Star Struck Under the Moonlight

In my neck of the woods (eastern U.S.), the full moon occurs at 10:06pm tomorrow (Tuesday) night. Tonight the moon will have risen before sunset, providing a good opportunity to shoot scenes that include the moon close to the horizon in the twilight sky. However, my favorite type of moon photography uses the light of the moon to illuminate the landscape, without including the moon in the scene at all. From about two days before and lasting until two days after the full moon, the moon throws plenty of light for you to shoot landscape scenes with relatively short exposures and low ISOs.

If the exposure is great enough and you don’t include the sky, the resulting image looks very much like it was shot in the daytime. In fact, most photographers probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The fact that you can do this is pretty cool, but it’s not something I usually do. I figure that if you can’t tell much difference between a night shot and day shot, what’s the point? I like to include  the sky in the full-moon landscapes. When you do that, you get a nice blue sky, very similar to a daytime sky, but one full of stars. That’s right; you get a photo of a blue sky with stars in it. Now that’s REALLY cool!

Waterfall under moonlight

Waterfall illuminated by the full moon

Go out tonight and for the next couple of days and try it out. As a starting point, try ISO 800 to 1600, 15 to 30 seconds, and an aperture of f/2.8 to f/8. Shoot the first shot and then make any adjustments needed after evaluating the histogram. Typically, you’ll want the image to appear a little darker than a daytime shot, so a histogram with the peak of detail shifted to the left of center is okay. Wide-angle lenses are best because you can shoot longer shutter speeds before obvious star trailing occurs. About 30 seconds with a 17mm to 24mm lens is all you want to go.

I shot the photo of Turtleback Falls at ISO 1600, f/4, and 20 seconds. The snow helps to provide even illumination across the entire scene. Without it, I probably would have needed to increase the exposure to keep the trees from being too dark. Beach scenes that include a lot of sand also work well. However, you don’t have to restrict yourself to scenes that have a lot of reflective surfaces. Any scene can work as long as the light isn’t too contrasty. Just look at it as if you were looking at a daytime scene. If the light is too contrasty to shoot during the day, then it might not work well in the moonlight, either.

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One Response to “Star Struck Under the Moonlight”

  1. Night Photography | Digital After Dark » Blog Archive » Nightly Night Photography Notes–Full Moon Says:

    […] now and about Thursday of next week is a great time to shoot landscapes illuminated by the moon. Check out this post about photographing under the light of the moon for tips. Use my Moon Phase calendar to keep up to date about current and upcoming moon phases. The nearly […]

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