Photographing the Moon (without a telescope)

Many people think that although the Moon is clearly visible in the night sky and that we can easily see some its features with just our eyes, a telescope is needed to capture those features in detail with a camera. While of course, a telescope will help enormously (I think nobody can really dispute that), one can achieve great results with just a DSLR, a long or semi-long lens and a tripod. It is really that simple. If not, have a look at the image opening this article. In that image you can see many features on the surface of the Moon, big and not so big ones. That image was taken using a Canon EOS 500D and a Tamron 70-300 mm lens set at 300 mm, nothing more.

Before we go into more details, let me stop here for a second and talk about the impact that having a crop sensor or full frame camera could have when imaging the Moon. In the Canon world, all APS-C sensors, like the one in my EOS 500D show a field of view that is 1.6x smaller than that of full frame cameras (e.g. Canon 6D, 5D…). In the Nikon world this factor is normally around 1.5x. What this means is that, while the lens I used was a 300 mm, the field of view that I had was equivalent to a 300 mm x 1.6 = 480 mm. Is this a good thing? The answer is yes. What this means is that on my sensor, the Moon seems to cover more pixels on my sensor than if it would have been imaged at a true 300 mm focal length. Without going into a war at this point between what is better, a crop sensor camera or a full frame one, in situations like this one, a crop sensor camera will always give you a little extra from your lenses than a full frame. That is, we can get a bit closer to the Moon.

In the pictures below you can see a comparison between the Moon seen with a lens at 55 mm (left) and at 300 mm (right). Once again, note that the actual focal length, due to the crop sensor is 88 mm (left) and 480 mm (right). I wanted to repeat myself once more for those who have full frame cameras, so they know not to expect exactly these same results.

The Moon using a 55 mm lens and a Canon EOS 500D (image resolution 1000×1000 px)
The Moon using a 300 mm lens and a Canon EOS 500D (image resolution 1000×1000 px)

In the case of the 55 mm image, the Moon appeared as a circle of 100 pixel in diameter, while in the 300 mm case, the Moon is approximately 560 pixels in diameter. Thus, it is important to note that, both images have been cropped. Do not expect the Moon to cover almost the entire sensor even with a lens at 300 mm or even 400 mm. As an example, below I show a raw image of the Moon, exactly as I got it in the camera, with zero processing.

Raw image of the Moon at 300 mm using a Canon EOS 500D

Planning an observation

Stellarium and PhotoPills

The full moon is not always the most attractive from a photograph point of view

Quarters and other phases show more prominent features — shadow of mountains. Full moon we are looking exactly on top of it. It’s like trying to see how tall a building and its shape looking down from a position exactly on top of it. It would always be better to have a small angle.

Camera settings

If the lens has image stabilisation, then the moon can be even photographed without a tripod. However, to get the sharpest image possible, a solid tripod is strongly recommended.

  • Mirror locked up
  • Autofocus
  • Remote shutter
  • Aperture
  • ISO
  • Exposition — variable due to post-processing – watch for the histogram and leave a little bit of margin if you are going to do a lot of sharpening/wavelets
  • Single image vs multiple images

Software for advance processing

Stacking gives you more range for sharpening and correct from fluctuations of the atmosphere.

PIPP – no need for tracking – it will help you to centre the Moon – just keep it within the sensor.

Autostakkert3, Registax6 for windows

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