How to Shoot the Moon Without a Tripod

Full moon no tripod

This full moon shot was hand held at 1/500.

Getting a properly exposed shot of the full moon is tricky but does not always require camera stabilization. All that’s needed is a DSLR or equivalent and a long lens, at least 200mm or longer. Just about every instruction for moon photography says you also need a tripod. Not true. The moon itself can be shot hand held even with a long lens.

Moon Reflects Bright Sunlight, No Tripod Needed

This is because the moon is illuminated by the sun. Therefore, proper exposure of the moon is very close to the “sunny 16” rule for daylight photos on earth. That is at f16 the shutter should be set at one over the ISO number. If the ISO is 100 a shutter of 1/125 should be about right. A higher ISO and a wider aperture will yield a shutter speed that can easily be hand held even with a very long lens. This lunar shot was taken with a 300mm zoom, 1/500 second at f6.3 and ISO 200. No tripod needed.

But You Do Need Camera Stabilization Sometimes

Full moon and clouds

Full moon illuminates clouds but has not detail in the moon surface.

Where you do need a tripod or other support is when there are more elements in the shot that you wish to capture in addition to the moon. Take for example clouds that are illuminated by moonlight. There is no way to properly expose for the clouds and retain detail in the moon. This shot took two seconds at f6.3, far longer than could be hand held. Of course the moon is completely blown out at that exposure. And exposing for detail in the moon would turn the clouds completely black.

Lunar Detail Takes Two Exposures

Full moon and clouds.

Properly exposed moon inserted into cloud photo retains some detail in the surface of the moon.

So how do you retain detail in both the moon and its surroundings? It takes two exposures and some Photoshop magic to do the trick. Expose once for the clouds, once for the moon and drop the properly exposed moon over the blown out moon in the cloud shot. The photo at right shows the final result, some detail in the moon surrounded by glowing clouds.

Full moon and clouds over haunted house.

Full moon and clouds over Halloween haunted house includes multiple exposures combined in Photoshop

Perfect for a Haunted House

Now you have the moon surrounded by ominous clouds. What to do with it? One example is the perfect sky background for a Halloween haunted house. This shot combines the moonlit sky with an HDR photo of the house tonemapped in Photomatix. The moon and sky provide just the right ambiance for the haunted house to complete the effect.

Shooting on moonlit nights provides fascinating photographic opportunities. Detailed instructions for shooting the moon are widely available on line but here are some basics. Auto focus can’t zero in on the moon so focus manually. Same with auto exposure–a small bright moon confuses the light reading and proper exposure is impossible. Start by estimating the proper exposure and go from there. Bracket extensively.

Camera support is necessary when you want to include the moon and surrounding elements. A tripod is the preferred tool, but a pocket size tripod alternative like HandlePod will do the job with proper care. More about that later.


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