effectively seeing it from the side. Compare to a photo of a person's face straight on, you cannot see the shape of their nose, but from the side and you see the shape & definition. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 12, 2011 at 19:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ You can also simply try using spot metering (obviously selecting the spot over the moon) which will ignore the dark sky. Works best with a gibbous or full moon. Also, a tripod is pretty much essential. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 12, 2011 at 20:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ In your second-to-last paragraph, note where you say If it's too bright, keep reducing the shutter speed, you will need to Increase the shutter speed, not decrease it. Where you say if you've under exposed it, you need to try a larger aperture (or smaller aperture value), or a higher ISO \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 30, 2015 at 15:58

I have taken a few years to perfect my moon shots. Many nights stood out in the cold! On the months where the full moon is not obscured by cloud!

Here is what I do:

  • You need a long lens! The moon may look large in the sky, but it will still be a dot in your viewfinder!
  • Here is one instance where megapixels still count - as for the same reason above you will need to crop the image in post. (I am lucky mine has 18mp)
  • You need a GOOD TRIPOD. One capable of holding your camera with lens without 'drooping'.
  • You will need a cable release, or use your camera's timer, as the smallest shake will give you a fuzzy image.
  • Set your camera to shoot in RAW.
  • Set your camera to manual mode, and -to start- set say f/11 (as much in focus as possible without going so far as to risk any lens distortion), a shutter speed of 1/125, and fix ISO at 100. (As you are using a tripod, you don't need a high ISO). This is just a base, we will experiment from here.
  • Set your lens AF switch to MANUAL.
  • Enable mirror lockup mode on the camera if you have it.
  • Enable live view mode, use the screen on the back of the camera to locate the moon, zoom in on it (I can go to 10x on my screen), and MANUALLY focus the lens. This can be tricky as your hand touching it makes it shake like crazy, but you get there.
  • Using the cable release or timer, take a shot (not forgetting about the mirror lockup if you had it!)
  • If it's too bright, shorten the shutter time. If too dark, lengthen it.
  • Remember the maximum extent of your lens if it is a zoom (I have the EF 100-400L) may not be its sharpest! Bring it back to 380mm or 350mm and try again.
  • Play with the aperture, remembering of course if you up it to f/13, f/16 etc to extend the shutter time slightly. (Again, doesn't matter as you're on a tripod).
  • Take lots of shots, all at different settings, apertures, shutter speeds. Remember you don't need a long shutter speed even in the dark, because the moon is bright and you'll just end up with a white circle!

When you are finished:

  • Load up the RAW files in your image processing software of choice, DPP, Lightroom, Photoshop, etc...
  • Find a good one to start with.
  • Crop it nicely
  • Increase the contrast
  • Perhaps you may wish to convert it to B/W (Often, my moon shots come out very brownish!)
  • Play with sharpening, etc etc etc till you are happy!
  • Repeat!

It is also true from one of the posters above that to get the best 'shadows' effect you should not shoot a totally full moon, but just either side of it.

  • \$\begingroup\$ By 'long lens' you need something like a 500mm with a 1.4 or 2x adapter to get 'close ups' of the moon \$\endgroup\$
    – user7226
    Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 9:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, for proper close up work with lots of detail. (My longest lens is 400mm and I don't have any teleconverters but still get good pics thanks to the 18mp's in the EOS 7D). The ideal thing about moon shots and tele's though is although you lose a stop of light with a 1.4 attached or 2 stops with a 2x tele, the fact you're shooting around f/11 anyway means it does not impact your shot at all. That said you may possibly lose sharpness using a teleconverter. As I don't have one I can't vouch for that, just what I've heard. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mike
    Commented Dec 14, 2011 at 13:39

Also, be sure to shoot RAW. Get the moon exposure correct and you can then try Fill Light to see if that brings out details. Or you can use HDR techniques to accomplish the same. (And resist the urge to go all cartoon on the image, please?)

I wish I could remember what I did for this shot. It is in my HDR folder but I only have 1 TIFF and I can't find the RAW. So I could have done any number of things. It was either Photoshop (this dates from before I had Lightroom) or as a single image HDR from Photomatix. But, will all said and done, you need a good image to start with.

The EXIF data tells me 75mm (on a Canon crop body 40D), 1/125 sec, f5. Since I have that in the EXIF I'm pretty sure it was single image, not multi-image HDR.

Oh, and multi image HDR with the moon is difficult if you are not using a wide angle lens, the moon moves FAST in the sky.

Moonrise Over Day's Cottages and Tony Jackett

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your comment about the moon moving is so true. If you are looking through a 400mm lens, and have it at 10x on the live view screen, it does actually move across the screen noticably. So much so that the first time I saw it I was going crazy thinking my tripod had a dodgy leg or head and was 'sinking' due to the weight of the long lens! Took me a while to realise my camera wasn't moving -- the moon was!! :-) \$\endgroup\$
    – Mike
    Commented Dec 13, 2011 at 15:55

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