How to Photograph the Moon handheld!

how to photograph the moon handheld
Reading Time: 6 minutes

In this short tutorial, the camera settings required to photograph the moon handheld are revealed.

If you are out on safari or on a night walk there is a good chance you will not have a tripod with you. It is a clear night and a beautiful moon – what to do?

Before we talk about camera settings for handheld photographs of the moon we need to go through the basic settings, tips and tricks of photographing the moon when using a tripod.


7 Tips for Photographing the Moon

The moon has fascinated us since the dawn of time. 

Both the Greeks and the Romans had gods named after the moon and modern man spent billions of dollars to land on it in 1969!

But how do you get a great shot of the moon? It is easier than you think.

Read on for my 7 tips for photographing the moon.

Clear skies with no wind

It stands to reason that you need to see the moon clearly in order to get as much detail of the lunar surface as possible.

Use a local weather app to check the weather in your area. You want to also avoid windy conditions.

If the weather is going to be windy and you are going to be using your camera on a tripod, then attach a sandbag to the central column of your tripod as shown below.

The more your gear is moving about then the harder it is to focus on the moon and to make the moon look sharp. It also becomes almost impossible to place the moon in the center of the frame.

do i need an expensive tripod for wildlife central column

Avoid light pollution

Light pollution occurs when an excessive amount of artificial light is thrown upwards into the sky. This is very common in cities.

Using a long lens will mean that you can ‘reach’ above this layer of light pollution and get as much detail in the moon as possible.

If you are using a shorter lens to get the moon in the frame as part of an overall skyscape or milky way composition, then plan your shot when the moon is at it’s peak of its arc through the night sky.

If you are on safari photographing the moon then this will not be a problem although you may need to move slightly away from camp if you are also planning to photograph star trails, general night photography etc.

Moon phase

I prefer photographing the moon when it is not a full moon.

My recommendation is that you photograph the moon when it is half full.

This gives the most interesting contrast and it is also easier to get the correct focus then when it is in the new moon or crescent moon phase.

Take a look at the images of the moon below. These were taken using a 600 mm telephoto lens.

The full moon photo is dramatic and personal preference will dictate which one you like. Photograph the moon in different phases during the month to see which you prefer.

To research the phases of the moon use My Moon Phase – Lunar Calendar.

photograph the moon handheld full moon
photograph the moon handheld
photograph the moon handheld moon phases
Moon Phases (shutterstock)

Time of night

If you live in a built up area you may only be able to see the moon at certain times during the night.

Research which time gives you the best view of the moon and set your alarm clock if you need to.

Set up the shot while it is still light so you can have your camera and lens already steady on the tripod before you come back again in the dark.

Use a head torch

I like using a head torch rather than a handheld torch when I am photographing the moon.

This leaves both hands free to change settings or adjust the tripod if I need to.

It is particularly important to bring a small torch if your camera does not have buttons that light up at night.

photograph the moon handheld
Head torch (shutterstock)

Check your equipment

Check and clean your camera equipment and lenses before you set off. This is very important if you are travelling away from home base.

If you are using a tripod make sure you have a tripod plate and a shutter release cable if you use one.

Check that your lens front element is free of dust.

Make sure you have memory cards in your camera and that the battery is fully charged.

Use the correct camera settings

This article will show the best camera settings for photographing the moon from a tripod as well as hand held.

Read on to the next section where this is explained in full.

Camera settings for Lunar Photography

Many photographers feel apprehensive about photographing the moon.

I think this is because we sometimes confuse photographing the moon with astro photography which is a very technical hobby.

Learning how to photograph the moon 

The Looney 11 rule

No, that is not a typo. 

The ‘Looney 11’ rule is better known as the Lunar 11 rule when using it for photographing the moon.

The rule originated as a guide for camera settings to be used in good light for pretty much any kind of photography.

It works like this.

  1. Set your aperture to f11
  2. Set your ISO to 100
  3. Set your shutter speed to 100/sec

Use manual mode for best results.

The Lunar 11 rule

Adapting this rule for moon photography is a simple task of adjusting your ISO and shutter speed to keep the correct exposure.

The moon moves across the sky quicker than many people realise. If your shutter speed is too low then the image will be blurry and all you will see is a white blob.

If you are shooting from a tripod you will need a shutter speed of around 1/250 sec to get a crisp clear image. In order to keep the correct exposure you match the ISO setting to the shutter speed – in this case you will change it to ISO 250.

Example settings for photographing the moon with a tripod

Example 1

Aperture f11

Shutter speed 1/250 sec

ISO 250

Example 2

Aperture f 11

Shutter speed 1/400 sec

ISO 400

The idea is to keep your ISO as low as possible to avoid excessive noise in your image.

Do not feel you need to stick to this as a firm rule if you believe they need to be tweaked.

As you can see below, I used slightly different settings photographing the full moon than when I photographed the half moon.

For the half moon I used the Lunar 11 or ‘Looney 11’ rule.

photograph the moon handheld full moon
1/250 sec, f/9, Mode: Manual, Metering: Spot, ISO: 100, White balance: Auto
photograph the moon handheld
1/250 sec, f/11, Mode: Manual, Metering: Spot, ISO: 250, White balance: Auto

Camera settings for photographing the moon handheld

photograph the moon handheld
Shot handheld ISO 800 Shutter speed 1/800 sec 400mm lens

The secret to photographing the moon handheld is to get your shutter speed up.

It is advisable to set your shutter speed faster than the focal length of your lens to avoid camera shake.

In the photographs above I was using a 600mm f4 lens. I could only use a shutter speed of 1/250 sec by using a tripod.

If I was shooting handheld then I would need to get a shutter speed faster than 1/600 sec.

This means the ISO setting would need to increase accordingly.

Many people do not own a 600 mm lens so see some alternatives below together with settings.

Camera setting examples : handheld

300 mm lens with 2x teleconverter

Aperture: f11

Shutter speed: 1/400 sec

ISO: 400

400 mm lens with 1.4x teleconverter

Aperture: f11

Shutter speed: 1/500 sec

ISO: 500

500 mm lens with 1.4x teleconverter

Aperture: f11

Shutter speed: 1/640 sec

ISO: 640

Handling noise

Using high ISO settings does result in an increase of noise in your image.

Full-frame cameras produce less noise than APS-C crop sensor cameras and cameras with a higher resolution cause more noise than lower resolution full frame cameras.

This applies whether you are using a DSLR or a mirrorless camera.

The modern mirrorless cameras do seem to handle noise better than a DSLR.

You can reduce noise when you are editing. I don’t think that photoshop does the best job and I recommend the noise reduction software applications below:

Best noise reduction software


I hope that this brief tutorial has given you the confidence to go out and photograph the moon.

If you are away on safari or just out for a night stroll in your neighborhood, you are now able to set your camera up to shoot handheld.

If you don’t own a super tele-photo lens then invest in a teleconverter to get close-up shots.

Above all, I recommend that you experiment with the settings. All lenses and cameras have different characteristics and different noise handling capabilities.

See what works for you and shoot for the moon!

Read also Best camera settings for Wildlife photography

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