I recently got my first DSLR, and am trying to learn the best approach settings-wise for a specific type of photo, namely twilight moonsets and moonrises. The camera is a Nikon D5600 which came with an 18-55mm lens and a 70-300mm lens; the latter is 58mm in diameter.

I can use the shorter lens, put the camera on auto, point it at the setting moon and get a decent picture, but not that much better--if at all-- than if I took same picture with my Galaxy S8. I'm not sure I should be surprised by this, since the smartphone camera is probably better optimized for point and shoot mode. That's all it does, after all.

But I know I should be able to do better with the Nikon. If I want to ease gradually into full manual mode, which priority mode would it be best to start with?

If I go to full manual, the problem I usually encounter is that the picture is much too dark; far darker than the appearance of the scene IRL. But I don't know where it would be best to start in trying to improve my results. Would it be better to start by working with the aperture mode, or shutter speed?

Here are a couple taken with the Samsung. Notice how in the second shot a jet contrail crosses the moon.

Samsung 1

Samsung 2

And from the Nikon, first one taken in auto mode and the second in full manual mode. Notice how much darker the image is here. IIRC it was shot using an aperture of about f/7, shutter 1/125, ISO in the 1000 range. No tripod was used. I'm usually much more fastidious about correcting camera tilt before I show anything of mine to the world, I'm letting it go this time since my question is more about how to handle the hardware rather than how to compose a pleasing image.

Nikon auto

Nikon manual mode


When I first started shooting, I had a Nikon D5000, and I remember the first time that I took a shot of the moon on a particularly brilliant full moon night. Not to mention, there was a helicopter passing by the moon at the time of the picture. I had no idea what I was doing, but I'd be lying if I said there was no happy dance involved. So I'd like to think that I understand what you're feeling right now. It's not about a desired effect, like some people here are going on about. It's more about what YOU think works. The rest will come with time (photo stacking, star trails, intervelometers, cable releases, etc.)

What you should focus on right now is sticking with shutter priority. Absolutely get yourself a tripod. Walk around your neighborhood after the sun has set. Set your ISO way low (no higher than 400) on 20-30" shutter speeds. Your aperture should set itself around F/8 to 16.

One problem that you're going to inevitably run into when photographing the night sky, especially in urban areas, is light pollution. In the first shot that you included with your D5600, notice how the building with the solar panel is nothing more than a silhouette. The longer you leave the shutter open, the more you run the risk of blowing out the highlights. (that is, making the bright areas too bright). In other words, taking shots of the night sky is exceptionally challenging if you're not out in the 'sticks'. (Keep in mind that the same principle applies to the moon, as it's a source of light too.)

tl;dr practice practice practice (on shutter priority) with longer shutter speeds and low ISO. get a tripod.

  • I would append this to add - Start learning how exposure works so that you know what to do with the shutter speed when the camera chooses f/2.8 or f/22. I'd also buy a shutter release cable so that you can start messing around with Bulb mode and exposures up to a few minutes.
    – OnBreak.
    Nov 22 '17 at 16:52
  • I do have a tripod, but I wasn't using it in this case. As for longer exposures of several minutes, that's a goal of mine I'm saving for when I'm next in a dark sky location. I've already had good results with exposures in the range of one to several seconds, capturing good light trails from passing cars and the rides at a recent carnival
    – user382459
    Nov 24 '17 at 3:56

If you want your camera to expose in the exact same way as your phone, that is very easy: take the shot with your phone, look at the EXIF data to see which aperture/shutter speed/ISO settings it used, put your camera in Manual and use those same settings. If that is not possible (probably because your lens cannot open as wide as your phone), use the widest possible aperture and compensate for the difference with longer exposure and/or higher ISO.

Typically, though, you will want the lowest possible ISO (to minimise noise) and widest possible aperture (to gather the most light). Then adjust the shutter speed as desired to obtain the exposure you want; you can go for very long exposures without any problem since your subject is not moving (well, in fact it is moving very slowly), though you do need a tripod to make sure the camera is not moving either. The same goes for focus: put it in manual and adjust it once and for all.

If after that your images are not sharp enough for you, try closing the aperture a bit, as most lenses don't produce very sharp images when wide open (this will require a longer exposure to compensate for the smaller aperture).


Im only putting this in the answer space because it’s ‘more than a comment’. Currently on phone & typing is sloooow.

Not one of the downvoters btw. Trouble with putting the camera in full auto is it has to guess. Its guess is always going to be daylight-biased. If you want to use auto, then try scenes/sunset instead... it will punch up the image nicely. Then learn what it did & try to match it in manual. Then learn how to improve on that - which will be best done with multi-exposure HDR or a learning curve in photoshop.


The best way to learn to make a properly exposed image with your DSLR in this, or any, scenario is to experiment. Choose your manual settings; iso, shutter speed, f-stop, record them physically if your camera doesn't include this data in the exif data, and then systematically alter ONE of the settings at a time. (Experimenting with altered f-stops in this case is pointless because of the extreme distance between you and the moon, but generally you should alter all three settings to get a feel for the effect each determines.) Over time, you will develop a sense of an appropriate setting combination for a given light scenario and desired effect. I understand that many people will prefer a simpler method, but this method is a very effective method to learn to control exposure. I learned photography beginning in 1979 at the US Navy Still Photography A-School using equipment that was full manual, all the time, and this is precisely the method we used. I doubt there is a better method.

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