Lunar eclipses are more common than the perhaps better-known solar eclipses but they’re no less spectacular from a photographic point of view. As the Earth moves into place between the Sun and the Moon it casts a giant shadow across the lunar surface, drastically darkening it, plunging into a deep red hue perfect for photographing.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know in order to take stunning lunar eclipse images. We’ll explain what sort of equipment you’ll need to pack, which settings to use and how to focus your camera.
Which camera should you use?
Although there are a few dedicated pieces of kit that you’ll need, most of your equipment should hopefully already be in your camera bag.
Entry-level cameras like crop-sensor APS-Cs and Micro Four Thirds cameras have an advantage over more expensive, professional 35mm full-frame cameras in that their smaller sensors produce an effectively longer focal length. That means a lens’ focal length is up to 1.5x longer than when placed on a 35mm body, making the Moon larger in the frame. That’s because the smaller sensors only use a portion of the lens’ full diameter when shooting, giving the effect of a longer focal length.
For most APS-C sensors this difference is around 1.5x, meaning a 100mm lens will now behave like a 150mm lens. Getting closer provides more detail when shooting the Moon. Whatever camera you use though it’s important to have full manual control over camera settings. Take a look at our guide to the best cameras for astrophotography for our recommendation of models.
Lenses and lens accessories
Since the moon is relatively bright against the night sky (even during a lunar eclipse) you probably won’t need to drop thousands on a lens that opens massively wide like f/1.4. But the focal length is where photographers will find the best detail. For example, shooting on a 70-300mm lens will likely almost fill the frame with the Moon giving ample detail when editing and publishing.
You can also add a teleconverter for an even longer focal length. But there is also value in using a wide-angle lens, which we rate as being the best lenses for astrophotography. Using this variety, you can photograph the path of the eclipse within a beautiful landscape.
Using a tripod to keep things steady
If you’re using a long telephoto lens such as a 400mm you’ll need a sturdy tripod and head capable of bearing weight even in windy conditions. Ensure that the combined weight of your camera body and lens doesn’t exceed the maximum payload of the tripod and tripod head you’re using.
For added stability, we’d recommend weighing down the tripod with the camera bag (use a bungee cord attached to the tripod). Just be sure to attach long telephoto lenses to the tripod using the tripod collar (if it has one) as this will act as the center of balance with heavier lenses.
You could also add a monopod to support your lens (most longer telephoto lenses come with a tripod collar). We’re big fans of Manfrotto and Gitzo, who make some of the best tripods on the market. But those always on the go might want to check out some of the best travel tripods, too.
Camera accessories that will help
Aside from our round-up on the best camera accessories for astrophotography make sure to take lots of extra memory cards and batteries – keep the latter in your coat pockets close to your body to keep them warm. You’ll also need a shutter release, or ideally, one of the best intervalometers to prevent any camera shake from touching the shutter release button.
If you decide to get serious about lunar eclipse photography (or in fact any night sky photography) you’ll probably want to invest in one of the best star trackers. Once set up, the tracker will automatically adjust for moon movements which means that you don’t have to readjust your composition every few minutes.
See in the dark without damaging your night vision using one of the best headlamps and keep gear powered on with one of the best power banks.
How to prepare and plan
The secret to all good astrophotography is planning and preparation! Before you even leave the house, make sure that your gear is all cleaned and packed ready to go. An app such as PhotoPills (opens in new tab) makes it easy to find out where the moon will be located in the sky during the lunar eclipse. There are plenty of apps out there though, so be sure to use one of the best stargazing apps. It’s also important to keep a very close eye on the weather forecast as cloud coverage could ruin your shots. It’s advisable to have a few locations in mind to work around cloud directions.
Once you’ve found the right shooting spot and know what the right shooting time is for the lunar eclipse, make sure you’re in place early with plenty of time to set up. Do make sure that your tripod is positioned somewhere stable and level, with no prospect of it being shaken midway through a shot. If the tripod doesn’t have a built-in spirit level, make sure you attach a portable one to your hot shoe initially to get your shots level.
File type and camera modes
Capturing images in manual mode will yield the best results because this gives full control over aperture, shutter speed and ISO sensitivity. We’d recommend shooting in RAW file format to collect as much data as possible (JPEG will compress your image and therefore lose precious data which helps when editing images). Sure, the files will be bigger, but there are so many more options to edit flexibly and improve your photo in one of the best photo-editing apps for astrophotography.
Set your aperture to f/8 to give yourself a good depth of field and start with an ISO of 100 (or 200 if that’s the lowest on your camera). When you shoot a bright moon, you’ll probably need a shutter speed of around 1/125th – 1/250th of a second. As an eclipse starts this will work for the bright side of the moon but will mean that the dark side isn’t visible at all. So, exposure becomes a balancing act between exposing the dark side of the moon whilst not overexposing the bright side so much that it loses any definition.
If you need to brighten the image a little you can check the histogram on the rear screen (check your camera’s manual if you don’t know how to do that). Start by opening the aperture wider to f/5.6 or f/4. If you still need to get things brighter slow the shutter speed but be aware that longer exposure times will result in blurring, both because of the motion of the Moon through the frame and perhaps due to camera shake (if you’re not using an intervalometer).
A telephoto lens of 300mm and under should be shot at speeds faster than two seconds. But a longer telephoto lens will only allow you to shoot at speeds of around half a second — any slower and the moon will be blurry. Remember though that it’s better to have noise in your image than motion blur. Some mirrorless and MFT cameras will have good in-body image stabilization to counteract some blur and there are many telephoto lenses with stabilization built-in, but bear in mind that some models will automatically disengage this when the device notices it’s on a tripod.
While it’s probably advisable to bracket your shots with one-stop bracketing of three photos so that you have a selection of shots to choose from, blending different shots together in post-production can look really artificial when it comes to images of the moon. Instead, we’d recommend exposing for the highlights during a partial eclipse and, once the moon nears totality, switching the metering over to the shadows.
Quite how high the ISO sensitivity needs to be will depend on a few factors including your aperture, shutter speed and how clear the night sky is when photographing the lunar eclipse. We’d recommend starting at ISO 200 as a foundation and either pushing it up or down depending on whether your images are under or overexposed respectively.
Alternatively, many camera models (even older DSLRs) have automatic ISO adjustment options for those who aren’t quite sure how to handle the three points on the exposure triangle. However, some users may find difficulty with this, especially when metering in matrix or evaluative modes (we’d recommend spot or center-weighted).
How to focus on the moon
You don’t want to be refocusing on the moon every time you take a shot so we’d recommend that you turn off autofocus and use manual focus to get the moon pin sharp in your shots. Take a photograph and use your LCD screen to zoom into the moon and acquire precise focus by rocking the focus ring back and forth. Zoom all the way in and make sure that all the features of the moon are in focus. You can try using autofocus to take this initial shot before the lunar eclipse starts – focusing on the edge of the moon will probably make it easier for your camera to acquire focus. However, don’t rely on the infinity marker on the lens as this often, in our experience, doesn’t actually give the best sharpness.
Of course, if you’re photographing the lunar eclipse alongside an interesting landscape or subject, we’d recommend that the focus is on said subject. Remember that if your subject is behind the hyperfocal distance the eclipse will still appear sharp in your photograph. Got a problem with a shallow depth of field? Just stop down the aperture and adjust either ISO or shutter speed to balance the exposure.
A lunar eclipse isn’t the easiest phenomenon to capture. So, we’d recommend practicing with other night sky photography before an eclipse to be comfortable with shooting. Try our guides to photographing the moon, star trails or the milky way to improve your photography skills before the next lunar eclipse.
Composing a lunar eclipse photograph
If you’re just shooting with the moon to fill the frame you don’t need to worry about composition as you can easily crop the moon into place in post-production. What matters most is nailing decent exposure and getting focusing spot-on. For ease of tracking the moon while shooting though, we’d recommend placing the moon in the top left corner frame to start with and letting it move towards the right bottom corner. As it approaches the bottom you can reposition the camera to place it back to the top left again.
If you’re photographing the moon in the midst of a landscape look for leading lines or features that can be silhouetted against the sky to direct your viewer’s gaze into the image and help direct them towards the moon. You could also consider using the rule of thirds to help balance out your image.
And if you want to have stars in the photograph alongside the moon, we’d recommend shooting these separately and then combining the two images.
Lunar eclipses explained
So, what is a lunar eclipse? Lunar eclipses occur when the Earth moves between the sun and the moon, blocking the sun’s light that would otherwise reflect off the moon. There are three types of eclipse – total, partial and penumbral. A total eclipse is the most dramatic, as the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow (known as the umbra) completely covers the moon.
A lunar eclipse actually goes through seven phases or stages in total:
Penumbral eclipse begins (P1): The penumbral part of Earth’s shadow – which is the outer part – starts to move over the moon. This phase is extremely difficult to observe with the naked eye.
Partial eclipse begins (U1): The Earth’s umbra starts to cover the moon, making the eclipse more visible.
Total eclipse begins (U2): The Earth’s umbra is completely covering the moon, turning it red, brown or yellow. This is popularly known as the Blood Moon.
Greatest eclipse (Max): This is the central moment of the total eclipse.
Total eclipse ends (U3): As the Earth’s umbra starts to move away from the moon it starts to become visible again.
Partial eclipse ends (U4): The Earth’s umbra completely leaves the moon, allowing it to become entirely visible.
Penumbral eclipse ends (P4): The Earth’s penumbral shadow moves away from the moon, signaling the end of the eclipse.
Upcoming lunar eclipses
There are only two lunar eclipses in 2023. The first on May 5 2023 is a penumbral lunar eclipse. Depending on your location this is due to occur between May. 5 at 10:11 a.m. EST (1511 GMT)and 14:31 p.m. EST (1931 GMT) with the maximum eclipse occurring at 12:22 p.m. EST (1722 GMT).
This will be followed by a second partial lunar eclipse on October 28th 2023 that will occur between 14:35 p.m. (1935 GMT) and 15:52 p.m. EST (2052 GMT) with the maximum eclipse occurring at 15:14 p.m. EST (2014 GMT). NASA keeps a list predicting lunar eclipses until 2100.