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Photographing the Moon and Stars

Updated on August 2, 2013

Capturing the Heavens after Dark

The moon and stars make great subjects for night photography. While capturing celestial objects seems arcane and tricky, it's actually well within the reach of beginners, and many types of night sky photography require no special equipment.

Yes, a telescope with an equatorial tracking mount and a camera with an insanely high ISO range are fabulous things to have if you can afford them. On the less prohibitively expensive end of the spectrum, an entry-level DSLR, a remote shutter release, and a sturdy tripod allow for longer exposures, which can be helpful. You don't need any of that stuff, though, to take some cool pictures of the night sky.

I use a point and shoot Fujifilm FinePix SL300 and a consumer-grade DSLR, the Nikon D5000. For many shots, the FinePix SL300 is perfectly adequate and somewhat more convenient than the bulkier D5000. It's also a better candidate, given my limited budget, for shots of subjects like the tide pools at my favorite beach. A drop of water or a few grains of sand could ruin my day with the DSLR, but with the point and shoot I wipe them away and keep shooting.

If you're working on a camera that doesn't allow you any manual control over ISO, aperture, or shutter speed, you may have trouble capturing properly exposed moon and star shots. Even so, the night sky can be used as an interesting backdrop for closer, more evenly illuminated foreground objects.

As a beginning photographer, the coolest thing I've found about photographing the night sky is that even shots that don't come out as you pictured them still come out interesting. However basic your equipment and skill set, point your camera at the sky and give it a try. You may be surprised at how frequently the results are awesome.

All photographs taken by the author.

The Moon as a Background Object - Using the Night Sky as a Background

John Deere Dreams of Space
John Deere Dreams of Space

John Deere Dreams of Space
Taken with my point-n-shoot. Lit by flashlight.
Overexposed, the moon is still interesting.

We'll start with a shot that uses the night sky as a background, because this is something that can be done with just about any camera and no extra equipment. Especially when there's a big, bright, juicy moon involved.

First, choose a foreground object. You'll want this to be either something that's either already illuminated or within range of your flash or flashlight. I used a tiny toy tractor.

Whether you choose your settings manually or rely on your camera's automatic selections, this will be a pretty long exposure, so you'll want your camera to be steady. No tripod? No problem! Set your camera on a conveniently placed chair, stool, tree stump, or just on the ground. If you need help getting the right angle, pour some beans, rice, or good ol' dirt into a plastic bag and you've got a handy-dandy "beanbag" to support your camera at the angle of your choice.

In light this low, your camera will almost certainly choose a very wide aperture if left to its own devices. This will produce a soft halo around the overexposed moon. If you want the moon's light to split up into "rays" for a star-like look, you'll need to use manual or aperture-priority mode and choose a smaller aperture.

Focus on your foreground object. A flashlight is a very useful thing to have, here, as it should provide enough light to allow autofocus to work properly. If your camera has a self-timer function, turn it on! Using your camera's timer will help eliminate any shake when you take your picture, a serious boon if you don't have a remote release.

Take your picture. Now take another one. And another. For all night sky pictures, it's a great idea to take a few more shots, even if you think the first one nailed it. This is especially true when you're not manually controlling all of your settings. Sometimes your camera will make weird decisions at night, and problems may not appear until you see the picture in a larger format.

Taking Pictures of the Moon - The Moon as a Subject

The Big, Bright Moon
The Big, Bright Moon

My First Moon Photography Adventure
Taken on the FinePix SL300, along with fifty or so blurry images of a white blob.

Taking pictures of the moon isn't hard, but it is kind of counterintuitive. The moon is a very bright object. Our eyes effortlessly pass us a detailed image of its surface, but our cameras are more easily fooled.

In general, even on cameras with extraordinary zoom capabilities, the moon takes up such a small portion of the frame that your camera, left to its own devices, will overexpose the moon due to the darkness surrounding it.

To take pictures of the moon and capture any meaningful level of detail, you'll need a camera with either a full manual mode or a shutter priority mode, and you'll want to use a very fast shutter speed. The full moon should be treated like an object lit by bright, direct sunlight. After all, that's what it is!

Decent zoom is also a requirement for a photograph of the moon, which means you'll want to use a tripod or beanbag and a remote shutter release or your camera's timer for a nice, clean shot. The awesome optical zoom abilities of compact superzoom cameras makes them an affordable alternative to a DSLR with a telephoto lens.

As of this writing, there's only been one full moon since I decided I wanted to take a picture of it, so the picture above represents my only moon photo so far. It was taken on the SL300, which gives me 30x optical zoom, put to good use here. I used a low (100) ISO and a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second.

Helpful Moon Photography Tutorials

These are the tutorials I found helpful for learning how to take a picture of the moon. If you're not used to manually adjusting any of your camera's settings, you may also wish to learn the basics of how ISO, shutter speed, and aperture affect exposure.

Photographing Stars and Constellations - The Fun and Frustration of Star Photography

Stars on a Bed of Tail Lights
Stars on a Bed of Tail Lights

Even in my hideously light-polluted front yard, Orion can be coaxed out of the night sky, and the busy street provides a bed of light trails. Taken on the D5000, a 30 second exposure and a 10 second exposure, manually blended in GIMP.

Stars are more difficult subjects than the moon. Finding the right ISO and shutter speed to capture a lot of these tiny sky lights without too much noise can be very tricky, and if your star shot includes foreground objects you need to worry about aperture and focus, too.

Further complicating matters, the stars are moving subjects. Your camera's position in relation to the stars changes fast enough to blur them if you choose a shutter speed over about twenty to thirty seconds.

All that being said, star photography is really, really fun. And even though it's hard, it's not as hard as a lot of tutorials make it sound. Yes, it would be divine to take some star pictures a thousand miles from the nearest city lights with a wicked fast lens and an equatorial tracking mount. That doesn't mean that star photography is impossible under less ideal circumstances. I've had a great time dabbling in star pictures at my own horribly light-polluted home, using my D5000 and the 18-55mm kit lens.

Use a steady tripod or beanbag, choose the least light-polluted, most star-laden portion of the sky you can find, and give it a whirl. If your only subject is the sky, use the largest aperture you can and focus on infinity. If you're including a foreground object, you will need to either narrow your aperture to allow greater depth of field or, if the foreground object is close and you can't get both it and the stars in focus, take two or more images and combine them in your graphics editor of choice.

Star Trails - Capturing Motion in the Night Sky

Polaris, cornered in the back yard
Polaris, cornered in the back yard

Polaris in the Back Yard
Taken with the D5000 as 100 30-second exposures, stacked in GIMP.

In a lot of ways, star trails are much easier than regular star photography. Where exposures must be kept short for crisp, clear stars, star trail photography uses very long exposures or many shorter exposures shot at regular intervals to capture the slow progress of the stars through the night sky.

Star trails, like any star photography, are easiest on or near the night of the new moon. For brighter and more plentiful trails, it's best to take your pictures as far as possible from the nearest city lights. So far, though, circumstances have conspired to keep me bound to my own back yard for the dark nights surrounding the new moon, and I've managed to capture perfectly discernible star trails despite the light pollution.

Given the light pollution issue, I've had better results combining multiple shots than with a single long exposure. On my D5000, I can set my exposure, aperture, ISO, and focus, and then begin continuous shooting, taking a specified number of shots at specified intervals. The image above used a hundred 30-second exposures at 45-second intervals, which were combined in a hurry in GIMP by simply opening them all as layers and setting the layer mode of all but the bottom layer to "Lighten Only." Using this method, I was able to get a peek at the "circle" of star trails around Polaris, though it sits toward the center of town and the heaviest light pollution in my patch of sky.

Helpful Star Photography Tutorials

Star photography encompasses so many different styles and techniques that it can be hard to know where to begin. These are the tutorials that I have found most helpful as a beginner working without special equipment.

Beyond the Basics - Exploring the Universe with Your Camera

The night sky offers a nearly limitless wealth of opportunities to capture exciting and beautiful images. Next on my list is a trip up into the less light-polluted mountains to try my hand at photographing the Milky Way. With a small telescope, you can photograph Venus, Mars, and Jupiter, or capture the moon's surface in exquisite detail, and more powerful telescopes are becoming increasingly affordable for the hobbyist. And cameras, of course, get better every year. It's an exciting time for amateur observers of our fascinating universe!

Digital Astrophotography: A Guide to Capturing the Cosmos
Digital Astrophotography: A Guide to Capturing the Cosmos

A guide to photographing the parts of the universe you can reach with your DSLR and affordable amateur equipment.

 

Though I'm new to photography, and newer still to photographing the night sky, it's a pastime that has brought me tremendous entertainment and satisfaction. If you have a question, please leave it here and I'll be happy to give the best answer I can. If you also enjoy photographing the moon and stars, I'd love to hear your tips or suggestions!

Comments, Questions, and Suggestions - I Welcome Your Feedback!

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    • profile image

      Robert 2 years ago

      Hey! I'm in these and chubby! But, hot damn my wife looks good. Love you Brooke and how you made me look almost as good as Sam.

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 4 years ago

      Gorgeous beautiful (like the lady below you said) - pinned to my photography board.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Absolutely magical...even able to coax Orion in those heavy city lights! I love your tractor picture, it looks surreal. I'd say that you are a camera artist and developing your own style very nicely....congratulations on your Bravo feature! :)

    • Deborah Swain profile image

      Deborah Swain 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Wow! I wish I'd seen this lens a few days ago when the Moon was closest to the Earth!

    • hntrssthmpsn profile image
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      hntrssthmpsn 4 years ago

      @geosum: That's cool! My dad introduced me to the telescope, too, and the joys of stargazing. Nothing so awesome as an observatory, and no tracking mount, but we lived out in the middle of nowhere, so the stars were clear and bright. I remember summer nights looking at the milky way like they were yesterday!

    • hntrssthmpsn profile image
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      hntrssthmpsn 4 years ago

      @MBurgess: An excellent point! Much of this is applicable to photographing any bright objects.

    • MBurgess profile image

      Maria Burgess 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      Cassandra, these images are very pretty. The directions you shared will help me photograph not only sky images, but other light sources that I would like to capture. Thank you!! I love that tractor image!

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I would love to do this especially at the cottage where the stars are more visible.

    • geosum profile image

      geosum 4 years ago

      Cool lens. Makes me wish I had a good camera. In my college days college, my father was head of the physics dept and had an observatory with a nice telescope and tracking mount. We had some great evenings looking at the moon, planets & stars.

    • hntrssthmpsn profile image
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      hntrssthmpsn 4 years ago

      @lesliesinclair: I wish you luck! I've had pretty good results working around light pollution. Yeah, it's great if you can get yourself a thousand miles from anywhere, but most of us can't quite make that happen!

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 4 years ago

      You provide such enthusiasm that I think this is something I could manage. I have a DSLR, trip, remote trigger and, of course, the big bright city sky. So I may not capture so many stars, but maybe the moon.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      this is nice, how I wish I had a good dslr camera to take photos of the moon and the stars

    • Titia profile image

      Titia Geertman 4 years ago from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands

      I really like your article about photographing the moon. Very educational. Thanks and congrats on your imminent ticket.

    • hntrssthmpsn profile image
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      hntrssthmpsn 4 years ago

      @BarbaraCasey: Barbara you raise an excellent point here... I shouldn't refer to GIMP without at least dropping a link. Sometimes I forget that not everyone uses all the exact same software as I do! Linking to the GIMP site for now, and I'll add a little info about it when I have a moment :) Thank you!

    • hntrssthmpsn profile image
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      hntrssthmpsn 4 years ago

      @iamraincrystal: I love the pictures you took for your turmeric juice page. So many subjects, so little time!

    • hntrssthmpsn profile image
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      hntrssthmpsn 4 years ago

      @SusanDeppner: Thank you! I have a long history of disappointing sky pictures under my belt, too. You don't really notice how much "editing" your eyes do until you try to capture something like the majestic full moon with a camera.

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      BarbaraCasey 4 years ago

      This is very cool... and helpful. I've taken a couple of good full moon pics, but not with the detail you have in yours. Now to figure out what GIMP is all about.

    • iamraincrystal profile image

      Rosyel Sawali 4 years ago from Manila Philippines

      Wow! I have so much to learn in photographing the sky. I love the full moon and have my own photo collection! ^_^

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 4 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Wow! Love these pictures and your techniques. I'm always disappointed when I try to take pictures of the night sky. I'll be reviewing and using some of our ideas, I'm sure. Thanks!