Capturing the Christmas Moon: A Photography Tutorial

Grab a piece of the moon this holiday with some amazing tips from Zach Shenal!

This post comes from our friend, adventure photographer Zach Shenal!

For thousands of years, humans have looked up at the moon in wonderment, and it’s easy to see why. Glowing bright from reflected sunlight, and over two thousand miles wide, the moon radiates calm and mystique, connecting us with our ancient past.

Due to the rotation speed of the moon compared to the rotation of Earth, when you look up at the moon, you’re seeing the same side of the moon the cavemen saw when they discovered fire, the same side of the moon Genghis Khan saw as he conquered the Steppes, and the same side of the moon that man eventually set foot on in 1969.


Given the spiritual significance the moon holds for all of us, it’s an ideal subject for photographs. Getting great moon shots (and night photos, in general) takes a bit of technique, which I will be teaching you in this article, but first we’re going to go over what you’ll need:

A camera. Ideally it will be a DSLR, but a super-zoom compact camera will work nicely as well.

A lens. This only applies if you’re using an interchangeable lens camera like a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. For moon shots, you’ll want the longest lens you have, ideally 300mm or longer. If you don’t have anything this long, you can rent them inexpensively online. For general night photos, you’re going to want a wide aperture, wide angle lens.


A sturdy tripod and tripod head. This is extremely important — the sharpness of your photos is dependent on how still your camera is. I typically recommend Induro brand tripods and tripod heads but, if you don’t mind making an investment, Acratech makes brilliant, versatile tripod heads that will last a lifetime. If you don’t see yourself making tripod photography a regular part of your life, a sandbag or bag of rice on top of a fence post or your car will do just fine for now.

PlanIt! For Photographers App. This app allows you to check the moon phases and do exposure calculations with ease.

Warm clothes. This time of year, things are pretty chilly, so I suggest you dress warmly!

Light. You can use your phone, or you can bring a flashlight along. It’s going to be dark, so you’ll want some light. I suggest a headlamp.

Now that we have the gear all laid out, it’s time to get started!

Setting up the shot:

1. The first thing to do is to consult you calendar and figure out when the full moon is. For night sky photography, there are two days you want to go out and shoot: on the new moon for Milky Way pictures, and on the full moon for moon pictures. This year, the closest full moon will appear on Christmas Day.

2. Whenever you go out on a night shoot, it’s important to make a list of everything you bring with you; you never want to get home only to find that you’ve forgotten a lens in the grass. I suggest you keep all your gear in one bag; that way, you’re less likely to misplace it.

3. Try to get into your location early enough to capture a shot of the moon breaking the horizon. Due to clouds, I was unable to get a shot of the horizon in time for this tutorial, but all the following instructions will work for horizon shots, too.

4. Set up your tripod so you have a clear view of where the moon will rise. Unless you have a very sturdy tripod, I suggest only extending the strongest leg sections of your tripod so that you will benefit from the increased stability.

5. Set your camera to manual mode (it will most likely be an “M” on the mode dial), point your lens at the moon. If you have a DSLR, you’re going to want to take a spot-meter reading off of the moon. Once you have your meter reading, you can set your exposure.

6. The moon is actually quite a fast moving object, and so you’ll need a very high shutter speed. In most of my moon pictures, I found that 1/800ths of a second gave me crisp images. A major benefit of shooting such a bright celestial body is that you can stop your lens down (make the aperture smaller) without bumping the ISO up. My shots were taken at F/10. Finally, just dial in your ISO until the meter shows you have a balanced exposure. My final settings were 1/800ths shutter speed, F/10 aperture, and ISO 800.

7. When it comes time to actually take the shot, you’ll want to use either a cable release or your camera’s self timer. By doing this, you’ll have given vibrations time to dissipate before the shutter is tripped, which will give you sharper images.

8. Play around with framing! The moon is a perfectly round object, which lends itself to just about every composition you can imagine! I’ve included various samples to demonstrate.

9. If you plan on shooting star trails or Milky Way photography, head on over to my website for another article showing just how it’s done!


Post Processing:

There are many, many different apps and programs for you to edit your moon shots with. If you already have Photoshop or Lightroom, those will work just fine for what we’re doing. If you don’t have those programs, don’t worry! There’s a fantastic app called Polarr which you can get for free on your phone or tablet, and will work just fine!

In terms of what to edit, it’s all up to you but really, with the moon, less is more. I suggest some light sharpening, a little boost in contrast, and crop to make the moon bigger.


There you have it! All you need to make amazing moon photos in no time! The folks at Free People and I can’t wait to see your pictures! Simply post them on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #FPChristmasMoon for everyone to see! I’m looking forward to seeing them all!

+ Be sure to share your holiday moon pix — #FPChristmasMoon!
Follow Zach’s adventures on Facebook and Instagram!
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6 years ago

What an awesome post! I love night photography, but never I’ve never tried night sky photos before! I immediately downloaded your suggested app, and I’m excited to get to work. :)

6 years ago

Thank you so much for this amazing tutorial! I searched quite a while for a good one, that explains everything perfectly well. And since I don’t have Photoshop or Lightroom, I will definitely give Polarr a shot.

6 years ago

Darn, i missed the timing on this article, but the tips would be the same for any full moon. Thank you for this well-written piece!