Shoot for the moon: 8 lunar photography tips

A supermoon visible over Three Fingers Rock in Shropshire.
Andrew Fusek Peters' image of a supermoon behind Three Fingers Rock in Shropshire, UK, made the cover of The Times. "This was happenstance: I didn't know the moon was going to do that. But I responded very fast – the exciting thing was getting home and realising the image was uncropped and I didn't need to do anything other than a bit of processing," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens + Canon Extender 2x III at 1/60 sec, f/8 and ISO800. © Andrew Fusek Peters

Whether it's a glowing orange orb just above the horizon or the soft outline of a silver crescent set against a city backdrop, the moon – the brightest and largest object in the night sky – has long held a fascination for photographers. Full moons and phenomena such as the Harvest Moon, Blue Moon, Blood Moon and eclipses often prompt a flurry of social media shots. These are mostly close-ups of the moon on its own, but photographers on the hunt for a greater creative challenge can take inspiration from Andrew Fusek Peters' moon photography tips and techniques.

The British photographer, whose work regularly appears in national newspapers and magazines, prefers to photograph the moon as part of a wider scene, to tell a story. "I'm always looking for an interesting foreground – to put the moon within a landscape or a built environment," he explains.

He's developed this approach to such a level that people sometimes mistakenly assume he's used composites. In fact, every element of each image is captured in-camera, in RAW. And this is no mean feat, involving a lot of planning, using the right kit, and being in the right place at the right time. Here, Andrew offers his tips for capturing fresh and original photographs of the moon, all year round.

A full moon behind the radar station and telephone mast on Titterstone Clee Hill in Shropshire.
Try capturing the context within an interesting foreground, such as this shot of the moon behind a radar station and telephone mast on Titterstone Clee Hill in Shropshire, UK. "I could see the moon rising behind the tower, but I wasn't aware until I started processing that there's an amazing mirroring of the grey circular dishes on the mast and the moon's surface," says Andrew. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/4 and ISO320. © Andrew Fusek Peters
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1. Be in the right place

The first step is to know where and when the moon is going to rise. In the past, that involved a lot of tedious calculations, but these days software can do the work for you. Andrew uses The Photographer's Ephemeris 3D, a light visualisation tool for outdoor and landscape photographers. "This allows you to plan, within a 50-metre line, where you want to be, and see when the moon will rise and what it will hide behind," he explains.

2. Choose the right time

You might assume that the best time to shoot the moon is when it's full, but Andrew says that isn't always the case. "Get out a couple of days before the moon is full," he says. "That means you don't have to do everything in silhouette: you can still get light on the landscape." He cites his shot of Clun Castle in Shropshire (below), as an example. "You can see that the moon is three-quarters full, it's coming up at dusk, and the camera's been able to capture a lot of landscape detail," he explains.

A waxing gibbous moon high in the sky behind the ruins of Clun Castle in Shropshire.
The moon over Clun Castle in Shropshire, UK. "It was November, so you can see that amazing yellow blast," says Andrew. "There's a very rich autumnal feeling to this shot, and I just love that structure of the building with the moon. That was me starting to think: 'It doesn't always need to be a big moon, you can do something a bit more arty'." Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/9 and ISO100. © Andrew Fusek Peters

3. Think on your feet

However carefully you plan, when it comes to the actual shoot you have to think on your feet, says Andrew. "The moon is like a species, like wildlife," he explains. "You've got to understand its behaviour. It's extremely shy, and never appears when you think it's going to appear. A bit of cloud can ruin the shot."

Andrew's 2016 picture of the supermoon, which made the front page of The Times (main image), very nearly didn't happen. The weather had worked against him, he'd abandoned his shoot, and was heading home. "Then suddenly, driving towards Church Stretton in Shropshire, I saw the clouds clear," he says. "The moon was almost directly behind what I now know is a volcanic structure called Three Fingers Rock. I thought: 'Oh my God'.

"With my Canon EOS 7D Mark II, a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens plus a Canon Extender 2x III giving me 1600mm, I knew I had as much reach as I could humanly get. I used a hedge as a tripod, and fired off three shots in a row. And because I knew my focus point – rather than stick the moon in the centre of your picture, it's better to have a leading line – the first shot was the one."

4. Take account of atmospherics

Andrew learnt an important lesson from The Times supermoon shot. "As the photo came out, the moon was all wavy and slightly blurred," he recalls. "And I thought 'Oh, that's because I'm a rubbish photographer.' But then someone said 'No, when the moon is just rising, there's a lot more atmospheric pollution that you're looking through, the atmosphere of the Earth, and that's why the moon appears wavy.' If the moon is high in the sky, you're looking at less atmosphere, and that's when the moon appears sharp."

A silhouette of a thrush sitting on a branch in front of the blurred moon.
"This was taken at dusk, at about 6pm in January, in my garden," recalls Andrew. "I climbed on the roof of our conservatory, and it was one of the rare times when the bird didn't fly off. You can see the moon through the bird's tail wings and its beak; it's one of the best photos I've ever taken." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/8 and ISO1600. © Andrew Fusek Peters

5. Don't use a tripod

While tripods are central to star photography, shooting handheld is better when it comes to the moon, says Andrew. "The issue with setting up a tripod is that the moon might not appear exactly where you want it to," he explains. "You need to be able to respond very quickly, and move your position so you can place the moon exactly where you want it in the frame – just like with the distant sunset over hills. You don't have a lot of time, because the light that you want is the last light of the day: dusk light. So to get your shot, you just have to go handheld."

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6. Expose for the moon

When it comes to settings, "you always want to be going to the limits of your camera," advises Andrew. "So you want to be checking your highlights; that's where the electronic viewfinder really helps. You're wanting to think very carefully about exposure. And the general rule of thumb, particularly for these dusk shots where there's still some light on the landscape, is that you must expose for the moon, not the landscape. If you expose for the landscape, the moon will be blown.

"Obviously your goal is to shoot with as low an ISO as possible, but also your goal is to get the shot," he adds. "If that means you've got to shoot with a slightly faster shutter speed because you've got a long lens, for instance, then that's what you have to do."

An aeroplane is silhouetted against the surface of a full moon in the dark night sky.
Andrew is keen to try the next generation of Canon's mirrorless equipment. This is a sample image from Canon, shot using the new Canon RF 800mm F11 IS STM lens which offers a 4-stop optical image stabiliser in a compact, lightweight design, making it ideal for handheld lunar photography. Taken on a Canon EOS R at 1/800 sec, f/11.0 and ISO1250.

7. Use the right kit

When you expose for the moon, the amount of landscape detail you can capture will depend, in part, on the quality of your camera and lens. "With my Canon EOS 7D Mark II, I know I'm not going to have any issues with focus, and if I've got some light on the landscape, it allows me to recover a massive amount of detail in the shadows," says Andrew.

Looking to the future, Canon's new mirrorless cameras, the Canon EOS R5 and Canon EOS R6, offer excellent low light performance, and Andrew is looking forward to giving them a try. "It will be fascinating to see what the EOS R5 and the EOS R6 can do," he says. "I'm interested in the EOS R6 in particular, as it has the same sensor as the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, making it a very interesting proposition."

For lenses, meanwhile, Andrew uses the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM and the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM with the Canon Extender 2x III, which suit his purposes perfectly thanks to their high magnification and pin-sharp accuracy. "You want a big moon," he reasons, "you want big lenses."

8. Spend time on post-processing

Capturing all the detail of your moon and landscape in RAW is only one part of the equation, stresses Andrew; you also need to do a lot of work in post-processing. "If you've got the exposure right, the moon will still look quite blown out," he explains. "So you pay attention to highlights, whites and shadows, you use radial filters [which allow you to make local adjustments], and you can bring out a ton of detail. And of course, you're going to do work on your foreground, which obviously involves work with shadows, but might also involve various graduated filters."

He adds: "You're doing everything you can to make that RAW file sing. Ansel Adams famously said: 'The negative is the score and the print is the performance', and the same thing applies in moon photography when it comes to your RAW and processed files."

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Photographer Andrew Fusek Peters.


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